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How to Wash Fiberglass Out of Clothing

Fiberglass is no fun to work with. And it's even harder to wash out of your clothes.
Fiberglass is no fun to work with. And it's even harder to wash out of your clothes.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Fiberglass has a reputation -- not unlike asbestos -- as a material that's used in the construction of buildings and products even though it may be harmful to humans. As the name suggests, fiberglass is made up of fibers of glass. It's used as an insulating material and for strengthening plastics, so you might find it anywhere from roofing, furnace filters and plumbing materials, to fishing rods and surfboards.

Unlike asbestos, though, fiberglass is manmade and it hasn't been definitively linked to diseases such as cancer. It is similar, however, because it has the same strands, or fibers, it holds up well as a composite material, and it is an irritant. If you've ever worked with it, you know what we mean. These thin, sharp fibers can get imbedded into the skin, causing contact dermatitis, and when a material made from fiberglass is broken down or cut, the released particles carry fine glass dust that can have an effect on breathing. Membranes in the throat, nose and eyes also are susceptible to these particles.

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But what about when these particles get attached to your clothes? Do people who work with fiberglass day in and day out just toss their work clothes or is there a way to make them wearable again?

If you have ever broken glass on a thick pile or shag carpet, or have cleaned it from car upholstery or floorboards, you can probably guess why it's so hard to get fiberglass out of fabric. Glass shards are thin and hard to see, and they often have jagged edges on multiple sides so they grab on when going into the fabric and grab on when you try to pull them out.

When fiberglass fibers get into clothing, they jut out in different directions and poke into the skin. Even after clothes are removed, the skin can be itchy, red and sensitive for hours or even days. Protective coveralls or cheap thrift clothing you buy with the intention of throwing away at the end of a project are options, but just as it's possible to gently get the fibers out of your skin, it is generally OK to keep your clothing and wear it again.

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One tip for picking clothes to work in, though, is to choose loose shirts and pants so the fiberglass isn't pushing directly through the fabric into skin. A looser fit also will keep the glass splinters from getting pressed into the fabric as deeply because there will be less tautness between the clothes and skin.

After finishing a project or work day where exposed to fiberglass, remove your clothes in an area where the particles won't shake off onto other fabrics. It's probably not the best time to give your spouse or partner a tight bear hug either. Remove clothing and keep it separate from other laundry or furnishing -- for example, don't drape it on a chair or across the bed or the fibers may spread. It may work best to just toss the clothing into an empty washing machine and plan on washing it by itself rather than mixing the pieces with others.

Many companies that work with fiberglass products publish statements in their required Material Handling Data Sheets (MSDS) suggesting that clothing be washed separately and in warm water until fibers are removed. However, no specific guidelines for soaps or detergents and methods are given. Forums suggest using boar's hair or other rough-bristled brushes to slough off some of the fibers before washing. Others mention applying strips of tape or other adhesives to pull the particles out before putting the clothes in the machine. Most sources do add a step after washing that includes thoroughly washing and rinsing the washing machine itself after finishing a load of clothing.

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How clean and fiberglass-free you can get your clothes also depends on how much you were immersed in disrupted fiberglass. Many projects involve working with the composite form, which is tight and has little fiber shedding, so a normal wash cycle, or two or more, may be enough to ready your clothes for the next project.

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Sources

  • American Lung Association. "Fiberglass." Lung.org. 2012. (Apr. 7, 2012) http://www.lung.org/healthy-air/home/resources/fiberglass.html
  • City of New York. "Fiberglass." NYC.gov. 2012. (Apr. 6, 2012) http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/epi/fiberglass-fact.shtml
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Fiberglass." Britannica.com. 2012. (Apr. 6, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/205852/fibreglass
  • Owens Corning. "Material Safety Data Sheet." OwensCorning.com. July 17, 2007. (Apr. 7, 2012) http://www.owenscorning.com/worldwide/admin/tempupload/pdf.13614-NAM-EN%20Low%20Density%20Insulation.pdf
  • Illinois Department of Public Health "Environmental Health Fact Sheet: Fiberglass." State.IL.US. 2012. (Apr. 6, 2012) http://www.idph.state.il.us/envhealth/factsheets/fiberglass.htm

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