By Ivory King
Technology has impacted textiles and fashion in very uneven ways. Digital and 3D printing, flexible circuits, garments that charge up a battery by wearing them - these all exist. But much of this is either in fashion collections as high, barely wearable art or the prototype stage. Far fewer are the innovations that have come to clothes that actually are usable on a day-to-day basis, and make life better and easier for us and our families. But there are a few technologies that are making an impact on the fabric of the garments we wear to workout, have adventures and experience nature.
How many of these new add-ins actually improve our wellness? One of the most popular of these is silver, which is sometimes added to activewear, underwear and socks because of its antimicrobial qualities. This means less bacteria, fungi or other tiny nasties can grow on the fabric, even after several washes. Anti-odor and longevity of clothing can make silver seem like a sweet deal, and it means that clothes keep their own shape better since they don’t have to be washed as often and don’t stay stinky as some well-worn workout wear can even when it’s freshly laundered. But the particles have been shown to have potentially troublesome environmental effects, especially when clothes eventually wear out and end up in a landfill. Does that mean all infused fabric might be eco-not-so-friendly?
Other substances can be woven into or added to clothing - not just circuits, antennae or nanosilver. Companies have been experimenting with lower-tech add-ons to their collections that complement what type of clothing they manufacture. Some outdoor lines are incorporating insect repellant, and loungewear can now come with skin-softening oils and aloe.
Can clothing actually provide skin-softening and anti-aging effects? It seems to good to be true - and by most accounts it is. Big brands have been selling base layers with camellia or argan oil for a while, but it just isn’t possible for these benefits to stick around for more than a few washes. However, the insect repellant claims seem to be more grounded in truth. Pre-treated protective wear is indeed more effective than just spraying your skin, and the permethrin that some clothes come with does stay for multiple washes.
Sun protection is another feature that can be added to clothing. This is welcome news as some sunscreens are being blacklisted from all-natural shopping lists due to those dreaded, aforementioned nano-particles or chemical ingredients. These substances are also pretty devastating for the environment as well - evidenced by Hawaii planning to ban sunscreens with oxybenzone or octinoxate in order to protect its coral population. This leaves the ingredients that physically block the sun’s rays - zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which can leave a white cast to the skin but are much better and effective.
But one can get the benefits of physical sunblock without the streaky stuff - with sun protective (UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor) clothing. Besides a wide brim hat and glasses, SPF/UPF clothing is easier to wield than the creams and lotions - just put it on once and you don’t even have to reapply. This gets even more exciting when it comes to babies and little kids - who should get even less (if any) direct sunlight without protection, and upon whom it is even more challenging to apply a good coating of the stuff, even with those handy sprays.
Adult selections for protective clothing come in a fair variety of styles these days, and they skew in the direction of travel-friendly casual wear and beachwear, of course. The material itself is woven differently - regular cotton clothing can have a UPF rating of anywhere from 5 to 9, generally, but protective clothing is often at least 30 UPF, though some brands go up to 50, or even 100 UPF. Some of these brands engineer the fabric itself to be sun resistant, others add treatments to the fabric - which you can actually do at home with laundry treatments - Rit makes a product called Sun Guard for non-synthetic fabrics.
Some of the products that are added to clothing increase its appeal by also increasing what it can do. Practically speaking, all the more in depth reviews of these types of garments do judge that they aren’t replacements for the products themselves - but they do make insect repellent, sunscreen and to a limited extent, body lotion, more effective. There is also the risk-benefit assessment of the chemicals that are sometimes involved in these products, especially with permethrin that can be found in that outdoor gear. But since most of these add-ons are meant to limit exposure to what we are already going out of our way to avoid, they might be worth a little longer of an ingredient list - but perhaps not for everyone. That is a personal decision we hope you will be a little better informed to make.