Non-iron shirts: A Frankenstein textile technology that's well past it's “use by” date

Non-iron shirts are often touted as a “high-tech” fabric, a miracle textile technology.

Far from it.

Brooks Brothers – working with chemical giant Du Pont – introduced “non-iron” cotton and polyester shirts in the 1950's in an effort to compete with wash-and-wear polyester shirts.

Today, Brooks Brothers estimates that 90% of its total unit volume of shirts are non-iron.

Although the technology hasn't changed much over the last 60 years, these days most non-iron shirts are 100% cotton.

The marketplace success of non-iron shirts has prompted other brands – even higher quality brands such as Eton, Nordstrom and Thomas Pink – to take the plunge.

Even Zegna is experimenting with a new wrinkle resistant cotton. On the positive side, their wrinkle resistant cotton involves a new variety of cotton, not the application of a potentially health-impacting chemical treatment.

What's to like about non-iron shirts?

At RAVE FabriCARE, we care for tens of thousands of shirts every year. I'd estimate that 95% of those shirts are 100% cotton, must-iron shirts; about 5% are 100% cotton and cotton/blend, non-iron shirts.

Why do clients who have some non-iron shirts in there wardrobe still require those shirts to be professionally cleaned and pressed?

Overwhelmingly, they respond that they can't achieve the cleanliness, brightness and professional hand ironed look that they desire using home laundry techniques.

When I ask clients who only drop off or send in dry cleaning (and no shirts) why they don't also entrust their shirt laundry to us, many tell me that they converted to non-iron shirts because of the “easy care” factor. When questioned further, most admit that their own home laundry results are no match for our professional results.

So what's to like about non-iron shirts?

About the only objective answer is that it's a reliable way to avoid looking like a rumpled mess. And avoid having to spend 5 minutes ironing your shirt the night before.

What's to hate about non-iron shirts?

Health impact

Formaldehyde has numerous industrial applications. Amongst the many applications, it's used as an adhesive in the manufacture of particleboard and a preservative to embalm the dead.

Formaldehyde is also the key ingredient in the resin coating that's responsible for the anti-wrinkling properties of non-iron shirts.

Most European and Asian countries have regulations restricting the presence of formaldehyde in textile products.

In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office studied 180 chemically-treated textiles. 10 out of the 180 textiles examined exceeded the European and Asian “safe levels”.

You'll win no prize for guessing that non-iron shirts were on the list of the 10 products that exceeded those “safe levels”.

The problem with formaldehyde is that it has been demonstrated to cause watery eyes, burning eyes and throats, coughing, headaches, fatigue, skin irritation, dermatitis, nausea, asthma and other respiratory problems.

The list goes on and on.

What's more, the National Cancer Institute classifies formaldehyde as a “known human carcinogen.”

Unlike Europe and Asia, the USA doesn't regulate the maximum level of formaldehyde that's permitted in fabrics.

But that may be changing.

In May 2016, Congress passed a bill that set new safety standards for dangerous chemicals, including formaldehyde, that have gone unregulated for decades.

Although shirt manufacturers agree that formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical, they argue that the amount of formaldehyde in non-iron shirts is small and, therefore, immaterial.

Others argue that you can eliminate the problem by washing your new formaldehyde-soaked shirts prior to wearing them for the first time.

This makes no sense at all.

Why would a manufacturer put on a wrinkle resistant coating on your shirts that washes out? If that were the case, your non-iron shirts would require ironing every time they were washed.

Truth is, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the formaldehyde content of your non-iron shirts decreases with every wash.

Bottom line: Anyone who even remotely suffers from chemical sensitivities should avoid non-iron shirts. The idea that you would knowingly expose yourself to any level of formaldehyde in order to avoid picking up a hand iron and feeling real comfortable, just strikes me as nuts.


In order to impart anti-winkle properties to a non-iron shirt, the cotton fabric is treated with a chemical resin containing formaldehyde. The formaldehyde in the resin bonds the cotton fibers to create a stiffer fabric that's less likely to wrinkle.

As a result, non-iron shirts will always feel stiffer.

By contrast, the feel, texture or “hand” of a 100% fine, single ply cotton shirt should be soft as butter.


One of the most enduring advantages of pure cotton is that it “breathes”. This means that cotton wicks away moisture from your body, thereby regulating body temperature.

By contrast, non-iron shirts don't “breathe”.

That's because the chemical coating applied to non-iron shirts bonds to the cotton fibers, creating a fabric with limited porosity.

I can't imagine how folks can wear non-iron shirts in those parts of the country that are subject to excessive heat (such as Arizona) or humidity (such as Florida). Especially given the fact that temperature and humidity accelerates the release of formaldehyde in coated fabrics.

Life span

According to studies by Consumer Reports, wrinkle-free finishes applied to cotton reduces the life span of a shirt by 20% to 25%.

This stands to reason:

  • Non-iron shirts have relatively stiff bodies and sleeves

    When you put non-iron shirts into a washer, the shirts retain their stiff structure and rub up against one another. That rubbing will cause the fabric to abrade prematurely.

    By contrast, when you put must-iron cotton shirts into a washer, the structure of the shirts immediately “collapses” on contact with water.
  • Many non-iron shirts have fused collars, cuffs and front and sleeve plackets

    Fusing means that the 2 sides of the fabric are bonded to the internal interfacing in collars, cuffs and front and sleeve plackets with glues of some type. This tends to make them stiff and non-malleable.

    When you put non-iron shirts into a washer, the collars, cuffs and front and sleeve plackets retain their stiff structure and rub up against one another. That rubbing will cause the collars, cuffs and front and sleeve plackets to abrade prematurely.

    By contrast, when you put must-iron cotton shirts into a washer, the structure of the shirts and the collars, cuffs and front and sleeve plackets immediately “collapses” on contact with water.

    As a result, it's quite common for collar points, front plackets and cuffs to fray and for elbows to wear thin and "blow out”.

Heres' one additional observation that may seem counter-intuitive: One would surmise that the more a non-iron shirt is washed, the softer it will feel and the more breathable it will become – over time.

But that's not true. Fact is, the more you wash the shirt, the stiffer and less breathable it becomes.

Based on the results of the Consumer Report studies, one would have to conclude that the best advise for non-iron aficionados is to buy low-priced non-iron shirts, use them, wash them, and then replace them as needed.

After all, why spend big bucks on a non-iron shirt, if you already know – with reasonable certainty – that they'll deteriorate prematurely?

Required ironing

As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this blog post, we care for tens of thousands of shirts every year.

About 95% of those shirts are 100% cotton, must-iron shirts; about 5% are 100% cotton and cotton/blend, non-iron shirts.

What I can tell you is this: Despite protestations to the contrary, there's no comparison between the look of a non-ironed shirt that's been professionally cleaned and hand pressed and the look of a non-iron shirt that's been washed and hang dried or washed and machine dried.

One more observation: if you hand iron your non-iron shirts, never crease the sleeves. Once you crease those sleeves with a hand iron, you'll never be able to remove them.

Aside: If your definition of "shirt care" for your must-iron shirts is to drop them off at your local "professional shirt laundry", you should never allow your shirt laundry to crease the sleeves of your long sleeve shirts.

Just my opinion.


Yes, I know I'm biased in favor of 100% cotton, must-iron shirts. But my biases don't negate the facts about non-iron shirts.

Fact is, nothing beats the look and feel of a professionally laundered, hand ironed, must-iron, 100% cotton shirt.

When you succumb to the lure of the non-iron shirt, you trade off potential heath impacts, feel, breathability and longevity – in other words, health and comfort – for savings and convenience.