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Flame Retardants: What is and is Not Hiding in Your Children’s Sleepwear

young girl sleeping in bed
Written by Amber Seber

When purchasing children’s sleepwear, the decision on what type of sleepwear to buy in order to avoid pajamas treated with possibly dangerous chemicals weighs on many parents’ minds. There are many options available and, un- fortunately, labeling can be confusing. If a garment is treated, how can you know?

In the past, death and injury fromopen flames such as candles, lanterns, fire- places, electric space heaters, and especially cigarettes were a concern. Children might brush against any of these items while wearing loose-fitting, flammable sleepwear and quickly catch fire.

In 1975, a law was issued requiring all children’s sleepwear to be fire retardant or fire resistant. Today, all children’s sleepwear in  sizes between 9 months to 14 years is required by The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to be either fire retardant or fire resistant according to set standards. (Children younger than 9 months are not typically as mobile and are less likely to come into contact with open flame as a result.)

When the law was first enacted, much of children’s sleepwear was treated with chemical fire retardants which were later found to be carcinogenic. These flame retardants, chlorinated Tris and brominated Tris, were quickly taken off of the market and ceased being used in children’s clothing in 1977 when a new law went into effect banning the use of Tris in children’s pajamas. (2)(10) Chlorinated Tris, however, is still used in other household items and baby items despite the fact that it is a known mutigen and possible carcinogen.(1)

Over 36% of children’s products including crib mattresses and high chairs test- ed contain Tris phosphate and much of the rest contain other known hazardous fire retardant chemicals. Environmental Science and Technology reported in 2011 that, “based on exposure estimates conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), [they] predict that infants may receive greater exposure to TDCPP from these products compared to the average child or adult from upholstered furniture, all of which are higher than acceptable daily intake levels of TDCPP set by the CPSC.” So even if you are avoiding these chemicals in your child’s sleepwear, you may not be fully protecting them from hazardous fire retardant chemicals. (3)

But even with brominated and chlorinated Tris taken off the table, manufacturers are still left with possibly toxic options when treating children’s sleepwear. A very small percentage of children’s sleepwear may still be treated with fire retardants consider ednontoxic by the CPSC. These are known as tetrakis hydromethyl phosphonium chloride (THPC). It can go by the trade name of Proban or Securest. This fire retardant is used for cotton pajamas that are not close-fitting and in pajamas made from nylon and acetate.

(8) Though the CPSC considers these chemicals safe and non-toxic, there is some evidence that points to possible toxicity and health risks associated with pajamas treated with THPC or, at best, inadequate testing in human subjects. (9)

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PB- DEs) are also sometimes used in children’s sleepwear, though these are rarely found in the United States as PBDEs have been banned in a few states as well as in Europe. Because children’s pajamas are typically sold in chain stores nationwide, this severely limits the likelihood that they will be sold in the United States at all.(11)

The good news is that children’s sleepwear is very rarely treated with fire retardant chemicals today. According to Jenifer Spero and Recyclebank,  the CPSC states that less that 1% of children’s  sleepwear  is treated  at all.

(12) The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that they have no knowledge of any pajamas treated with fire retardants in the United States. (6) The Green Science Policy Institute states that it is “unlikely that other halogenated fire retardants are used in pajamas.”(7) So while it is possible to come across children’s pajamas with fire retardants, it may be highly unlikely.

So how can we be sure that we are avoiding possibly toxic fire retardants in children’s sleepwear? There are mixed truths and myths circulating within natural parenting groups and blogs online. Much of the information is fabricated or outdated.

All children’s sleepwear is required by the CPSC to be labeled with washing instructions specifically intended to retain the flame resistance of the fabric, whether the fabric is treated or not, so the presence of a label including washing instructions to protect flame resistance is not an indication that the garment has been treated with flame retardant chemicals.(4)

Flame retardant chemicals are specifically designed to last as long as the garment is useable and to survive a minimum of 50 launderings, so it is really not possible to use home methods to launder the chemicals out of the fabrics. Laundering instructions on labels are generally intended to prevent application of chemicals to the garments which may increase flammability and to prevent pilling of the fabric which can also increase flammability. (5) So going against washing instructions in order to avoid supposed fire retardants may actually only make sleepwear more flammable without providing any safety from fire retardants whatsoever.

