Why is it so hard to buy safe, non-toxic pajamas for our children? In a perfect world, maybe all of our clothing could be organic. But when it comes to pajamas, that’s far from the only concern.
For over 50 years, various types of children’s clothing have been required to be flame resistant. Most of the time, that’s done through the use of chemical flame retardants.
Those chemicals can off-gas into your children’s faces all night, or may even seep through their skin. Either way, it’s the opposite of a restorative night’s sleep, and they might not even be necessary anymore.
Why Are Flame Retardants in Children’s Pajamas?
Apparently, back in the 50s, quite a few children were going up in flames wearing cowboy chaps made of rayon. This began the look into the flammability of fabrics, and it was determined that certain fabrics needed to be flame-resistant.
Around 1975, children’s pajamas became the subject of many pages of legislation, even though a relatively small number of children were involved in burn injuries in their pajamas. From 1969 through 1973, sleepwear was the clothing involved in 32% of the instances.1
I can no longer find more data that used to exist on burn injuries from that era; but one example is that from 2003 to 2005, there were 475 child clothing-related burn injuries. Not all of these were in pajamas.
The bottom line is that flame retardants in pajamas are not supposed to be of help in a disaster like a house fire. They are there to protect from burns from a small open flame such as a candle, gas stove, campfire, or lighter.
Back when many parents smoked cigarettes when matches and lighters were common in homes, and when home heat often involved an open flame, little girls’ nightgowns really were quite a hazard.
But do we still need this legislation?
How Can Pajama Brands Satisfy Fire Resistant Legislation?
There are very strict standards for what pajama fabric must be able to withstand when it comes to a small open flame. Fabrics need to be held to a one-and-a-half-inch flame for three seconds and have no more than an average seven-inch char length.
If you make children’s sleepwear, your fabric needs to pass that test. There are a few exceptions.
First, certain fabrics consistently are exempt, because they basically always pass.2
You’ll notice that wool is the only natural fiber on this list. Cotton is actually quite flammable.
Pajamas may also be made snug-fitting, and then they avoid the requirement to be flame resistant. They also generally aren’t very cuddly and cozy when they’re in this style, unfortunately.
Even when it comes to the fabrics on the exempt list above, there are some other issues when it comes to both sleeping and open flames. We’ll dig into that later. First, let’s talk about the greater risk.
How are Flame Retardant Chemicals in Pajamas Dangerous?
This has been a long and changing story over the years.
The harm in the 70s was from brominated tris, which could damage DNA, then chlorinated tris, which also was found to mutate DNA. (That one is still in use today in infant products and furniture, just not PJs!) Lovely.
Newer flame retardants called PBDEs may cause “thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty and reduced fertility.”3
PBDE was finally banned in 2005, but they’re in so many products still in homes, like couches, mattresses, carpet pads, and children’s items like changing table pads.4
I’m not even sure what class of chemicals is used in modern flame resistant pajamas (it might be called PROBAN and used on the fabric before it’s made into pajamas,5 but I’m learning from history.
It seems every flame retardant chemical used widely thus far has ended up being banned because it was so dangerous, and most if not all of the chemicals still used to make furniture and carpet flame-resistant have major health risks.6
I’ll take my chances with open flames, or ditch them before I put my kids in toxic pajamas.7
One expert put it this way: “Since tris flame retardants were removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s, more than 3,000 peer-reviewed studies have documented the ability of similar classes of flame retardants to accumulate or to harm health.
We have more than enough research data to support not putting such potentially harmful compounds in furniture and other consumer products,” she says. “Especially when there’s no proven fire safety benefit.”3, 8
Even California, which used to have some of the strictest flame retardant requirements, is now banning almost all of them.9
What would you rather risk: a small, open flame, or 12 hours of exposure to a likely toxic chemical every single night for your kids?
What Type of Pajamas are Flame Resistant?
I hope I’ve got you convinced that you want to avoid flame retardants in your children’s pajamas at all costs. I’ve trained my eyes over the years to see flame resistance coming from a mile away.
Here’s what you need to look for:
- any loose-fitting pajamas
- all nightgowns
- almost anything that looks fuzzy and cozy
- many robes, believe it or not
- and really any pajamas sized over 9 months should be suspect
I’ve learned to always click “read details” or “see more information” when I’m shopping for pajamas online.
