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Functional Fabric | More than meets the eye

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

By: Dr. Erum Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD


What are textiles?

What is fabric? What is cloth? Why do textiles matter to your skin? What is a functional textile? What are examples of functions that these textiles are meant to achieve? How is each of these effects achieved?

What are textiles?

A textile is a material made using fibers from natural and/or artificial sources. These fibers are brought together through the process of weaving or knitting via different methods to create different feels, textures, strengths, and functions.

Textiles are not just used to make clothing, they can be used for carpets, upholstery, and other materials.

What is fabric? What is cloth?

Often the terms fabric and cloth are used interchangeably when referencing materials. These terms generally refer to the material made by weaving or knitting fibers together for the purpose of creating a textile used for clothing, bed sheets, tablecloths, and curtains, amongst other items, however, these terms are routinely used interchangeably with textiles. Although not a part of the official definition, the term cloth generally denotes a material that is thinner and lighter in weight than other materials.

In general, in the context of materials, cloth, fabric, and textile reference products are used for the function of covering, adorning, decorating, and/or protecting.

Why do textiles matter to your skin?

Take a moment to think about a day in the life of your skin. Your skin is your body’s largest organ. More than 95% of your body surface area comes into contact with textiles - in some way, shape, or form - at some point during the course of the day. I left off about 5% potentially for the surface area of skin blocked by the hair on the scalp for many people. These textiles can take the form of clothing, lining of your shoes, bedsheets, carpet, upholstery of furniture, the covering of your steering wheel, towels, and so on and so on. Although we often think about skin care products to apply to our skin to either help manage or treat skin conditions or, conversely, as the potential cause for skin problems, my patients rarely consider the role of textiles found all around them.

What is a functional textile?

A functional textile is considered a textile that, in addition to being woven or knit together to produce a material, has also integrated a specific purpose or function through different methods. This can be integrated through a chemical process of impregnating, bonding, and/or finishing the textile with a chemical or agent. By doing so, the textile takes on a specific purpose. This specific functionality and durability of the textile can be verified through a testing process. It is important to note that it is not always necessary to treat a textile with these agents to achieve the same purpose.

What are examples of functions that these textiles are meant to achieve?

Functional textiles are starting to permeate the fashion industry through different claims and purposes. Fashion and style traditionally imply a form of self-expression through clothing and accessories and can reflect an era, culture, and/or state of mind. Increasingly, consumers are seeking more sustainability in the fashion industry while companies seek to offer a value proposition beyond just style or design in their offerings.

In terms of clothing items, the functional textile claims may include:

Sun protective textiles, Cooling textiles, Antimicrobial textiles, Odor management, Moisture wicking, Skin hydration, Flame retardant, Water repellant, Wind Resistant, Insect repellant

How is each of these effects achieved?

Sun protective textiles

Sun protective textiles are designed to block UVA and UVB from affecting the skin. Although every textile can offer some UV blocking capabilities as a result of physically blocking UV as a barrier, the amount of UV blocking can vary considerably based on the weave, construction, and finishes used. There are two methods of ensuring UV blockage from a textile:

Construction of the textile with fibers that naturally block UV based on the quality and integrity of these fibers and the weave or knit process.

Impregnating, bonding, and/or finishing the textile with UV chemical finishes intended to add UV blocking capabilities that the fabric lacked.

Although both methods may achieve UV protection, the challenge with added finishes is that the laundering process can gradually reduce their concentration in the garment as well as release these chemicals into the water supply.

Cooling textiles

Cooling textiles generally act by regulating sweat evaporation or absorption. Our body’s natural cooling mechanism or innate ability to cool down is based on the production of sweat that then evaporates off the skin and cools it down. Textiles that function to do so can work in a couple of ways.

The construction of the textile can result in the ability to wick away moisture from our skin to speed the cooling mechanism that sweat plays in bringing our temperature down. There is often a fine layered construction that allows the sweat to move through the fabric through osmotic pressure and the capillary action between the layers. By doing so the moisture is not just absorbed by the fabric, it is actually released into the air.

The other way this can be achieved is through producing textiles with crystals embedded in the construction of the textile. These crystals serve a similar role. They absorb sweat to allow the skin to cool quickly.

These fabrics are effective and much more comfortable to wear for those that deal with excess body heat, hot flashes, or spend a lot of time outdoors.

Antimicrobial textiles

Antimicrobial textiles do not generally make the claim to treat or prevent disease in humans. There is clearly an assumption on the part of consumers that if the textile is antimicrobial it may be less likely to transmit disease. However, the claim specifically applies only to the textile itself. This means that the textile is treated with agents that inhibit the overgrowth of microorganisms on the textile itself. If the product makes a claim to benefit a human with regard to infection risk, then it would be regulated by the FDA. The Treated Articles Exemption Act from the Environmental Protection Agency excludes treated textiles from FDA regulation based on the claims made. See below for odor management textiles for more details.

These textiles can have anti microbial embedded into the fibers such as metal ions or treated with an anti-microbial finish.

The most common metal ions used are:

Silver, Zinc, Copper, Cobalt

The most common finishes include:

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QACs): These are effective but do not bond well to textiles, Triclosan, Chitosan: derived from the exoskeleton of crustaceans

Plant-based antimicrobials include:

Terpenoids, Lectins and Polypeptides, Flavonoids, Quinones, Tannins, Coumarins

It is important to note that the term anti microbial is generally meant in these cases to reference bacteria and fungi. Although there may be activity against other organisms such as mold, mildew, and potentially viruses, it is best to avoid assuming this to be the case unless specified.

Odor Management

Odor management is not a claim regulated by the FDA but is considered an intended use of antimicrobial textiles. By reducing the buildup of bacteria in the garment, the goal is to minimize the odor produced. If a pair of yoga pants states that it will be less likely to produce odor, this claim is reasonable to make with these textiles and regulated by the EPA based on the textiles used. If the yoga pants claim to reduce the chances of getting folliculitis or jock itch, this claim would be regulated by the FDA.

Moisture Wicking

Moisture wicking references the ability of a textile to wick moisture away from the body. This is achieved through textile engineering and construction that makes use of the capillary action of the textile to pull moisture through small channels and spaces created within the construction of the fabric to draw moisture towards the exterior of the fabric and allow it to evaporate away.

Skin Hydration

Microencapsulation of mineral oils such as argan oil, vitamin E, shea butter, and other hydrating components have been integrated into textiles to potentially aid in hydration of the skin and retention of hydration in the skin.

Flame Retardant

There is a long history behind flame retardants and pajamas. In 1953, the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA) was passed to regulate highly flammable fabrics such as children’s pajamas, upholstery, carpets, and certain textiles. In the 1970s, brominated and chlorinated flame retardants were identified as mutagenic to DNA and carcinogenic. These were replaced with newer brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. These newer options have been found to persist and accumulate in the environment, house dust, and in people and wildlife. There is data that is accumulating showing that these compounds can be carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic, and endocrine-disrupting.

Water Repellant

Water repellant textiles are generally tightly woven followed by coating with a hydrophobic finish to repel water. These finishes can sometimes be challenging in that they can potentially make the fabric less breathable.

Wind Resistant

Nylon can be coated with polyurethane or neoprene coated nylon and polyester can be coated with PVC to make it wind resistant.

Insect Repellant

Textiles treated with permethrin, DEET, ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate, and other insect repellants can be used to make the textile repel insects from the wearer.

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