How To Get Rid Of That Chemical Smell On New Clothes

Dear Home-Ec 101,
Could you please tell me what that awful chemical smell is on some new jeans? How I can get rid of it? I tried adding 1 cup of vinegar in my wash with soap 3 times and they still stink. I really love the jeans and hope you have a solution for me.
Stinky Jeans

chemical smell

WinkIvy says:

The smell you are referring to is most likely formaldehyde. I used to work for Old Navy and I’d come home with that smell all over me. My dad would tease me about smelling like a mortician, because that’s the chemical that is most often used in embalming. In clothing manufacturing formaldehyde is used because, in theory, when combined with urea (Yes! That’s pee! Ewwww!) it makes the clothing more wrinkle resistant, stain resistant, and is a disinfectant (what self respecting germ could survive that?). For you chemistry nerds out there, here’s a wikipedia article on formaldehyde.

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So, what’s the best way to get rid of the smell? Borax and/or baking soda. When I worked at Old Navy, I would use baking soda to wash my hands when I got home. It usually worked.

In your case, I’d probably use a cup of baking soda per load of new clothing. It may take several washings as some companies are now using even stronger disinfectants and even pesticides to protect the clothing during clothing is storage. Those chemicals are even harder to get out.

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  1. danielle on May 18, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    i am gagging right now…i bought a pair of jeans at old navy a few days ago and they almost smell like poo….yuk! so i washed them and they still smell like it…blah! so i am going to try the baking soda thing….here is to hoping!

  2. lillypad on April 24, 2011 at 8:16 am

    I think that perhaps you have all been overexposed to formaldehyde, as it is known to disrupt brain function, because I am shocked that you would continue to buy these products, but just soak it in baking soda instead as a "remedy", which it is not. I know this sounds harsh, but I really mean it. Exposure to chemicals will definitely disrupt your neurologic pathways. You will think that it is "normal" to have this problem and then try to find a solution. Not a solution to eliminate the poison, but a solution to live with it! From an outsider's point of view, that is incredible to me. If you detox your brain and body, you will see that living with chemicals is absurd and you will cease to buy them, not wash them. Once you detox from these chemicals, it will seem as if you are waking up from a bad dream and you will be shocked at how long you have put up with them in your everyday life. Especially the parents who know understand how toxic formaldehyde is yet have still continued buying these products. In essence, you have been knowingly and willingly poisoning your own children. That is the real danger of formaldehyde. Even when you intellectually know the dangers, you continue using it. The part of your brain that deals with the reasoning, is EXACTLY the part of your brain the formaldehyde is shorting out. Some of you will even continue to deny this truth and defend your right to poison yourself and your loved ones. Isn't that bizarre? Who, in their right mind, would defend the right to poison themselves and their loved ones? By understanding this deadly denial, that is how you will break yourself out of this pattern. It is not that you don't care about yourselves and your family. You do. Your brainwaves are just being altered by the formaldehyde.

    • Cheryl on May 26, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      Great speech, now what is your solution?
      How do you find clothes that are not treated with chemicals? Just try discussing this problem with a sales clerk if you have questions about the clothes they are selling-good luck. They have no idea, or just say that everything out there has chemicals…

      I have been working hard to find safe pet items. Most are imported from China and have chemicals all over them, but very difficult to find things for pets like toys and bedding items that are made in America. We are also poisoning our pets!

  3. Karen on January 12, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Teresa – same here, but I think I will just keep washing them and hoping it will fade because I really like them. Interestingly, I bought three pairs, 1 black, 1 dark wash and 1 medium wash, and only the medium wash stinks. To me it almost smells like strong feces.

  4. Teresa on March 8, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    I purchased a new pair of Levi's jeans. They have an extremely stong chemical smell. Washed then 5 times with oxi-clean, 2x detergent, double rinses, etc. They still smell awful. I finally put a call in to the company and will return them…Shame because I love they way they fit and look!

  5. beth on August 24, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    I had no idea that there were that many chemicals on new clothing. crazy

  6. Hilary on August 21, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    I wish the only formaldehyde I had to worry about was in some new jeans. I am enduring Gross Anatomy class this semester. Ugh.

    Thanks for the baking soda tip.

  7. Samantha on August 21, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    Will the salt water/lemon juice bath fade or otherwise damage the clothing? These are manditory school uniforms that have to be kept free of defects of any kind to wear to school and I sure as heck don’t want to have to purchase more. Thanks for the info!

  8. Keter on August 21, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    Formaldehyde in clothing also makes it more flammable, and can cause contact dermatitis. Washing will remove the chemical treatment. Baking soda adsorbs (yes, that’s spelled right, it is a chemical process, no a physical one) some of it, but does not neutralize it.

    Try soaking the clothes in a plastic tub containing hot salt water with a little bit of lemon juice in it — place a stainless steel spoon on one side of the clothing and a wad of aluminum foil on the other…there are usually metal salts in the sprayed on solution, and the anode effect you create this way may help pull the stuff out of the fabric.

  9. boogiemum on August 21, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    yikes. did not know this, kind of wish I still didn’t. ignorance was bliss.

    I have issues with chemicals and now I really am gonna have to think about the clothing I buy.

    Thanks, I guess 🙂

  10. Samantha on August 21, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    I hope it rids the clothes of the nasty stuff… but for reference, do you think it will cause her “stain resistant” and “no iron” Kaki uniform shorts to stain easier and need ironing? Not that I mind if I’m ridding them of a carcinogen, just didn’t know if you can “wash” that outta them.

  11. Badbadivy on August 21, 2007 at 10:13 am


    Enough washing will remove it, and since we all know baking soda has good cleaning properties as well as the scent-removing properties, I expect it will.

  12. Samantha on August 21, 2007 at 9:40 am

    The European Union has decided on the date September 22, 2007 to ban Formaldehyde use throughout Europe, because of its carcinogenic properties. [7]

    Great, give me another thing to worry about Ivy:) So my child is wearing around clothes soaked in solutions know to cause cancer.. will the baking soda actually take the formaldehyde out of the clothing or just get rid of it’s odor?

  13. Samantha on August 21, 2007 at 9:32 am

    Kennedy’s uniform t-shirts for school are the same way. I’ve washed them all 3 times and still the chemical smell. I even put fabric softener on them. I’ll try the baking soda. Thanks.