Generally, you’ll either see “flame resistant” or some assurance that no flame-retardant chemicals were used. If I don’t see either, I’m too skeptical to order them.
Remember that pajamas for babies under 9 months are exempt from this legislation as of 1996. So at least if you’re a new parent, you don’t have to worry about this for a couple of months.
Would Kids Have Burn Injuries Without Fire-Resistant Pajamas?
Let’s look at this from the other side. Maybe the risk of burn injuries really is too great. Maybe our kids would be landing in the hospital at alarming rates without this legislation.
In the year 2000, about 300 burn incidents happened in children.10
I know this was tragic for those 300 families. But when it comes to accidents, illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths, kids being burned, particularly in sleepwear, is a pretty tiny number.
Compare that to the rate of childhood cancer: about 11,050 children under age 15 will receive a new cancer diagnosis this year, and nearly 1,200 will die. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 through 14, after all types of accidents combined.11
I want you to glance back at the list of side effects of flame retardants.
How many people do you know who struggle with fertility? How many girls have you seen who seem to be entering puberty at an early rate? How many kids are struggling with learning disabilities? I guarantee those rates are higher than 300 kids a year.
But let’s look at some research. Did burn injuries decrease after the legislation went into effect? Yes, they did. And for that, we can rejoice.
On the other hand, since the 1970s many aspects of American daily life have changed.
This research from New Zealand pointed out that although kids being admitted to the hospital for burns in nightclothes did decrease after their similar legislation, here are all the other changes that may have had an effect:
- Open fires as a form of household heating decreased by about 30%.
- Production of night dresses decreased drastically, over 80% fewer.
- In the 20 or so years between this 1991 study and the genesis of flame retardants on pajamas, the cause of burn injuries changed as well, from matches and household heating sources to stoves.12
Perhaps the lesson here is simply not to let your kids near open flames in their pajamas?
Concerned parents reached a victory in 1996. That’s when the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) loosened the restrictions to allow for two things.
- no flame retardants needed on sleepwear for babies under 9 months.
- tight-fitting sleepwear was exempt from testing.
Not everyone was happy with this, and Congress required more scrutiny. From 2003 through 2005, the CPSC collected information on 475 child clothing-related burn injuries. They determined there is “no evidence of increased risk of burn injury associated with the exemptions from the sleepwear standards.”13
What does this mean? The standards were relaxed and nothing bad happened. Again, the world has changed enough that perhaps this is outdated legislation.
Searching for “burn injuries pajamas” found dozens of pajama recalls for being unsafe and opening up the potential for burn injuries, but no actual news stories about burns.
How to Avoid Flame Retardant Chemicals in Children’s Pajamas
I’ve gathered LOTS of ideas and advice about this over the years, so you get to benefit from the wisdom of many wise mamas ringing in:
- Buy tight-fitting (look for the yellow tag with dire warnings about how the pajamas aren’t flame-resistant – hooray, you win!). Smart mamas say to buy a few sizes up in the tight-fitting so they’re a little more comfy and cozy.
- Tight-fitting PJs are often 100% cotton, but just finding cotton doesn’t guarantee no flame retardants. Read the tags; read all the words if shopping online!
- Look out for robes – you wouldn’t expect them to be sleepwear, but most are categorized as such!
- Buy wool pajamas – merino wool is soft and not scratchy. Sloomb is one brand but expensive! Look for it second hand if you can.
- Buy sweatshirts and sweatpants not intended for sleeping or long underwear.
- Buy adult sizes if your child is getting close and roll up the sleeves/pantlegs. I was so excited when my teenager got as tall as me because I could purchase adult flannel Grinch pajama pants for him, which he wore with a white undershirt to bed. Problem solved!
- Sew your own (but make sure to check the fabric you’re buying as some of it is actually treated already!).
I have trained myself that anything fuzzy and comfy looking is surely full of toxic flame-resistant chemicals, but something new is happening.
I thought this was ironic, opening a gun in non-flame-retardant pajamas…clearly, we allow our kids an element of physical risk in our goal to raise healthy, independent adults!
Are Carter’s Pajamas Flame Retardant?
A few years ago, readers alerted me that Carter’s brand had some fleece PJs that claimed:
Chemically treated? No way! Carter’s polyester is flame resistant… Phew!
Huh. This was new to me!
