MCS is a condition that is technically known as Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance; that translates roughly into, “We don’t know why your body can’t handle the synthetic chemicals that most people can handle.” For me, a combination of genetics and Lyme disease have made it so that my liver has a great deal of difficulty detoxing the multitude of synthetic chemicals in the modern world.
For those with MCS, new products provide health challenges because of the chemical off-gassing they do. Off-gassing is the releasing of volatile compounds into the air (and thereby into our lungs and bodies). A common example most people are familiar with is paint: Everyone knows what new paint often smells like. Those are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that you smell being released from the paint. There is now no-VOC paint which is almost odorless, and it doesn’t have as many synthetic chemicals to release thereby making it more tolerable (sometimes) to those who are sensitive to typical paint. It's not the smell that is the actual problem but the chemicals that are released: Low odor paint can still be a huge problem for those with MCS because the low odor paint has masking chemicals added to cover up the more toxic smelling components of the other chemicals.
Many products that we buy release chemicals in the off-gassing process. Vinyl or PVC is one of the nastier ones. New cars are loaded with toxic synthetic chemicals (aka the new car smell). Many finishes on furniture are created through synthetic chemicals. So when a chemically sensitive person purchases most things, they must first off-gas the products in order to release as many of the synthetic chemicals as possible before trying to use the product near them. If one doesn’t off-gas many new products, someone with MCS will likely get very ill from them. It can take between days and years to off-gas products, and some things never truly off-gas completely.
Clothes are no exception to this: The preservative “sizing” that manufacturers use in fabric is actually formaldehyde or similar chemicals which are extremely difficult for most with MCS to handle. Likewise, there are chemicals used in dying the clothing, and there are chemicals used in processing the raw materials. Some elastics have fragrances added to unsuccessfully cover the cheap rubber smell of them. New clothing, unless it is incredibly well processed organic clothing, is toxic by default. Washing the clothing eventually pulls out some of the chemicals, but how many washes it takes can vary widely by the clothing itself. There are various tricks one can use to help accelerate the detoxification process for clothing such as using enzymes, vinegar, baking soda, hot water, and for non-red clothing, buttermilk soaks, but repeated washing in water and drying on hot in the dryer really is the best way to make new clothing safer for use. I have to wash new clothing between eight and 20 times to make it possible for me to wear, and I have had some clothing that I’ve given up after 20 washes and passed it on to others who aren’t as chemically sensitive as me.
Buying used clothing is often not much of a help: It can be even harder to get out fragrances and chemicals from petrochemical based detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets than it is to get the chemicals out of new clothing. It makes me very sick to even try as those fragrances and chemicals release into the air of my home during washing, and so I gave up buying used clothing long ago even though secondhand clothing previously was my preferred way of shopping for both environmental and financial reasons. I still will buy used clothing if it comes from another chemically sensitive person, but it's hard to find clothes that fit those standards!
One of the additional issues I’ve deal with in battling Lyme is massive weight fluctuation. When I am doing well, I drop weight quickly and without effort. However, when I am facing new health challenges, I gain weight equally easily and with no negative dietary changes. Thus, I have clothes in my closet that range from size 8 to size 24. I was settled comfortably into a size 16 for over a year until last March when suddenly I started dealing with pancreatic issues; my weight shot back up to a size 22 within a few months even with me eating less carbohydrates, no sugars, and no fruits. It was (and is) utterly frustrating. As we kill bartonella and eliminate parasites from my pancreas, my weight has worked its way back down to a size 18 and continues to slowly drop back off.
I had been just about ready to let go of my largest clothes in sizes 22 and 24 last spring when the sudden weight gain happened, and mercifully, I still had all my larger clothes waiting in storage buckets in my closet. Had I not, I would have had to invest in all new clothing, plus I would have had to go through the hassle and expense of detoxing the new clothing. Thus, for someone like me who deals with chemical sensitivities and fluctuating weight, holding onto clothing for more than a year makes a great deal of sense.
While I am working to minimize the amount of “stuff” in my house, my clothing collection is not something I am willing to purge. For my life and for others like me, the advice of getting rid of clothing I haven’t worn in a year is well-intentioned but impractical.
© 2014 Green Heart Guidance