Formaldehyde in clothing and textiles

These product safety guidelines set out the limits of formaldehyde in clothing and textiles considered acceptable by the government.

About these guidelines

Levels of formaldehyde or other chemicals in clothing and textiles are not regulated, and there is no evidence to suggest that regulation is needed. However, due to a number of possible product safety scares, we have identified some areas where there were no clear guidelines about acceptable product safety standards.

These guidelines are intended to:

  • provide clear guidance to manufacturers and importers on acceptable limits of formaldehyde, and
  • complement the Consumer Guarantees Act by setting out what's considered acceptable quality and fit for purpose.

The Consumer Guarantees Act guarantees to a consumer that goods must be of acceptable quality and fit for the particular purpose for which they are supplied, including that products must be safe to use.

What you should do as a supplier

Voluntary compliance with the guidelines will be monitored by MBIE.

We do not have the power to take enforcement action under the Fair Trading Act if a breach with the guidance is identified – but evidence of any failures to meet the limits set out in this policy statement will support the need for mandatory regulation under section 29 of the Fair Trading Act 1986, or even a product recall or ban under sections 31 and 32 of the Act.

Fair Trading Act 1986 — New Zealand Legislation Te Tari Tohutohu Pāramata(external link)

Acceptable formaldehyde limits in clothing and textiles

Type of clothing/textile Formaldehyde limits
Clothes for babies and infants under 2 years of age No greater than 30ppm (30mg/kg)
Clothing specifically designed and marketed as for people (both children and adults) with sensitive skin or to avoid any sensitive reaction with skin No greater than 30ppm (30mg/kg)
Clothing and textiles in direct contact with skin
  • No greater than:
    100ppm (100mg/kg), or
  • 100ppm (100mg/kg) after wash — if there's a label or instruction recommending "wash before first use"
Clothing and textiles not in direct contact with skin No greater than 300ppm (300mg/kg)

Direct contact with skin

A product is considered to be in direct contact with skin if a large proportion of its surface comes into direct skin contact when used as intended — for example, shirts, underwear or bed linen.

If no part or only a small part of a product's surface comes into direct contact with skin, it's considered to be not in direct contact with skin — for example, jackets, curtains or rugs.

Acceptable testing method

The acceptable testing method is EN ISO 14184-1:2011 Textiles – Determination of Formaldehyde – Part 1: Free and Hydrolyzed Formaldehyde (Water Extraction Method), which is the internationally recognised standard for testing of formaldehyde in clothing.

ISO 14184-1:2011 — International Organization for Standardization(external link)

Background on formaldehyde

Formaldehyde resin products used in the textile industry include printing inks, dyes and textile finishing products. The concentrations of free formaldehyde in these products are generally less than 2%. These formaldehyde-based materials help bind dyes and pigments to fabrics, prevent colours from running, improve a fabric's resistance to wrinkles, ease clothing care and maintenance and prevent mildew.

The Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme has identified that the critical health effects of formaldehyde exposure are:

  • sensory irritation via inhalation exposure to formaldehyde gas (vapour), aerosol or mist
  • skin sensitisation following dermal exposure to formaldehyde solutions, and
  • carcinogenicity via inhalation exposure to formaldehyde gas (vapour) or mist.

Formaldehyde is classified as a hazardous substance under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. It has a number of hazardous properties, including skin and eye irritation, skin sensitisation and carcinogenicity.

Scientific studies of acceptable levels of formaldehyde in clothing and other textiles

The adverse health effects from formaldehydes in textiles are likely to be skin irritations related to "free or easily hydrolysable (reacts with water) formaldehyde". However, the threshold level of formaldehyde on garments that will produce dermatitis is not known. Neither is the reaction threshold for already sensitised subjects.

From the few studies in recognised scientific journals, the suggestion is that only 1-4% of people are sensitive to formaldehyde concentrations of 1-2% and higher (10,000ppm-20,000ppm). For sensitised people, studies show decreasing reactions with decreasing formaldehyde concentrations, but even 30ppm may elicit a reaction in some already sensitised subjects.

The Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme review notes that the European Union (EU) Expert Group on sensitisation categorised formaldehyde as a strong skin sensitiser. The review indicates that formaldehyde solutions can induce skin sensitisation at very low concentrations and may elicit a dermatological reaction in individuals who have been sensitised. The skin sensitisation noted occurs from exposure to formaldehyde solution rather than to gaseous formaldehyde.