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Removing the New Smell from Back-to-School Clothes

Removing the New Smell from Back-to-School Clothes

I always find the scene of those new clothes so carefully laid out by a child for the first day of school touching to the point of bringing tears to my eyes. Those new clothes represent so much anticipation and excitement, and as a parent one wants everything to work out the way they hope for their children.

The “new” smell in clothes is sometimes an indicator of the presence of unhealthy chemicals, and like most parents, I want to do everything I can to keep my child safe. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to improve the chemical burden of no-iron, or stain-resistant clothes as the chemicals are long-lasting in the environment and should be avoided.

However, you can remove the film of chemicals put on the clothes to keep them stiff and holding their shape in the store. Here is the tried-and-true method I’ve found to get rid of those unwanted chemicals. With best wishes for a great beginning to the school year!

If you can get your child to let you, and unless the clothes are 100 percent organic, wash new clothes first before they wear them to school. Or the bedding if you have bought new sheets for a child going to college.

That “new” smell is a potent mixture of chemicals such as formaldehyde and urea resins, and they should be removed. The chemicals are used to “finish” fabric for a range of purposes including stain resistance, mercerizing, keeping them from wrinkling, and even sometimes for disinfecting. Most contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which, like formaldehyde, are often sensitizers and suspected carcinogens.

The formula I give here is what I use to successfully remove this new smell from clothing. It will also work for low-level chemical contamination from normal household substances such as perfume.

Place the clothes in the washing machine with enough water to cover. Sprinkle one small-sized box of baking soda (or 1 cup) into the washing machine. Soak the clothes overnight. When convenient during the soaking, agitate the machine for a few minutes. Launder as usual. Repeat the method until the clothes don’t smell anymore.

Some imported clothes are now impregnated with long-lasting disinfectants; you can identify these clothes by the smell alone. It is very hard to remove it, and the method depicted above doesn’t work. The best thing is to not buy the clothes; I’ve started asking catalog companies if their clothes are disinfected.

Read more: Home, Children, Non-Toxic Cleaning

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Annie B. Bond

Annie is a renowned expert in non-toxic and green living. She was named one of the top 20 environmental leaders by Body and Soul Magazine and "the foremost expert on green living." - Body & Soul Magazine, 2009. Learn Annie's latest eco-friendly news on, a website dedicated to healthy and green living.

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Better Basics for the Home

Simple solutions -- almost 1,000 formulas -- for less toxic living, by Annie Berthold-Bond,'s green living channels now


+ add your own
12:06PM PDT on May 19, 2012


7:12PM PDT on May 16, 2012

Thanks Annie.

12:29AM PST on Mar 1, 2011

Thanks for the article.

4:44AM PDT on Sep 20, 2010

We are all set as there are more important things to worry about such as climate change and living.

7:38PM PDT on Apr 8, 2010


5:18PM PST on Dec 11, 2008

Is there something stronger than baking soda that I can use on my clothes? All of my clothes have been ruined by something called "off-gassing." Shelves I purchased @ Home Depot & installed in my bedroom closet "off-gassed" formaldehyde and ruined about $2,000 worth of clothing. I cannot wear any of my clothes without becoming extremely nauseous within about 20 minutes. I've tried the baking soda remedy without success. I've also tried vinegar in the wash as well as Febreze anti odor laundry treatment (which only made the odor worse). I also bought, via mail order, some odor remover called NokOut. It didn't work either. Nor did dry cleaning (I took in about ten items and they all came back smelling the same). I cannot afford to buy new clothes; is there any product on the market that would rid my clothes of this nasty odor?

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