Polyester PJs and Flame Retardants

A debate that has bothered me for years is about to come to an end with this article. I’ve always been turned off by polyester PJs for my kids. It’s something my mom always re-enforced with using cotton at bedtime, but it’s always bothered me and now I know why. It’s not the fact that polyester PJs don’t breath well or provide the same level of softness that cotton or bamboo material does. It’s the fact that polyester sleepwear is infused with ‘natural’ flame retardants – bonded right into the fabric. So a company can state that their sleepwear doesn’t contain flame retardants (they have been banned since the late 70′s because they were found to be so carcinogenic) but since polyester is ‘naturally’ fire resistant, this labeling doesn’t need to be added to the tag.

Confused?  Don’t know anything about flame retardants?  They aren’t something we are not familiar with as parents today, because the year I was born (1973) the US Department of Commerce declared mandatory fire-resistance standards for kid’s sleepwear.  So flame retardants were brushed onto children’s PJs, chemically treating them (without any testing) and were later found to be a mutagen and a carcinogen. How potent was this ‘coating’ of flame retardants?  The National Cancer Institute testing Tris-BP showed that it was one hundred times more powerful than the carcinogens in cigarette smoke. (!!)  Four years later this chemical was banned from children’s products which is pretty quick turn-around time for a ban proving just how dangerous Tris-PB (type of flame retardant) was.  

So after absorbing all this information from the chapter in Slow Death By Rubber Duck I felt quite safe that the problem of the government sticking flame retardants in children’s sleepwear is an issue I don’t have to concern myself with.  Only something Rick mentioned in the chapter has been bugging me for months since I read it ~ the fact that polyester has naturally ‘built in’ flame retardants and because of this is a popular fabric choice for large manufacturers of sleepwear.  I’m in no way suggesting that the flame retardants that are found ‘naturally’ in polyester are as dangerous as the ones that were banned in the 70′s, but the author of Slow Death By Rubber Duck tried to get answers from one of the largest kid’s sleepwear retailers (Carters) asking what type of flame retardants are mixed into the polyester they use and couldn’t get his question answered.  If one of the leading Environmentalists in Canada couldn’t get answers – I won’t even attempt. And rather than frustrate myself with trying to investigate further, I’m opting to remove any sleepwear from my kids PJ drawer that are made from polyester. And this isn’t a slag on Carters – every big name that produces sleepwear for children uses either polyester or cotton.

Your children spend close to 10-12 hours a night sleeping in their PJs – that is the longest stretch of time they spend in clothing throughout the day. I went through my boy’s PJs drawer this weekend and couldn’t believe how many PJs were 100% polyester.  Before you think this doesn’t apply to you…go check. You’ll be surprised at how many soft fabrics are actually polyester – not cotton. I’ve removed the polyester PJs from my sons’ PJ drawer and with Christmas on the near horizon – a new item on everyone’s Santa list will be either 100% cotton or bamboo PJs.  And while we are talking about it – watch for decals, plastic, sparkles, etc. that are decorating your child’s sleepwear….these appliques are made from PVC. This is the ‘poison plastic’ that has no business being near your child while they are sleeping.  I know the Superman and Disney Cars decals are fun on PJs but really, night-time sleepwear is the perfect place to reduce toxic materials.  The sand man is easily impressed and children don’t have any pressure to wear commercialism laced products to bed.

Related Articles:

Little Inkers – Growing PVC & Phthalate Free Kids

Toxic Experiment With Everyday Products ~ Slow Death By Rubber Duck

PVC Items In Your Every-Day Life

PVC Plastic ~ The Poison Plastic In Your Home

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9 Responses to Polyester PJs and Flame Retardants

  1. Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama October 26, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    The flame retardants woven into the fiber aren’t really “natural” – they are added to make the fibers inherently flame resistant.

    Also, unfortunately, need to be careful of natural fibers, incl. cotton. Carter’s and some others sell flame retardant treated cotton. These pjs will be advertised as flame resistant cotton, or Proban cotton.

