Some of you know that one of my biggest challenges due to environmental illness (EI) has been finding tolerable clothing. Many people with chemical sensitivities have great difficulty getting new clothes tolerable due to all the chemicals and dyes used in modern clothing manufacturing processes. Even organic cotton, wool, linen, bamboo, and hemp materials can cause problems for many with chemical intolerances, because we can become sensitized to the natural plant oils. To add to the problem, many of us do not tolerate laundry detergents and cannot clean our clothes even if we are able to get them tolerable enough to wear.
Around two years ago after a pesticide exposure in Florida, my challenges with clothing became insurmountable and I found myself sitting naked in my apartment for a week. I wrapped myself in an old shawl to do laundry outside and was able to get one outfit tolerable enough so that I could attend a week at the Hippocrates Health Institute. I spent 5 days drinking vitamin and mineral rich green vegetable juices and eating salad. The nutritional infusion was enough to boost my health so that I could drive across country to Arizona in search of safe housing. I made the 4-day trip wearing my bathing suit and shawl!
What I have been forced to wear due to my severe intolerance of standard clothing materials. The shirt on the left was turned upside down and used as pants when I no longer tolerated any of my sweatpants or leggings last winter. I tied the arms up as they shredded from use, to create a “socks” effect. What you can’t see is that it is riddled with small holes and is quite thin. The underwear is ridiculous but I needed something to use during my menstrual cycle to hold my sanitary napkin in place. I’m not proud to display these, but I think it is important to raise awareness at how desperate the situation is for some of us.
After I arrived in Arizona, I was unable to wear any of the clothes I had brought with me. A local friend donated several shirts and pairs of pants to me that I was able to wear because she had spent a long time washing and offgassing them. I wore those clothes for 2 years straight without ever washing them, until they literally fell off my body in shreds. Lucky for me, by this time I had discovered a procedure for washing my clothes that worked! It’s laborious and my electric bill is suffering greatly, but I finally have some clothes to wear.
Here’s what I do:
• When I receive new clothes in the mail, I turn them inside out (to avoid discoloration and fading from sun exposure) and place them outside on the clothesline for several days or even weeks, making sure to bring them inside before it rains or if there are heavy airborne exposures like controlled burns or fabric softener fumes from neighbors.
• Then I boil like clothes (all organic, or all whites, etc.) in a stainless steel stockpot on a commercial hotplate outside my home for about 5 hours. Do not attempt to boil clothes indoors, as all the toxic chemicals and/or plant oils will be released into your safe home environment. I use a drop of Allen’s Naturally detergent which I do not necessarily tolerate, but it rinses out completely. I also add several handfuls of sea salt once the water is boiling. Be careful, as the sea salt can discolor and stain your clothing – best to push the clothes aside with a stainless steel tong as you dump the salt in and swirl it around so that it dissolves and does not sit in a clump on your clothes.
• I then wash the boiled clothes in my washing machine with Allen’s Naturally detergent for one full wash cycle with an extra rinse, then send through the wash and extra rinse cycle again, but this time without any detergent – just water. I do this to make sure all the Allen’s detergent is rinsed out of my clothing. You can use whatever detergent you tolerate. Some people prefer organic soap nuts rather than a detergent. Depending on your sensitivities, you may not need to rinse them as well as I do, or you might require more of a rinse.
• I air dry them overnight on my beloved stainless steel collapsible drying rack. Personally, I have found I tolerate my clothes better when I dry them inside my home rather than in the outdoor air, which can contaminate them with pollutants like wood smoke, neighbors’ laundry products, or even local plant fragrances. You might experiment to see what works best for you.
• I usually cannot tolerate my clothing after this first cycle of boiling and washing, so I then have to repeat the whole process, but this time boiling only 1-3 hours. This process has enabled me to get several shirts and pants tolerable, as well as a light blanket. I can even now tolerate some organic cotton pieces, which I could not before.
I’m not sure why the sea salt is necessary, but two people with severe reactivity to fabrics recommended it to me. If I had to guess, I would say it helps draw out the chemicals, and kills any bad bacteria. I have also wondered if it affects the electrostatic qualities of the clothing because one of the people who recommended it was severely EMF sensitive like myself. If anyone knows why sea salt helps the process, please let me know in the comments section below.
Here are links to all the resources I use. You might find better prices or slightly different products that will give you similar results:
Nemco Single Burner Stainless Steel Commercial Hotplate – 2000 watts, 240 volt (this link is to the double burner; call the company and ask for the single burner unit) <$200 (plus shipping) from Katom Restaurant Supply Stainless steel stockpots – purchase pots as large as your hotplate can handle so you can fit ample pieces of clothing in them.
Allen’s Naturally Biodegradable Liquid Laundry Detergent <$12 from NEEDs Celtic Sea Salt – 5 lb bag $22.50 + shipping from Selina Naturally
240 volt outlet box – I paid ~$50 to have a special outlet installed by a local electrician outside my home near my electric panel; your price might vary depending on how far the electrician has to travel. Make sure the outlet fits your plug, as 240 volts can have different configurations.
Drying Rack – I purchased my stainless steel drying rack from Stacks and Stacks many years ago. They don’t seem to make it anymore but there are similar styles available on Amazon.com. I chose a more expensive stainless steel version rather than wood to avoid mold and warping.
