Fabric Softeners And Flammability

Fabric Softeners And Flammability »Play Video
SEATTLE - We hear it every year: children rushed to emergency rooms with severe burns from a fire.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in many of those fires the child's clothing is a factor.

Well, you may not know it about children's clothing, but the way you wash it may actually make it easier to burn.

New Labeling Law

Like most people with small children, Jaci Turk is aware of the hazards of fire around kids' clothing, especially sleepwear. Whenever possible, she buys fabrics that are labeled flame-resistant.

But it's not easy.

"What surprises me," she says, "is that there's so much that's like sleepwear that's out there that is not flame-resistant."

By law, children's sleepwear doesn't have to be flame-resistant, it just has to be properly labeled. The new labeling law has just been in effect for about a year.

That's why more often than not you'll see long yellow tags telling you the garment is not flame-resistant at all.

Build-Up And Burn Rate

But even when garments are labeled flame-resistant, the simple act of washing and drying them could reduce the flame resistance if you use fabric softeners.

Researchers at Consumer Reports tested a variety of clothing and found the build-up of liquid fabric softener actually caused some fabric to burn much faster than when no fabric softener was used. Dryer sheets weren't quite as bad.

But as KOMO 4 News viewer Jeanne Johnson points out, even the dryer sheet boxes say they're not for use on children's sleepwear or fabric that's flame resistant. So we decided to conduct our own test.

Ten Washings And Dryings

For our non-scientific test, we bought duplicates of a variety of sleepwear, some clearly labeled flame-resistant and some not.

We washed and dried all the duplicates 10 times with other clothing. We treated half with liquid fabric softener in the final rinse, and half with softener sheets in the dryer.

Then, with the help of Deputy King County Fire Marshal John Klopfenstein, we burned the sleepwear, side by side with the identical new garments.

We found little difference in the burn rate of flame-resistant 100 percent polyester nightgowns whether they were new or had been laundered with dryer sheets. Still, experts say with continued dryer sheet use, that could change.

'Any Garment Can Burn'

A nightgown treated with liquid fabric softener was different. It ignited right away and burned faster than a new nightgown, which took 10 seconds to ignite and burned much slower.

In a third test, with flame-resistant polyester pajama tops, the one treated with liquid softener took a little longer to catch the flame but burned a bigger hole in a shorter period of time.

"The label says flame-resistant," Klopfenstein stresses. "It is not flame-proof. It's not fire-proof. Any garment can burn."

A Chemical Finish

We talked to a textiles and fabrics expert who explained what's going on: When we use fabric softeners we're essentially adding a chemical finish to our clothes, and that's what makes them feel softer.

But that finish is actually bonding with the fibers, which, simply put, makes fabric work more like a wick when it's in contact with flame.

Napped, fuzzy fabrics such as terrycloth, flannel and fleece, are vulnerable even without fabric softener.

Every Third Wash Only

Bottom line: If you can't find sleepwear that's labeled flame-resistant, make sure it's snug- fitting, especially if it's all cotton, so there's less air to feed a fire.

And if you insist on using fabric softeners, experts recommend using dryer sheets, but only on every third wash.

That reduces the chance of buildup that could make clothes burn faster if they catch fire.

For More Information:

Consumer Reports Online -- www.consumerreports.org
Parent News -- www.parent.net