The battle between odor and comfort is a vicious cycle: consumers purchase an article of clothing and wear it a few times. Eventually, much to the wearer’s dismay, odor sets in. They wash and wear the garment again and again–but the odor is there to stay.
Consumers are then faced with a choice: discomfort or ditching the garment altogether. While comfort is diminished by odor, odor fighting technologies in textiles can also affect the thermal comfort and hand of a garment. So, how can product developers both maximize comfort and minimize odor?
Of course, elusive odors on clothing don’t pop up out of nowhere. They build up as bacteria and eat away at the sweat on your skin, transforming it into pungent substances that settle into the fibers of garments. When they’re released, you smell them, and like most people, remain uncomfortable until the odor disappears.
Odor issues largely stem from material choice. Polyester’s popularity emerged because of its versatility, cost-effectiveness and ability to be produced in large quantities. While other options like cotton and wool can have natural odor-fighting properties, neither have quite the same moisture-wicking abilities, and neither can sustainably clothe a rapidly growing, global population. Nylon is also a tough contender but is far more expensive.
Benefits aside, polyester has a sizable flaw: it can get more smelly than other materials. However, the mechanisms behind attachment of odor molecules are still mostly unknown. Given the discomfort that comes with unpleasant odors, it’s no wonder odor control is a significant point of discussion.
One possible solution is changing the way polyester garments are washed: with hot water and immediately after wearing while the garment is still sweat-soaked. Since consumers are unlikely to change their behavior and frequent single washes aren’t exactly sustainable, it’s up to researchers to further advance odor-prevention methods while still ensuring a comfortable garment.
Currently, antimicrobials are the most common odor-fighting technology. They are used to prevent bacteria from metabolizing sweat and releasing unpleasant odors into the air. Antimicrobials can either be built into the master batch, such as with polyester chips, prior to extruding the fiber, or applied as a fabric finish.
To apply an antimicrobial finish, the textile is run through a finishing bath and coated. While coating may be more economical than infusing the master batch, coatings aren’t quite as durable and are better suited for performance wear than fashion.
Another risk with coatings involves comfort. Adding another layer of chemical coating can reduce the breathability and moisture-wicking properties of the garment, causing the wearer to sweat more, sooner, leading to the vicious cycle of more sweat, discomfort and odor.
Antimicrobials also come with concerns. Many fear that, since antimicrobials aren’t able to distinguish between good and bad bacteria, antimicrobial garments may have the potential to negatively impact wearers’ natural skin flora. Others have concerns over the possibility for antimicrobials to lose their effectiveness as bacteria adapt. While neither side effect has been directly proven, there is still a push for alternative odor management approaches.
One such alternative approach is adhesion. Odor adhesion technology is a promisingly durable method that attracts odor molecules like a magnet rather than fighting the bacteria that cause them. The odor molecules are trapped within the textile, preventing odor from being released into the air, thus preventing odor detection. When the garment is washed, the odor molecules are squeezed out of their pockets and released, resulting in a fresh garment time after time.
The new technology, though still applied as a chemical coating, could also have positive impacts on the environment and human health since it doesn’t employ biocides or heavy metals. The greatest concern so far is the effect of any coating on breathability and moisture wicking properties, and if it is actually more effective than antimicrobial coatings.
The relationship between comfort and odor remains a balancing act, and there’s still significant research to be done. Nevertheless, promising new technologies have the potential to offer a healthier, more sustainable solution to odor-fighting.
After studying chemistry with a special focus on textile and fiber chemistry at the University of Stuttgart, Dr. Beringer started his career as head of the Competence Center Innovative Textiles at Hohenstein. From 2009 to 2015 he was the head of research and development of the Department of Function and Care. Since 2016, Jan has led the Development of clothing physiology, fit and workmanship of garments, functionalization of fabrics, textile UV protection and textile reprocessing, mainly specializing in research and testing in the fields. Dr. Beringer has extensive knowledge in textile and fiber chemistry, functionalization, nanotechnology, coating and finishing and clothing physiology.