  2. suzanne October 26, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

    Good to know about the flame retardant treated cotton PJs too – scary to know another product needs this kind of investigation before I feel safe putting it on my kids. Thanks Jennifer!

  3. LisaatEWG October 26, 2009 at 10:16 pm #

    Jennifer, Interesting re the Proban cotton. EWG recently put together a tip sheet on avoiding flame retardants if it adds to this conversation: http://www.ewg.org/Healthy-Home-Tips-03. Best, Lisa

  4. Jenn March 17, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    I’m confused. I thought that most cotton PJs were coated with flame retardants (along with our pillows and mattresses)? when you buy flannel at the fabric store it is often stamped “not suitable for sleep wear” and I always figured that this was because it was not coated in flame retardants.

    Were all flame retardants band or just some?

    Thanks

  5. suzanne March 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    Hi Jenn ~ I have asked Old Navy and other large companies that sell cotton PJs if they coat with flame retardants and the answer is no. I’m not asking experts, but district manager types so I hope this information is correct. Yes, using a cotton or flannel is a much better material because unlike polyester, these materials don’t have flame retardants interwoven into the fabric (like polyester does) and why 80% of the PJs on the market are always made from polyester. So while the cottons PJs sold will come with a warning ‘not suitable for sleepware’, green minded mamas embrace this warning because they are actually made without flame retardants. It’s hard thinking the opposite of what is recommended but since the large companies are not looking out for consumers, we will continue to read labels and ask questions.

    Suzanne
    Mommy Footprint

  6. Anon January 7, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    Pvc = poison plastic? Seriously? SERIOUSLY? You realize Pvc is used in house hold plumbing right? Its safe to carry drinking water…. Just sayin….

  7. Erin Royer, Snug Organics October 30, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    Great article, Suzanne!

  8. Keith March 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Anon, PVC is being phased out of drinking and wastewater applications in favor of nylon, PEX and ABS. It’s already banned from use in water delivery applications, with the homes that were built in the early 90s with PVC water supply pipes being retrofitted with copper at the PVC manufacturers’ expense. It’s also banned from food storage and serving implements. It is in fact *not* safe for drinking water, or for any food contact.

    As far as flame-retardant polyester, there are two basic ways to make it. First is to “mix in” a flame-retardant chemical, usually a phosphorous-based compound, before extruding the fibers. These will form part of the polymer matrix of the fibers, and inhibit burning. Phosphorous compounds are not ideal; they’re toxic in their unbonded form. These are the fabrics that will have a “to maintain flame resistance” section on their care label, and yes, you should probably avoid them.

    The second, and much safer, alternative is to make a “copolymer” between the polyester and a halogenated monomer. In plain English, that means the chemicals making up the “chains” of the polymer are of two different types. One is the “normal” polyester, which makes the fibers soft and flexible, and the other is a short carbon chain with a lot of chlorine or fluorine atoms bonded to it. Chlorine won’t burn, no matter how much oxygen you add (the chlorine or fluorine behave chemically in much the same way oxygen does, so in effect, these materials are already “burned”), and the amount of pure heat necessary to tear this kind of compound apart would be much more than human flesh could stand, so, Heaven forbid, if the clothing were to reach this temperature, it’s already far too late for the wearer.

    The problem is telling the difference. Unfortunately, there is no good way to tell which polyester clothes are truly-”naturally” flame-resistant copolymers and which are retardant-treated. The best way to tell is to look for fabric brand names that say they’re a flame-retardant copolymer, then see which clothing brands and lines use these brand-name fabrics.

    In no circumstances whatsoever would I ever recommend clothing your child in a fabric that was not flame-resistant. Kids, especially infants and toddlers, don’t just sleep in their PJs; for many parents and their children, “footies” and similar outfits are just as common for casual wear around the house, including the evening romp between dinner and bedtime. Fabrics that are not flame retardant will actually sustain and feed a fire. This is doubly true for softer, more lightweight weaves of natural fibers like cotton or linen that you’d probably use for sleepwear; this type of material might as well be kindling.

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