These are the clothes that have worked for me so far:
American Apparel – supposedly clothing made by this company does not have the toxic sizing/finishes that clothing made in China does, and it’s made in the US which greatly reduces the chance that it’s been sprayed with insecticide. Plus, I’ve been told that they use cotton piping in their cotton pieces instead of polyester serging. I have had luck with their non-organic cotton, but they also do sell some organic pieces.
#RSA6321 Sheer Jersey Long Sleeve Henley Dress – 100% sheer jersey cotton
#6307 Sheer Jersey Long Sleeve T – 100% sheer jersey cotton
#5450 California Fleece Slim Fit Pant – 100% cotton (except for Heather Grey)
#5375 California Fleece Straight Leg Pant – 100% cotton (except for Heather Grey)
#8375 Cotton Spandex Jersey Straight Leg Yoga Pant – 95% Cotton / 5% Elastane (Heather Grey contains 10% Polyester)
Patagonia – Women’s Serenity Tights 85% organic cotton/15% spandex knit
Hanes – Men’s Boxer Briefs They no longer carry this item but you might have luck with other 100% cotton styles. My first pair was donated by a neighbor, and since I tolerated them I kept buying them. They might also sell women’s underwear that works for you. Keep in mind that sometimes the materials used changes so you should look carefully at those listed on the website before ordering.
Jockey – Seamless Cotton No Wire Bra
These clothing items and this washing process might not work for everyone. And there may be other less expensive and laborious ways of washing clothes that are better suited for you. This is what worked for me and I am sharing it with the hopes it can help someone else who is stuck without clothing or with clothing that is dirty and tattered.
Below are some soaking techniques others have shared with me over the years. Make sure you have a tolerable tub or basin to soak your clothing in. I use stainless steel warming trays I bought from a restaurant supply store.
Baking soda or borax soak
Soak laundry in a baking soda or borax bath overnight using about 1 cup of product per load to remove odors. Follow with your favorite well-tolerated detergent. Rinse well. If using a machine, send through the rinse cycle twice.
The fat in milk is said to absorb chemicals. Immerse your laundry in whole milk and place in a covered pot in the refrigerator to avoid souring the milk. Let it sit for 24 to 48 hours and then rinse well. Follow with a baking soda or vinegar bath to remove the milk smell from laundry. Follow that with your favorite well-tolerated detergent. Rinse well. Many have used powdered milk with good results.
Soak laundry in a distilled white vinegar bath overnight to remove odors. Use about 1 cup vinegar per load. Make sure you use a grain-based vinegar – Heinz used to be grain-based but may now use a GMO corn-base. Follow the vinegar bath with baking soda to remove the smell if you wish, and then your favorite well-tolerated detergent. Rinse well. If using a machine, send through the rinse cycle twice.
Tolerable detergent soak
Some people have luck soaking clothing for two weeks or even a month in a tolerable detergent, changing the water if it gets mold or too stinky.
Combine any of the other soaks with some natural solar heat: after washing, dry your clothes outdoors if you have access to clean air and the hot sun. The sun’s rays can bake odors (and mold!) out of clothing. You may have to leave your laundry outdoors two weeks, or longer. Make sure there are no fabric softeners, burning wood, pesticide sprayings or other harmful toxins in the air from neighbors; they could re-contaminate your clothing.
Plain water wash
Not recommended. I used to wash my clothes in plain water and then at one point could not tolerate any of them. Others suggested that the water alone cannot remove body oils, candida, offgassing chemicals, etc. and that I needed to use a detergent if I wanted to keep my clothes clean.
What if you have to use a public laundromat?
When I first became chemically sensitive, I was using public laundromats in New York City – can you imagine!? I don’t recommend it!! There are some of you who must use a public laundromat, and here are my tips for how to minimize exposures and clothes contamination there:
• Wash your clothes during off hours when the least amount of people are using the laundromat – ask the owners for the best times. The earlier the better, before the machines have built up chemicals from being used all day.
• Run one or more cycles with a tolerable vinegar (and no clothing) to clean the machine out as best as possible before putting your clothing in.
• When transferring your wet clothes from washer to dryer, put them in a plastic bag and transfer them as quickly as possible to avoid contamination with whatever chemicals are airborne. I contaminated an entire wardrobe by not following this advice.
• Or, avoid the dryer altogether and bring your clothes home to hang dry immediately. If fabric softener has been used in a dryer, there will always residue that can potentially contaminate all your clothing. The chance of this is pretty high in a public laundromat.
Tools for handwashing clothes
If you live in a city your best option may be to handwash your clothing, since many landlords will not allow washing machines to be hooked up in rental units. Here are some resources for making the process easier. I cannot vouch as to whether or not they would be tolerable for people with environmental sensitivities. Please do your due diligence and research materials before buying any product:
I would also like to add, that water quality is a big issue to figure out if you are challenged by clothing. When troubleshooting, keep in mind that sometimes the water you are washing the clothes in is actually the culprit. Please see these links for more on water purity: Pure Air and Water | Water Filters | Dr. William J. Rea on Best Water Source. If you are chemically sensitive and have additional tools, products, or techniques for washing clothing that you’d like to share, please post them in the comments section below.