This is one of those questions that has some parents totally freaking out, or completely unaware that it could be a “thing”. And if you start looking into whether there are toxic flame retardants in your children’s pajamas, you may find the answer you want in a 5 minute Google search… but it won’t take long before you read something else that contradicts what you just learned.
When I write about a topic like this, I spend many (many) hours trying to unravel the information. Because so many articles stop short of digging that one extra step, which can make the difference between an educated decision and a wrong assumption. Now, I’m not an investigative journalist… I’m not travelling to manufacturing facilities under cover or anything crazy. But I am critically looking at sources, and trying to find the most credible and impartial information. All these are linked throughout if you want to dig deeper yourself.
So, let’s dive into the big question: do you have to be concerned about toxic flame retardants in your child’s pajamas?
Children’s Sleepwear Regulations
Back in 1972, regulations were written to require children’s pajamas be flame retardant. At the time, they were treated with brominated tris. In 1977, scientists warned that it could damage DNA and was probably absorbed through the skin. Brominated tris was banned for use in children’s sleepwear after government studies found that it could cause cancer and was absorbed through the skin.
For 5 years, children were exposed to this carcinogen in their sleep. But it didn’t stop there. Brominated tris was replaced with chlorinated tris… and guess what? It was also found to affect DNA. (This is the same playbook followed by many chemical manufacturers.)
Until 1996, natural fibers like cotton were only deemed flame resistant if they were treated with flame retardants. But in that year, regulations changed to allow tight-fitting cotton pj’s since they are less likely to catch fire than baggy clothing.
Canadian labelling laws require that loose fitting pyjamas treated with flame retardants have a label that says “flame retardant” along with wash instructions that describe cleaning procedures. For example, fabric softener increases a fabric’s flammability because it separates the fibers, giving them that soft and fluffy feel.
The Nuance of “Inherently Flame Retardant”
After the risks of flame retardants become more widely known, clothing makers switched away from the natural fibers that required flame retardant treatment, to polyester, which didn’t require the application of chemicals to the fabric to meet regulations.
This is why so many articles claim that polyester is naturally flame resistant, and that we no longer have to be concerned about flame retardants. But that’s not the whole story…
It’s unclear whether all polyester is made in this way, but it appears that flame resistant chemicals are commonly used as an additive or embedded into the material during fiber manufacture. Since polyester is plastic, it doesn’t ignite into flames like natural fibers, but will melt without flame retardants.
So while polyester may be “inherently” or “naturally” flame retardant, this is achieved either with the addition of flame retardant chemicals or flame resistance built into the fibres. Phosphorus-based treatments and nanoparticles seem to be on the cutting edge of this processing.
Because this is at the material manufacturing stage, companies who sell children’s sleepwear might not know what chemicals or processes are used to render the polyester flame resistant. They just know that they haven’t added flame retardant chemicals, and therefore can market them as having no added flame retardants.
The additives don’t have to be disclosed, nor do we know much about health impacts – if any.
Certain applications for making “inherently flame retardant” plastics use BPA (a hormone disruptor) and PTFE (the chemical used in Teflon). These process is seemingly for hard plastics, but again, as consumers, we’re kept in the dark of how our products are made. Wo who knows if the same processes are used on plastic fabric.
Also, there is a history of the clothing industry in general using chemicals with toxic properties in the manufacturing process for dyes and to make them resistant to mold, mildew, and wrinkling during shipment. This is why it’s so important to wash clothes before wearing them. But I digress…
What’s a Concerned Parent to Do?
The truth is, while chemicals known to be harmful to our health are less likely to be sprayed on PJs today than in the 70s, we really don’t know unless we ask. So is it worth even worrying?
Some testing has found no flame retardants in the majority of PJs tested (though when labs are asked to test for “known flame retardants”, I’m not sure of the completeness or scientific validity of these tests). The documentary Stink! is based on one dad’s crusade to figure out why his daughter’s pajamas had such a strong odour coming out of the package (and he found chemicals that are technically banned in the US).
And while polyester can be made to be flame resistant, when I asked Hatley, they confirmed that their polyester nightdresses are treated with flame retardant (via email correspondence, December 19, 2019).
Of note, in the US, flammability tests on products with flame retardants added must be done on fabric after manufacture and after 50 washes, in Canada after 20 washes. Which means that washing treated PJs isn’t an effective solution to reducing exposure to flame retardants.
Regardless of the risk of flame retardant chemicals, there are several reasons to opt for (tight-fitting) natural fiber pj’s over synthetic. For one, polyester doesn’t breathe. And I hesitate to share this because it is purely anecdotal, but I found more than one suggestion that fleece is often treated with formaldehyde or chemicals that can release formaldehyde during use.
Because children spend so many hours in their most vulnerable years wearing pajamas, this is one area where I think it is especially prudent to apply the precautionary principle as much as possible.
That means prioritizing organic (next best is non-organic) cotton tight-fitting sleepwear that has “not flame resistant” on the label. The good news is, it isn’t hard to find conventional brands that fit the bill.
I also want to remind you not to freak out. Reducing your family’s toxic load requires taking a holistic approach that’s never going to be 100% avoidance. There are lots of ways you can reduce your child’s exposure to toxic chemicals – their pajamas are just one piece of the puzzle.