Even one day when mask-wearing may be a thing of the past, chances are many of us will be more mindful of how we live. This includes how we interact with others and what we do to avoid germs. That’s where antimicrobial fabrics come in. And although the technology to produce these products isn’t new, that tech is turning up in more and more types of clothing.
“Antimicrobial fabrics are already in use in so many areas of our modern-day lives,” says Terry T.L. Au-Yeung, PhD, chief technology officer of the mask company, AM99 Mind Beauty. “They have traditionally been reserved for specific uses, but with the latest global health concerns, there is an emergence of antimicrobial products across the board. This includes things like outerwear clothing with an added layer of protection for when you take public transportation or hospital textiles such as curtains and bedding where one-time sterilization may no longer be enough to prevent infections,” he says.
Learn more about what exactly is an antimicrobial fabric, plus how effective it is at killing germs, and what to know before you buy.
Microbes (also called microorganisms) are microscopic living things found in water, soil, and air. The most common types are bacteria, viruses, and fungi. There are a few things that have to happen before something can be called “antimicrobial.” First, you need an agent that is non-toxic to the consumer and the environment but which protects against certain microorganisms. This can be something that is either man-made or a naturally occurring agent.
For example, copper was registered as the first solid antimicrobial material by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2008, which is why it’s widely being used in everything from medical settings to even copper-infused face masks to protect against Covid-19. “If a chemical kills anything, including fungus, insects, pests, microbes, or bacteria, it has to be regulated by the EPA,” says Jeff Strahan, director of research, compliance, and sustainability at Milliken & Company, a textile manufacturer. “The company has to show the EPA extensive data, including what strains they used the antimicrobial agent on and what it did.” Once the EPA determines the efficacy and safety of the chemical, it becomes a registered agent in its database.
When a textile, such as a mask or a pair of socks, is called antimicrobial, it’s important to pay attention to the claim that the product is making. If the EPA grants a company permission to use an approved chemical on textiles to fight a specific microbe, it means the material itself is protected-not the person wearing it, explains Strahan. The goal is to prevent odors in the product-not infections in the wearer. “For example, by itself, polyester or cotton doesn’t kill any microbes, but once you apply that chemical agent to the fabric, it then becomes an antimicrobial against the fabric it’s applied to only.”
It may seem like the terms antimicrobial and antibacterial could be interchangeable, but that’s not the case. Bacteria is just one common type of microbe. “All antimicrobial fabrics are antibacterial but not all microbes are bacteria,” says Au-Yeung. It is important to recognize that these are blanket terms that may not necessarily guarantee an effect against the bugs you’re worried about, he says. “Microbes are a much larger class than just bacteria,” adds Strahan. “And even if something says it’s antimicrobial or antibacterial, that doesn’t mean it’s killing all microbes and/or bacteria. It’s only working against the isolated strains it was designed for.”
Strahan says because there is no government-approved antiviral test that can be done on soft surfaces (like clothes and towels), companies cannot legally directly state that any textile is antimicrobial in its name or any of its promotional copy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy antimicrobial fabrics; just be smart about what kind of product you’re buying and manage your expectations accordingly. Hospital curtains, for example typically have antimicrobial properties in order to help protect the curtain from possibly passing or harboring germs and bacteria from different patients and staff members in and out of rooms.
From a consumer standpoint socks, gym apparel, and bamboo towels are all common items that may have antimicrobial agents used on them. This means that these items may help prevent stains and odors because of what was used on the textile and through the EPA’s treated article exemption. This is not because the fabrics themselves are antimicrobial.
“As scientists continue to work together with the federal government, how we test for viruses on soft surfaces will continue to improve and become more standardized,” says Strahan. “This will help how we can talk about antimicrobial fabrics and what they can and cannot do when it comes to interacting with germs and bacteria.” Until then, it’s important to remember that the best ways to stay safe from viruses and germs (including Covid-19) is to frequently wash your hands, continue to wear a mask, and practice social distancing.