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What Are Antimicrobial Fabrics (and Do They Work)?

A woman wearing a face mask to protect herself from infection.
Victoria Chudinova/Shutterstock

Wondering if it’s worth it to buy antimicrobial clothing and face masks? Here’s a closer look at how these fabrics work, and what they can (and can’t) do.

There are no simple solutions when it comes to suiting up to protect yourself from a pandemic-level viral outbreak. After all, if such a thing existed, we’d all be doing it. Still, it seems logical that microbe-resistant fabrics for face masks and clothing might help keep you safe.

Let’s take a look at what antimicrobial fabrics are capable of, and whether they’re worth tracking down.

How Do Antimicrobial Fabrics Work?

Since fabrics can trap moisture and offer a large surface area, they’re often hotbeds of microbial growth. That’s why antimicrobial fabrics were developed—to prevent microbes from thriving on certain materials.

There are a number of different antimicrobial fabrics, and they all work in slightly different ways. One of the main types includes antimicrobial agents within the fibers of the fabric. The other main type has an antimicrobial coating on the surface of the fabric.

Within these two methods, many different antimicrobial agents can also be used, such as metallic salts. The effectiveness of the fabric depends, in part, on the agent it uses to kill microbes.

Will Antimicrobial Fabrics Stop COVID-19?

The coronavirus can definitely get onto fabrics and remain infectious for a while. However, antimicrobial fabrics might not be as effective at combatting it as they sound.

In a 2013 study on face masks versus the flu virus, antimicrobial pillowcases only got a midrange effectiveness score. They were rated even lower than cotton-blend fabrics, tea towels, and vacuum cleaner bags. (They did work better than ordinary pillowcases, though.)

Why didn’t they rank higher? Probably because antimicrobial fabrics are mostly designed with bacteria and fungi in mind, as those are the primary microbes that grow on fabrics.

Bacteria tend to thrive in the damp, warm environments often provided by fabric (especially the clothing you’re wearing). Meanwhile, viruses live longer on hard surfaces, like stainless steel.

Still, although fabric isn’t a super-friendly environment for viruses, it can host the coronavirus for up to 24 hours (as far as experts can tell). But while microbes like bacteria can grow on fabric and multiply as the days go by, a virus will die off after 24 hours at most. Fabric isn’t conducive to viral growth, which is why antimicrobial fabrics aren’t really designed to kill them.

Some antimicrobial fabrics do work against some types of viruses. However, you shouldn’t assume that a fabric labeled “antimicrobial” will combat the coronavirus in the same way it would bacterial or fungal growth. Again, because antimicrobial textiles are mainly designed to halt bacteria and fungi, they typically aren’t going to be as effective against viruses.

Should You Buy Products Made of Antimicrobial Fabrics?

A man working in a textile mill.

When deciding whether or not to buy antimicrobial garments, there are also some safety considerations.

Many of the microbe-fighting agents added to fabrics are safe. However, there are a few, like triclosan, that appear to be harmful. Because textile products aren’t regulated by the FDA, these dangerous antimicrobial agents can still be sold in clothing.

If you avoid the unsafe agents, though, it couldn’t hurt to choose antimicrobial fabrics over ordinary materials right now. Some experts even think antimicrobial fabrics might help protect you from COVID-19, as some studies seem to suggest they’re at least slightly effective against viruses.

Still, keep in mind that an antimicrobial mask or jacket won’t completely block the virus from living on your clothing. It might reduce the chances of transmission, but it likely won’t keep you totally virus-free if you’re exposed (for example, if someone who’s infected sneezes near you).

Also, retailers might make misleading claims about how effective their products are against viruses to boost sales. Eventually, fabrics that are highly effective against viruses might be developed, but unfortunately, we don’t have them yet.

If you decide to buy items made of antimicrobial fabrics, try to find out which antimicrobial agent the manufacturer uses so you can make sure it’s safe. Continue to follow safe practices, like washing your face mask regularly, even if it’s antimicrobial.

These fabrics might make a bit of a difference when it comes to protection from viruses, but they aren’t a guarantee.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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