by Anna Karsten

Why Do Baby Clothes Need to Be Flame Resistant?

If you shop at Carter’s or Target for kids clothes you probably never knew about the laws concerning flame resistant laws for toddler clothing in the US (I’ll explain why is that in the article). It wasn’t until I started buying organic toddler clothing and bamboo that I was suddenly bombarded with bright yellow tags stating:

“For child’s safety, garment should fit snugly. This garment is not flame resistant. Loose-fitting garment is more likely to catch fire.”

The label pictured above is big and bright and seems a little alarming, but it’s the law for children’s sleepwear.

Before you freak out and get down into the rabbit hole of wondering whether your baby or toddler is safe, let me tell you that the law is pretty outdated and there’s a long story behind it. These yellow tags actually mean that the clothes are good for your child and you should be looking for them

As my first son spent his early toddlerhood in Europe I’ve never encountered these tags before we moved back. Why? Because this law is unique to the US (and parts of Canada), doesn’t exist anywhere else.

It’s called Flammable Fabrics Act and it’s actually very questionable. I actually didn’t expect it to be so bad, but while researching materials for this article I kept finding more and more things that made me question basically every single baby items – whether crib, car seat or clothing sold in the US.

Why do baby clothes need to be flame retardant?

What is the purpose of the children’s sleepwear flammability standards? Officially, it’s to protect children from burns, these rules require that children’s sleepwear must be flame resistant and self-extinguish if a flame from a candle, match, lighter, or a similar item causes it to catch fire. The rules cover all children’s sleepwear above size 9 months and up to size 14 and require that.

Many people get confused that the law includes baby items for newborns, but it does not. This is exactly why Carter’s Sleep & Play (footies) end at 6-9 months in size. The rest has to be labeled as “jumpsuit” and doesn’t mention any sleeping or might say “not suitable for sleeping”.

If you find a pajama or footie in size above 9 months without the yellow tag, do NOT buy it.

Why just pajamas though? Flame-resistant pajamas controversy

Excellent question. It doesn’t make any sense, especially considering the fact that in the US most parents keep kids in their cribs until they’re 3, so children don’t wander around and play on their own, unlike during the day.

According to stats kids get burn way more often in daywear than sleepwear. Only 90 kids (!) became burnt in their pajamas between 1980 and 1994. However, almost 5000 kids burned in their daywear while actually doing things around the house or outside.

It makes even less sense knowing that crib sheets nor sleep sacks are NOT subject to the Flammable Fabrics Act.


The real story behind the Flammable Fabrics Act

It starts in 1953 when a child burns during Halloween when his rayon pajamas and what causes hundreds of lawsuits that led to the establishment of The Flammable Fabrics Act.

Almost 20 years later, Congress passed the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act, which established the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and in ’75 added children’s fabrics, because certain fabrics were found to go up in flame really quickly causing children to burn. Ok, but why is that?

Back then smoking in bed was a leading cause of house fires.

In Europe, it caused people to pay closer attention to a potential fire risk, implemented maximum measurements for nightgowns’ width and pajamas have to be labeled with “Warning: KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE”. Due to some accidents with costumes, Halloween costumes and dress-up items must also be labeled that way.

But, not in the US.

To take the blame off cigarettes, Big Tobacco successfully pushed to add flame retardants to many products. In 1975, California passed a law requiring the use of flame retardants in furniture, bedding, and even pajamas for little ones, basically fireproofing the world instead of cigarettes.

What people didn’t know back then though is how toxic these flame retardant chemicals were, especially to babies and toddlers. It’s a threat far more dangerous than kids’ clothes potentially getting on fire. It’s so bad that many adults who grew up between 70s and 90s are still dealing with the consequences of it today (check out Toxic Hot Seat if you’re interested) and meanwhile kids were still being admitted to hospital with burns.

“We’re seeing effects on the developing reproductive system. In a population of children that have been exposed to flame retardants, those children have lower IQ, more difficulty in learning. Along with thyroid issues, cancer and other illnesses.” – quote from Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who also mentioned that flame resistants delay the fire by… 20 seconds at the most (AKA not very helpful).

