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Fire, Water, Molecular Bonds: The Science Behind Your Wrinkled Clothes


Wrinkles are as much a part of life as death, taxes, and long lines at the DMV. While annoyingly rumpled shirts and slacks might be the least depressing kind of wrinkles (compared, you know, to the crow's feet around your eyes, marking the slow march towards the inevitable void), they may also be the most irritating.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between SWASH and Studio@Gawker.

Fortunately, these are also the kind of wrinkles that we can easily do something about. Humans have been fighting the battle against disheveled dressing for years by analyzing and attacking wrinkles at a molecular level. So what's in a wrinkle? And how can they be defeated once and for all? For a long time the answer to that second question had more to do with a morgue than with laundry detergent, but it's 2014, and technologies like the SWASH 10-minute clothing care system have brought us into much less morbid territory.


There's Something in the Water

The science behind wrinkles is actually quite simple. The main causes of wrinkling in clothing are heat and water. Both synthetic and organic fabric is made up of molecules that are linked together by bonds, and when your clothing gets warm or wet, these molecular bonds are broken. When it cools down again or dries, new bonds form, causing wrinkles. While that may look good on a rumpled college professor, it might not be exactly the style you're going for.


Certain fabrics — such as wool, nylon, and polyester — have what is called a "glass transition temperature." When the fabric is exposed to high temperatures, its crystalline polymers (another way to say chains of molecules) are broken. When the fabric cools down again, it enters its "glass phase," and new polymer bonds form, locking it into a wrinkled state. Cotton, rayon, and linen molecules, on the other hand, are linked together by hydrogen bonds. When these fabrics get wet the bonds are broken, and when they dry new bonds form, again making your crispy new white button-down shirt wrinkle like a pruney fingertip.

Permanent Press is So in the Past

You're probably familiar with the term "permanent press." You know, it's that setting on your washer/dryer dial that you've never used...but it actually plays an important role in the history of wrinkles. Ruth Rogan Benerito was a chemist who, in the late '50s, led a team of scientists that figured out how to make wrinkle-free cotton (called, you guessed it, permanent press), at a time when the development of synthetic fabrics threatened to wreak havoc on cotton farming. Formaldehyde was the key to eliminating the need for ironing, with the added perk of making your shirt occasionally smell like a morgue. Today, the amount of formaldehyde in permanent press clothing has been reduced significantly, but some people, understandably, prefer to keep their clothing as free as possible from dead-body-preserving-additives.


Fighting the Modern Battle

Fortunately, wrinkle-fighting technology didn't end in the era of black-and-white television. The latest product to combat the scourge of rumpled, decidedly un-fresh-to-death clothing is called the SWASH system. This unique in-home system functions kind of like a mini dry-cleaner in your bedroom. Simply hang your clothing on the compact pullout rack, insert a SWASH PODS cup into the top, close it up and let 'er rip. SWASH sprays your clothing with a combination of water and pH neutralizer, and then dries it at about 190 degrees. In ten minutes, your shirt or pants come out smelling fresh and will be pleasantly smooth, warm, and wrinkle-free.


The SWASH system isn't meant to fix extremely wrinkled clothing, so if your wet blouse has been balled up in a corner of your bedroom for a few days, you still might want to break out the iron or pay a visit to the local dry cleaner. But for lightly wrinkled clothing that you need to get ready quickly for work or date night, SWASH does the trick. Because hey, even if your lifestyle, demeanor, love life and/or face are rumpled and wrinkled, there's no reason your clothes have to be.

Jonah Flicker is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY covering food, drink, music, film, and lifestyle.


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