Antimicrobial fabrics have been in use in medical applications for a long time, and antimicrobial activewear has been around for a little while, too. But since the beginning of the pandemic, more and more clothing brands have been using antimicrobial textiles to make their garments.
Manufacturers claim that antimicrobial fabrics can kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi and that they can protect us from getting sick. But can they really? Antimicrobial fabric has been found to be effective against some bacteria and viruses. While antimicrobial fabric may not be able to kill any bacteria or virus, it can kill a wide swath of the ones you’re most likely to encounter, such as the COVID-19 virus or the bacteria that cause body odor.
What Makes Fabrics Antimicrobial?
Clothing manufacturers typically make clothing antimicrobial by treating it or coating it with nanoparticles of metal oxides or metals. Metals used might include gold or silver, copper, tin, or zinc. In healthcare settings, impregnating fabrics with silver or copper nanoparticles has been found to be the most effective solution for keeping fabrics sanitary. Many clothing manufacturers also use metals to render fabric antimicrobial. Zinc nanoparticles are a popular choice but higher-end brands do use copper and silver.
There are plenty of other antimicrobial treatments that can be successfully applied to fabric to prevent the spread of germs. Natural compounds have been extracted from plants. Extracts of animal products, like honey, have also been used to create antimicrobial fabric. Different treatments will be more effective for different kinds of microbes, including different kinds of bacteria and viruses.
How Do Antimicrobial Fabrics Work?
Most antimicrobial fabric works by poisoning microbes that come into contact with it. Antimicrobial treatments like zinc and silver nanoparticles can disrupt a virus’s lipid envelope, sucking all the cholesterol out of it and leaving the interior of the virus exposed. Not all viruses have a lipid envelope, but COVID-19 and many other common viruses do. As far as bacteria go, many antimicrobial fabrics don’t outright kill bacteria, but they can keep it from reproducing. Some treatments will actually cause the fabric to release chemical compounds that keep microbes away, while others will only act against microbes that come into contact with the treated fibers.
Most antimicrobial fabrics used in clothing aren’t going to kill bacteria, viruses, and other microbes right away. It could take up to 10 minutes for them to die. However, antimicrobial fabrics will still last longer without bacteria growing in them, and they won’t need to be washed as often because they won’t smell.
When Should You Use Antimicrobial Fabrics?
Antimicrobial fabrics are useful in many situations. For example, antimicrobial outdoor gear is a good idea because things you wear outdoors come in contact with so many sources of microbes. Think about a jacket that you wear on the subway every day – you might want the extra layer of protection for fabric that is brushing up against everyone else’s jackets. Any gear that you wear outdoors a lot is going to come into contact with spores and other microbes in the soil or even in the air. And you don’t always wash your coats or other outdoor gear regularly, so it makes sense for it to have antimicrobial properties. Antimicrobial fabrics will keep your stuff from getting musty and moldy in storage, too.
You might also want to consider looking for activewear made with antimicrobial performance fabrics. The antimicrobial treatment kills the bacteria that cause body odor, so your clothes at least won’t smell while you’re working out. Garments made with antimicrobial fabric will remain fresh for longer, even if you can’t wash them in very hot water because they’re polyester.
Many companies are selling antimicrobial face masks, and it’s hard to see why that’s a bad idea. You’re most likely to catch COVID-19 by talking to an unmasked person, but if you’re wearing an antimicrobial mask, any droplets that land on your mask will be neutralized by the antibacterial coating. It’s just an extra layer of protection for those of us that are still cautious about going to the grocery store.
Antimicrobial fabrics may not be able to protect you from viruses all on their own, but they’re a good weapon in the fight against infectious disease. They may be able to keep your clothes and outdoor gear looking and smelling fresh, even without frequent washing. That way you can focus more on living your life, and less on what you might have been exposed to.