Natural fiber pajamas that have not been treated with fire retardant chemicals are required by the CPSC to be labeled as such and will include a tag which states “this garment must be worn close fitting” or “this garment is not flame resistant and must be worn close fitting.” These garments have not been treated with fire retardants.(4)(5) Garments which have not been treated may also come with a tag which says “not intended for sleepwear.”

Garments labeled as “lounge wear,” however are not necessarily free of fire retardants as the CPSC does require that all clothing labeled as “lounge wear” be fire resistant or fire retardant. Robes for children are also included in the fire resistant requirements. (5) Cotton pajamas which carry the labels “treated with Proban” or “flame-resistant cotton” are treated with fire retardant chemicals.

Polyester fleece pajamas are very rarely treated with fire retardants because the polyester used in children’s sleepwear is inherently flame resistant. This means that the fabric has been created from polyester that is non-flammable, not that chemical fire retardants have been “woven” into the fabric as many online blogs state.

Polyester is a plastic which is typically flammable because it is reactive, causing it to serve as a fuel. To prevent this, polyester can be made non-reactive by altering it using another chemical such as phosphate which changes the molecular structure of the polyester, rendering it inert and inflammable. Basically, one chemical is used to create a reaction with the polyester in order to create a completely new and inert molecule that will no longer react with anything, much like glass. Because it does not react, it will not serve as a fuel. (13)

Because this type of polyester has been altered to be non-reactive, fire retardants cannot come out of the fabric of the pajamas. While the polyester itself is not natural, it is a non-reactive, non-toxic, stable molecule. They contain no fire retardant chemicals and there are no flame retardants within the polyester that can leave the garment in any way. This makes polyester a safe sleepwear option, though non-natural and not an environmentally friendly choice.

Organic pajamas are always a safe option as they cannot be labeled organic if they are treated with flame retardants. Organic pajamas must, therefore, be close-fitting in order to meet the CPSC’s flammability requirements. Wool, another natural option, will often not be treated as it is naturally flame-resistant and typically made to be close-fitting. Wool, however, may come with its own chemical concerns such as pesticides used when dipping sheep for parasites. Wool may also be treated with fire retardants and these are not required to be disclosed in the labeling. Choose wool pajamas which carry a label stating, “wear close-fitting.”


  1. Flame RetardantTroubles Attributable to Weak Chemical Regulations, Rebecca Daley, Public Health Reports 2011 Jul-Aug; 126(4): 458-459.http://www.ncbi.
  2. CPSC Bans Tris-Treated Children’s Garments, Release # 33-030, April o7, 1977. Childrens-Garments/
  3. Identification of Flame Retardants inPolyurethane Foam Collected from Baby Products,Environmental Science and Technology,2011, 45 (12), pp 5323–5331.
  4. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Code of Federal Regulations. Title 16, Vol. 2, 1/1/2012,Part
  5. num1615.3
  6. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission,Office of Compliance, Children’s Sleepwear Regulations, 16 C.F.R. Parts 1615 & 1616.
  7. Environmental Working Group, Healthy Home tips: Tip 4 – AvoidFire Retardan
  8. Green Science Policy Institut
  9. Children’s Pajamas and Flame Retardants, Jenni- ferTaggart, Pediatric Safety, October 13, 2009.
  10. Toxicological Risks of Selected Flame-Retardant Chemicals: Ch 18. Tetrakis(hydroxymethyl) Phosphoni- um Salts. National ResearchCouncil (US) Subcommittee on Flame-Retardant Chemicals, 2000. http://www.ncbi.
  11. CPSC Bans TRIS-TreatedChildren’s Garments; Consumer Products Safety Commission, April 07, 1977.
  12. Polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs); Toxopedia, updated by Steven Gilbert June09, 2014.
  13. Choose Natural Baby Jennifer Spero, Recy- clebank. April 05, 2012. https://livegreen.recyclebank. com/us-choose-natural-baby-clothes#refdesc7
  14. Phosphorus Based Flame Phosphorous, Inorganic & Nitrogen FlameRetardants Association.

About the author

Amber Seber