Those ‘forever chemicals’ on our furniture don’t actually prevent stains

April 7, 2023

When it comes to furniture, so-called forever chemicals have one job to do: repel oil and water to make textiles more stain-resistant. But a new study finds that, on top of the already established adverse health effects these chemicals have been known to cause, they can’t even do that one job properly, reports Fast Company.


The peer-reviewed study, published in th  AATCC Journal of Research, compared how six fabrics (three treated with forever chemicals; three, untreated) performed against two kinds of stains (coffee and oil-based salad dressing).


The result? The treated fabrics worked only marginally better at first, but had limited to no effectiveness after just a couple of years.


Forever chemicals, also known as PFAS (for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), have been around for decades and will be around for decades more. That’s because these particular types of human-made chemicals don’t break down naturally—meaning that they accumulate in water and soil, polluting the environment; and stack up in our bodies, increasing our risk of cancer, decreasing fertility rates, and more.


This year, more than a dozen U.S. states are implementing laws and regulations restricting the use of PFAS in food packaging and various textiles. But, for now, these chemicals can be found in a wide array of products, from your sofa to your nonstick pan to your lipstick.


 The study focused only on PFAS in furniture, but as Jonas LaPier, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and coauthor of the study, says: “To have a healthy suspicion of the touted performance benefits of PFAS compounds [more broadly] is a good strategy.”


 To be clear, when LaPier’s team conducted the study—pouring liquids onto fabrics, then using soap and warm water to clean them per standard recommendations—they found that treated fabrics did perform better than untreated ones, but only when the fabrics were brand-new (in other words, when no one had yet sat on them for any length of time, which, unless you bought that couch to simply look at it, means absolutely nothing).


 In a real-life scenario, when people dared to sit on their furniture, and, say, the fabric of their jeans rubbed against the fabric of the couch, the differences between a treated and untreated fabric were found to be negligible.


Indeed, on a 5-point scale, untreated fabrics scored a 4.2 regardless of how old the fabric was or how recently it had been stained. PFAS-treated fabrics, on the other hand, scored a 4.7 if the fabric was new and if the stain was wiped away immediately. But if the fabric was older and the stain already baked in, it scored a 3.9. (It’s hard to quantify how old is too old, but LaPier says the benefits of treating fabrics with PFAS last only half as long as the standard warranty for textiles and upholstery, which are typically covered for five years—so roughly two and a half years.)


The biggest difference in test results, LaPier says, came down to the type of fabric. And while the study wasn’t big enough for the team to confidently recommend one type of fabric over another, LaPier says that of the three types used (all sourced from textile company Maharam), a polyester that mimics the look and feel of wool performed the best, while a monochromatic polyester with a smooth surface performed the worst.


 Ultimately, one thing is clear: Forever chemicals are causing more harm than good on our upholstered items, and furniture companies should stop using them. As LaPier puts it: “It’s a clear case of nonessential use.”


Research contact: @FastCompany