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Surprising Ways Clothing Can Cause a Rash or Diarrhea

You just bought some new clothes, and you’re dying to wear them. But don’t — until you’ve washed them!

Even the most natural fabrics can carry things you don’t want on your skin. Skipping that pre-wear wash could lead to:

  • Skin rash — an allergic reaction to chemicals in the fabric.
  • Bites — from lice or scabies.
  • Stomach virus — germs on the fabric can cause infectious disease.

Here’s why washing, drying or airing out just about everything before you wear it is a good idea.

Some people are more sensitive to dyes and chemicals. Even if you haven’t reacted before, you might react the next time you’re exposed to a new or different chemical.

And then there are bugs of the insect or germ variety. You don’t want those.

Here are symptoms and causes of problems you might get if you don’t wash before you wear.

  1. Red, raised rashes especially in your armpits, waist, neck and thighs.

Causes: most likely due to:

  • Dyes in synthetic fabrics.
  • Formaldehyde resins used to prevent wrinkling and mildew in cotton and natural fabrics.
  • Fungus and mold retardants.
  • Glues or leather tanning agents.
  • Chemicals to block or prevent UV rays, soil or flames.
  1. Bites and severe itching

Causes: Could be from lice or scabies (skin mites).

Both are contagious and can come from other people who tried on the clothing. Or they might even come from people who handled them during manufacturing. The bugs can’t live long without access to warm blood. But sometimes they stow away in natural fabrics.

  1. Diarrhea, stomach ache

Causes: stomach viruses or bacteria.

Other customers try on new clothes at the store or wear and return them. They just might carry bacteria you want to avoid. One is the norovirus, which can last a few days on dry clothing.

What to do

Launder everything that’s washable before you wear it. Wash sheets and towels, too.

Tips for washable clothing:

  • Some clothing may need two or three washings to get rid of irritants.
  • Use perfume-free and dye-free detergent to avoid skin reactions.
  • Heat or extreme cold can kill lice and scabies. Washing in hot water and using a hot dryer is one way. Or, put the item in a sealed airtight bag and place in freezer for 72 hours. (Defrost in refrigerator before removing it).

Tips for “dry-clean-only” items:

  • Running a new item through a hot dryer cycle for 30 minutes can kill many germs.
  • Use the freezing method above.
  • Many dry-clean-only clothes can be washed in cold water. Read and follow label directions.

Speaking of dry cleaning, those chemicals can also cause a reaction too. Hang dry cleaned clothes out of the bag and on the line when you bring them home before you wear them.

So whether it’s new or used from your favorite boutique, it’s best to wash it first for your own overall health.

If you run into the symptoms above, let your health care provider know if you suspect the problem is from new clothing. That can help guide you to the right treatment sooner.

Meet the Author

Narat John Eungdamrong, MD is a dermatologist at Aurora Health Center, Greenfield, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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