It turns out that they’re made of microfleece, and I called Carter’s customer service to confirm ZERO chemicals. They said:
“Polyester sleepwear is naturally flame resistant. It won’t catch on fire; it will melt.” They don’t use a special type of polyester.
(I was curious about why other brands are adding the flame retardants if the material is the same…) “We don’t add the extra chemicals because we feel it’s safer for children.”
That all sounds good as far as off-gassing chemicals go…but what’s this about melting?
The Hazards of Polyester Pajamas
If you’re a parent who does actually worry about your child potentially catching fire or getting too close to an open flame in their pajamas, polyester may pass the test for the letter of the law but your child could easily still end up in the hospital.
Fabric that melts instead of burns will adhere to your skin in a pretty serious way. One of our contributing writers, Becca, shared this anecdotal story.
Polyester will melt rather than burn. That does NOT make it safe! Molten polyester on your skin won’t kill you but can cause a serious burn.
A first-aid teacher who had been a Girl Scout leader in the 1970s told us the worst burn she’d ever treated was a girl who dropped a flaming marshmallow onto her polyester pants—immediate cooling with water helped a little, but they couldn’t remove the goo from her blackened skin and had to take her to the hospital. I hope that the type of polyester fabric used for PJs is less easily melted than the 1970s double-knit, but I don’t trust it to be any safer than cotton!
It took some digging before I could figure out that polyester was actually exempt from using fire-retardant chemicals. I was incredibly surprised by that because all those fuzzy pajamas I’d avoided over the years were made of polyester. Perhaps it’s because it’s a confusing world out there.
I started my research on microfleece in particular because that’s what Carter’s claimed their pajamas were made of.
I figured microfleece had some special magical qualities that allowed it not to need flame-retardant chemicals. I found lots of conflicting sources.
For example, Wise Geek says that microfleece is one of the most flammable clothing materials and also especially susceptible to pilling and tears.
Robe Mart claims that microfleece is not prone to pilling at all. Then again, they are trying to sell some robes.
Our Everyday Life explains that synthetics like polyester are considered fire-resistant because they melt rather than ignite. Perhaps Wise Geek had a different definition of what’s dangerous when burned. Our Everyday Life points out that the melting fabric still causes burns on the skin.
And just to make it all the more confusing, Jason Mills, where they produce various fabrics, explains,
Nylon and polyester are both flammable, but each reacts differently to fire: nylon melts before burning, whereas polyester melts and burns at the same time. Polyester has a higher flammability temperature than type 6 nylon, so it catches fire less easily.14
Isn’t that all exciting? If you weren’t worried about your children catching on fire before today, now you’re probably terrified. You’re welcome.
Let’s just all agree on this: children catching fire is a bad idea.
Perhaps the root cause, removing open flames touching our children, is the way to go here rather than worrying quite so much about what they are wearing.
I have to say though, let’s jump down another rabbit hole that the article from Jason Mills sent me on. I learned there that polyester comes in two types: PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and UPR (unsaturated polyester).
Seeing the piece of PET that includes phthalate made me immediately think of this interview with Laura Adler. Adler is an environmental toxins expert and explained in great detail the endocrine-disrupting qualities of phthalates.
That made me think, do I really want my kids sleeping in what amounts to plastic? If you’ve ever worn fuzzy polyester clothes to bed, you may have woken up sweaty. They don’t breathe very well.
And anytime you’re wearing plastic, we need to ask the question of what might be coming out of the fabric, flame retardants or not.
Besides that, every time we wash something made of polyester, tiny pieces of plastic get into the water supply. Not only are these likely leaching toxic chemicals that can’t be removed by city water-filtration systems, but the microplastics themselves are also never removed and have been ending up in the oceans.
I recently learned that what we have all pictured as an island of plastic the size of Texas, most likely made up largely of straws (if you lived through the 2019 great straw removal in restaurants), is actually more like a cloud of microplastics smog.
So perhaps even though their fuzzy, microfleece, polyester pajamas might not turn your child into a Human Torch, it’s still better to choose natural, breathable material for sleeping.
What about Buying Organic Pajamas?
As I said before, in the ideal world we could all choose organic fabrics. This would reduce the number of pesticides released into our global environment and remove the possibility that those chemicals are off-gassing into our children’s spaces at night.
But do organic pajamas guarantee that there are no flame retardants?
