You know that strong smell you get when you unroll a new rug or install new carpet? Some folks call that the “new rug” or “new carpet” smell and don’t think much more of it. I call it a “chemical shit storm” and start waving my arms around like I just tripped over a hornet’s nest.
I really don’t know how folks can stay in the room before it’s been aired out. But maybe they would, if they knew what that stink really was. Well, I know that stink first hand…
My childhood visits to the textile factory
Growing up, my father ran a knitting mill in New Jersey that manufactured all sorts of polyester and poly-blends for the fashion industry and for home decor. I used to love watching the knitting machines as they pulled the yarn from dozens of reels at a time, feeding them up to these mechanical arms that spun around and around, and making the fabric come to life. It was magical.
Magical and a bit smelly, though usually tolerable, depending on which kind of yarn they were spinning that day. Plus, I’d get used to it after a while and watching the process was so cool, it was worth it.
Next on my dad’s rounds was the inspection area, which smelled just like the yarn department. But then we’d head into the dye house. Or maybe it was the finishing department, I forget. But aaaagggghhhh!! I always hoped my dad’s status updates (or whatever he was doing) would go faster. It was beyond awful and I always felt so badly for the guys working there, even though they didn’t seem to be bothered in the least.
Anyway, we’d have to walk through a darker part of the factory to get to that particular area and I remember knowing whenever we were getting close, because my eyes would start to burn like crazy. And once we did arrive, I couldn’t stop from pinching my nose and holding my breath, taking in little gasps through my sweatshirt whenever I had to, but never more than I had to. The guys who ran the machines would be sitting there, smoking their cigarettes, and laughing at me, like it was cute.
I mean, I was definitely cute, I’ll admit. (Seriously cute.) But this? This was not cute.
This, my friends, is the reality of making polyester and other synthetic textiles. It’s chemical after chemical from yarn to dye to finishing. It is toxic. It is gnarly. We wear it on our bodies, we walk on it daily, and we lay down on it, when we’re watching tv. And if you have kids – especially babies and toddlers – well, they’re rolling in it nearly all day long and they are breathing in its fumes.
Yep, there are fumes… long after you’ve stopped smelling them, I’m afraid.
What’s in your rug?
The vast majority of today’s rugs and carpets are made from polyester, polypropylene, acrylic, nylon, or other synthetic materials that are laden with toxins. They are typically dyed with chemical colorants and backed with synthetic rubber, PVC, and chemical adhesives. And most are treated with formaldehyde, pesticides, and other chemicals to make them stain proof, moth repellent, fire retardant, and water repellent.
Like I said, it’s a chemical shit storm.
We’ll talk about the healthier alternatives in just a sec, but just so you know… even cotton, wool, and other natural materials can be grown organically, but then manufactured with chemicals at any stage. From the yarn fibers to the finished rug or carpet, it all matters.
Whether the original fibers were natural and synthetic, the manufacturing counts because the fumes may only smell awful for the first few days, but they can continue to leach into your home and pollute your indoor air for years.
Healthier rug and carpet options
Ideally, you want your family walking & laying on rugs or carpets that have been made from natural materials, whose fibers were grown (or raised, if we’re talking about sheep’s wool) without pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical inputs. You’d also want to make sure the yarn, fabric, and finished products were manufactured without harsh chemicals.
Examples of healthier rug and carpet materials include (chemical-free): cotton, wool, seagrass, mohair, jute, or sisal. These materials are beautiful in their natural state (undyed) or buy them naturally dyed using plant-based colorants such as indigo, henna, and root bark.
Also, when possible, choose rugs that are free from glues (usually found on rugs with trim). And look for rug and carpet backings that are made from hemp, cotton, or natural latex, instead of PVC or petroleum-based latex.
How do you know it’s safe?
Rugs and carpets that are certified organic offer some peace of mind in this respect, as they do cover every stage from fiber to finishing. The big names in certified textiles include OEKO-TEX, Greenguard, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
Nice to know: While Greenguard and OEKO-TEX are focused solely on production, GOTS goes even further to cover the social aspects of manufacturing, such as worker safety, fair wages, and child-free labor.
That said, it is worth noting that the organic certification is unfortunately expensive. As a result, so are the rugs, carpets, and other textiles that have been certified as organic.
As a result, some brands mindfully source their fibers and fabrics from partners that follow organic practices but do not hold the organic certification. These thoughtful brands also go on to manufacture the textiles into rugs and carpet without the use of harmful chemicals.
I always check the ‘about’ page on the brand’s website to read about their sourcing and to learn about their manufacturing process. Certified or not, if the brand makes a specific claim about where their materials come from and how they have been produced, their statements have to hold up to FTC scrutiny. So if they are transparent enough to share this detailed information — especially when they are accompanied by photos or video of their partners and processes — then I am apt to believe them.
To be clear, if the brand dances around their sourcing and manufacturing by just saying it’s “ethical” or uses other vague language that they do not clarify or back up with details, then I am suspicious. The word “ethical” alone isn’t enough for the FTC to enforce. You have to make specific claims.
I want to support brands that are doing things the right way – thoughtfully and truly ethically – whether they are paying for a certification or not.
Rug & carpet care
We track a lot of stuff into our homes. Be sure to vacuum your rugs and carpets at least once a week and wash them regularly to minimize any contaminants from dust, mites, and whatever the cat (or kids) drag in.
It’s worth noting that vacuum cleaners with a sealed HEPA filter do a better job of maintaining your indoor air quality by trapping dust particles inside the machine vs. blowing dust around the room, as non-HEPA vacuums often do.
Also, for removing stains naturally, try vinegar, baking soda, or good ol’ club soda. Enzyme-based stain removers are also great. Just check the label to make sure they do not also contain unwanted chemicals.