Flame retardants have absolutely no functional purpose, they’re just toxics we’re loading our kids with.

In fact, some can cause more harm especially in car seats. Flame retardants can become acutely hazardous when they burn. When foam containing pentaBDE (abrominated FR) burned in one study, for example, it produced twice as much smoke, seven times as much carbon monoxide, and 70 times as much soot as foam without flame retardants. It was also found that a typical foam containing pentaBDE provided only a three-second delay.

Are flame retardants in car seats necessary? Has the requirement for car seats to comply with FMVSS 302 saved lives and prevented injuries?

NHTSA cannot say. The agency has never evaluated the effectiveness of the rule as it applies to car seats
due to a lack of relevant data (NHTSA Technical Report). Yes, you read that correctly, unfortunately.


Every adult in the US contains flame retardants, it’s even in breast milk because we’re constantly exposed to this sh*t (literally). Babies born in the U.S. today have the highest recorded blood serum levels of fire retardants in the world!

Clothing-related burns are rare, but the consequences of exposures to flame retardants are not.

These chemicals are known to be toxic and cause cancer. In fact, materials with flame retardants produce dioxins and furans, which are much more toxic than the fumes released from ordinary material burning.

They’re banned in Europe altogether and many parents would rather take the risk of an unlikely fire than purposedly expose their kids to toxic chemicals. Our children are already constantly exposed to things with flame retardants since car seats, various crib mattresses or toys are soaked in them (there is only a handful of car seats that aren’t sprayed with chemicals).

So while in the US if you want to buy your toddler a fuzzy footie in size above 9 months you need to basically soak in the Coke to get rid of the chemical and wash it in soap various times to remove most of it (it still doesn’t fully get rid of the chemicals). It makes zero sense.


Baby Pajamas Without Flame Retardant

The law gives a loophole for not using flame retardants on clothes – it must be either:

  • made of certain non-flammable materials
  • be snug fitting

If you see these yellow tags about snug fit on clothing it’s a good thing! They mean that the clothing is free from toxic flame retardants. But on the other hand, if you have a chunky child – seriously good luck because it can be painfully tight in arms and legs.

Which materials fall into the flame-resistant category? For example, polyester but in reality it’s not so simple. Polyester is a chemically made fabric. Because this is at the material manufacturing stage, companies who sell children’s sleepwear might not know what chemicals or processes are used to render the polyester flame resistant. They just know that they haven’t added flame retardant chemicals, and therefore can market them as having no added flame retardants (although actually made polyester nightgowns on the market are sprayed with flame retardants anyway).

It’s a similar thing as some companies labeling “bamboo clothing” as organic, but it’s far from it. Bamboo the plant is organic, but the material is rayon/viscose and chemicals are needed to produce it which makes it semisynthetic textile. While the clothes aren’t sprayed with chemicals, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any that have been used in production and persist in the material.

If you want to dress your child in real eco non-toxic clothes, organic cotton is the best choice. It’s obviously more expensive, but surely more worth it than taking the risk of exposing your child to long-term health problems.


How does snug fit help?

From 1996 a new loophole exists in the law – snug fit allows the brand not to use chemicals. Tight-fitting pajamas are less flammable because fires need oxygen to burn. So if there is no air between the child’s skin and the fabric, the fire gets less oxygen.

The thing is… any loose edges could potentially catch on fire, there are very specific rules that define a snug fit. This is why certain items are classified as “loungewear” and sold with a label saying  “Not intended for children’s sleepwear”.

Great, but if your child is sleeping in a sleep sack/bag then it basically doesn’t help at all as they’re loose to allow leg movement.

There’s good news though: smoke alarms and increased fire safety standards have made fires one of the LEAST likely ways for your baby to be injured by burning.


Unfortunately, all decisions aren’t as easy as selecting organic cotton pajamas, because these toxic chemicals are put in basically everything – from car seats, crib mattresses, toys – even the chewable ones!

Parents should try to avoid buying baby products that have polyurethane foam and a TB117 label, which indicates the product meets the flammability standards set by the California Technical Bulletin 117. These products are likely to contain flame retardants even though they likely don’t pose a fire hazard (according to what researchers say), but can give your child and your long-term side effects.

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