If you’ve begun hearing about antimicrobial technology, you may be wondering how it works. You may also be curious about how the technology works for different types of apparel, for example antimicrobial socks and tights as well as face masks. How did this kind of textile technology come to be, and how effective will it be for your everyday protection against disease?
Regular cloth face masks and gloves may provide a barrier against possibly contaminated communal surfaces, but they become unsanitary after a single use and will need to be replaced or washed. However, some antimicrobial textile treatments today, like those that make use of nanotechnology, can destroy or neutralize microbes almost immediately after contact with the fabric. This effectively makes them self-sanitizing and truly reusable.
How exactly do these antimicrobial fabrics work? The fact that they’re able to destroy microbes without the need for a separate chemical disinfectant seems to be in the realm of science fiction. But the technology is real, and it’s actually been in place for some time. Paired with the best health practices for keeping yourself safe from disease, like washing your hands, antimicrobial textiles can be used for on-the-go protection. But they can also be worn with the same comfort and familiarity as ordinary clothes.
Here’s a short guide with all you need to know about antimicrobial fabrics, from their conception to their use today.
A Brief History of Antimicrobial Fabrics
The first “antimicrobial” fabrics were not made to kill microbes on purpose, nor were they used to protect people from them. After all, our ancestors wouldn’t have had any concept of microbiology centuries ago. Instead, primitive antimicrobial technology was intended to preserve textiles. This was crucial as the handmade cloth available to our ancestors was quite labor-intensive to make and could rot when improperly stored.
The linens used to wrap mummies, for example, were treated with a resin that impeded bacterial and fungal growth. Other civilizations also developed their unique methods of preserving fabrics over the years, most of which relied on either the specific properties of the materials used or treatments with herbs, spices, and other natural substances.
The development of antimicrobial fabric technology continued in the 20th century, thanks to the demands of different militaries and space agencies. The methods used often became ineffective after a few washes and were sometimes hazardous to humans—issues that would be addressed in contemporary fabrics.
Types of Antimicrobial Technology
As with historical methods, two methods are broadly used to create antimicrobial fabrics. These methods may be combined to enable a fabric to destroy a broader spectrum of bacteria, fungi, and viruses for longer periods.
One method is to create a fabric that inherently retards the growth of microorganisms. This can be done by infusing particles of silver or copper into the threads. Other materials such as charcoal can also be infused into a fabric for a broadly similar effect.
Another method, such as what’s used to make, uses a chemical treatment that strongly binds to textile fibers to inhibit microbial growth. Modern treatments allow fabrics to maintain an effective antimicrobial action even after repeated washings, including multiple dry cleanings, as is the case with. This type of technology can be applied to virtually any fabric type to effectively make it self-sanitizing.
Are Modern Antimicrobial Fabrics Safe to Use?
The answer to this question is yes. So long as the fabric is sourced from reputable textile innovators and apparel companies, antimicrobial garments such as socks, tights, hand protectors, and face masks are safe to use. The main difference between historical antimicrobial fabrics and modern varieties is that new types are specifically designed to be safe for humans, and not just meant to keep fabric from rotting in storage.
Modern antimicrobial fabrics are routinely used in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Uses include dressings, beddings, curtains, and virtually every application where fabrics need to be able to resist contamination by harmful microorganisms. Soon, clothes treated with antimicrobial agents may become standard for use in the prevention of odors and cross-contamination of surfaces on manned space vessels on long space flights.
Today’s apparel and accessories made with antimicrobial textile treatments have something in common with the linens used to wrap ancient Egyptian mummies and the clothes astronauts and Mars colonists may soon be wearing. Not only are these modern products safe to wear, their antimicrobial properties can linger for repeated washings as well, making them the most sustainable alternative to single-use as well as low-priced, but low-quality products.
The next time you go shopping for clothes, consider items that have built-in antimicrobial properties. These will be safe and durable for you to wear, as well as a breeze to incorporate into your everyday ensemble.