It’s a pretty sure deal, but I’ve learned never to make assumptions. I still recommend reading all the words around the pajamas, always clicking “description” or “view details” and watching for those telltale signs.
If a company is worth their salt, they will assure you that they are not using flame-retardant chemicals. Anytime we make assumptions, we run the risk of making mistakes.
For example, I think a lot of people have this warm, fuzzy feeling about Hanna Andersson brand. Many assume that Hanna Andersson pajamas are all organic. They’re not. And in fact, some of them — the ones that don’t follow the rules above, like nightgowns — do use flame-retardant chemicals.
Again, I say read all the words.
Brands of Non-Flame-Retardant Pajamas
- Some, perhaps all, of Carter’s pajamas do not use flame retardants chemicals (avoid nightgowns)
- Hanna Andersson is still mostly safe (at Amazon, and through Rakuten for the best deals)
- Target carries enough tight-fitting pajamas that it’s worth your time to check there
- Burt’s Bees organic PJs (at Target, Amazon, and elsewhere)
- Seg’ments may have merino tops for older girls; check Poshmark and eBay
- Some robes I’ve found that seem to be untreated: polyester fleece, organic cotton, plush fleece
Buying safe pajamas for your kids shouldn’t be so hard. It’s difficult enough to get our children to stay in their beds, close their eyes, and fall asleep. We shouldn’t have to worry about what we dress them in at the beginning of our bedtime routine. Luckily, it won’t take long to train your eyes to see the words “flame resistant” and run the other direction.
What to Do Next for Safe Pajamas?
One, visit one of the retailers listed above.
Two, sign up for Rakuten and get a few more percent back on each purchase. You’ll also get $10 when you sign up.
Three, be sure to stick around as a member of the Kitchen Stewardship® community for more research and practical tutorials like this. Click here to get looped in.
Bottom Line on Avoiding Flame Retardant Pajamas
If you only have time to skim, read this summary!
- Flame retardants are in pajamas because certain fabrics were found to go up in flame really quickly, and way back in the 70s, kids tended to be near open flames just before bed (or were playing with matches before their parents woke up).
- Brands can satisfy the legislation by using flame retardant chemicals, providing tight-fitting pajamas, or using certain fabrics (mostly synthetics and wool) that are naturally fire-resistant enough.
- But flame retardant chemicals have been proven harmful time and time again. At least 3 classes of chemicals have ultimately been banned after use in children’s pajamas, proven to cause health issues like cancer, thyroid dysfunction, infertility, and even harming DNA.
- Watch for flame retardants in most fuzzy PJs, anything loose-fitting, all nightgowns, and many robes.
- The number of children suffering burn injuries in the US is minimal, far lower than new cancer diagnoses and less than half compared to child cancer deaths. This number has gone down since fire-resistant sleepwear legislation, but life has also changed, with fewer open flames for most children, including fewer parents smoking.
- Avoid flame retardant chemicals by seeking out the following (only need to satisfy one, not all): tight-fitting PJs, wool/merino, clothing not intended for sleepwear, sewing your own, and perhaps microfleece…
- But microfleece has troubles of its own, including melting and causing burns, non-breathability, potential dangers from plastics (polyester is plastic!), and releasing microplastics into the environment with every wash. Best to stick to natural, breathable fibers at bedtime.
- Organic sleepwear is nearly guaranteed to avoid fire retardants, but never make assumptions.
- Some brands are pretty safe, including most but not all Hanna Andersson, Carter’s, Primary, Pact, and Burt’s Bees.
Buying safe pajamas for your kids shouldn’t be so hard!
- McLoughlin, E., Clarke, N., Stahl, K., et al. (1998). One pediatric burn unit’s experience with sleepwear related injuries. Injury Prevention, 4, 313-316. Retrieved from https://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/4/4/313
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- The American Cancer Society. (2020, August 24). Key Statistics for Childhood Cancers. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-in-children/key-statistics.html
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- Mike. (2019, January 28). Nylon vs Polyester: Resistance to Water, Fire, Sun (UV) and Mildew. Retrieved from https://www.jasonmills.com/blog/index.php/2019/02/28/nylon-vs-polyester/
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- Parentco. (2016, November 26). Why Are We All So Terrified of Pajama Fires? Retrieved from https://www.parent.com/why-are-we-all-so-terrified-of-pajama-fires/
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