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Material Girl – If you stink, it’s probably your clothes fault.

May 22, 2019

It has come to my attention that the deodorant you choose and use is only part of your war-on-stink arsenal and that it possibly isn’t even the most important part.  With that in mind I turned to fabric in my bid to understand why I can create  a deodorant that works on me one day but not every day OR that a product works on me perfectly but then doesn’t work on anther person.  Sure, there are many variables here but isn’t it time we spoke about fabric?


This, for me has been one of those ‘aha’ moments that I felt like I knew all along but didn’t know at the same time. Like I get that there are fabrics that wick away moisture (sports clothes, those cool undies that my hubby loves) and fabrics that make even the most demure of us sweat like a pig (100% polyester I’m looking at you).  I have observed on me that I have some tops that seem to stink almost the moment after I put them on (cotton, elastane mix) and other clothing that I can do a 10 mile hike in and still smell of roses (merino wool, you are my friend).  What I hadn’t realised, the penny that hadn’t dropped (an English saying) was the impact that this may have in my work as a deodorant creator. How can I test and accept test critique from people when I don’t know what material their clothing was?  Is it time for me to dictate a test protocol that includes choice of fabric? I think so.

Much of my job involves knowing and appreciating how things are tested in a lab / controlled situation but then throwing that out and just coping with the wild and unruly reality that is every-day life.  That’s how I’ve arrived here really, at a junction that is made trickier to navigate due to the complexities of our human habits and preferences.  Very interesting but very tricky nonetheless.

Without turning this into a lesson in fabric science suffice to say that some materials are less likely to leave you smelling bad than others.  The materials used to make the fibre matter, the weave of the fibre matters and then how you manage the fibre matters too – do you use fabric conditioner or not, air dry or tumble dry, damp home or dry home, old clothes or new clothes etc.

Let’s stop there for a moment, fabric softener/ conditioner…

Chemistry wise, your fabric softener/ conditioner is rather like a hair conditioner for your clothes. It makes the fibres feel all silky and smooth which is lovely BUT it does that via a chemical reaction between the product and your clothing that deposits a cationic ‘conditioner’ onto the fibre.  This has many tactile benefits but one down side can be increased odour from you when you wear them, especially when you ignore the washing instructions on your gym wear and dose up the conditioner.  This article is quite helpful. Fabrics that are already quite water-resistant become more so thanks to a dose of fabric conditioner and that can spell trouble for your pits, especially where the fabric conditioner interferes with the way the weave wicks away moisture from your body.   I’ve been a mum for 18 years and a chemist for 22 and like I said before, I kind of knew this intellectually but have always been too lazy to separate my washing. Everything gets exactly the same treatment – more fool me!

So what about the fabric?

Generally speaking, fabrics that absorb moisture well perform better in reducing the formation of body odours than fabrics with little to no moisture holding or wicking capacity – see, there are two points there. Wicking and Holding can happen together or apart.

Moisture holding fabrics.

Many natural fibres have good moisture holding capacity but it is wrong to think that all do.  Silk is particularly bad at holding moisture but wool is really good.  I tried to find comparative data on exactly how much moisture different fabrics could hold but a) I lost my notes and b) the information I did find varied so dramatically that I felt it best just to focus on the ‘big picture’ being as though this isn’t really my science are of expertise. Within the natural realm there are also some other stand-outs such as hemp and bamboo. Hemp is a particularly good fibre for clothing as it has good moisture absorbing properties and has some anti-microbial powers. This is a huge advantage over cotton which can rot over time and during that rotting process can also discolour and stain more easily.

Many synthetic fibres have very poor moisture holding capacity on their own and fibres such as polyester, Nylon and elastane blends are well known culprits – elastane is the technical name for lycra and spandex type fibres.  These modern fibres were created to make clothing more durable, flexible, light-weight, longer-lasting and, believe it or not, breathable.  To vilify the fabric just for its chemistry is to not know it.  Not all clothes with lycra content will be sweat-inducing, it’s a matter of balance (isn’t everything), application and care.

Modern clothing is usually a mixture of natural and synthetic fibres that help our clothes last longer, require less ironing, hold their shape longer and feel more comfortable.  Sweating and end-of-life environmental impact are, however, two down sides we have to contend with.

What can we do as brand owners, developers and product buyers to counter this issue?

The main thing that I’m feeling empowered about is to know that the fabric that my clients and their customers are wearing matters in how they perceive my formulations/ their products or their competitors products.

One thought I had that I found quite interesting was about deodorant pricing and the impact that might have on these less controllable co-factors.  If you create a deodorant that is $20 per tube in a market that can buy deodorants for $3 per tube you are only going to attract customers with a) expensive tastes or b) with big budgets.  It is quite possible that these people have greater access to higher quality materials and as a consequence of making larger investments in clothing they may also care for these better (not just sticking them all in a mixed wash like I do).  This could mean that a more expensive deodorant is perceived better than a cheap one not because its chemistry is better but because its customers have ‘better’ clothes.  I actually feel this is significant.

As brand owners sitting anywhere along the value chain this is also important.  We can empower our clients at all points along the continuum with information that will help them get the most out of their deodorant after purchase, that may include advice on how best to care for their clothing (even if they can’t afford higher quality threads).

An aside – my wardrobe basics.

I had a very quick look at some of the things I wear regularly and this is what I found:

Cotton/ elastane – these feel quite sweaty for me (tops and bottoms, more top than bottoms). I have a feeling that the sweatiness is related to the amount of elastane present and the weave of the blend.  This fabric definitely traps sweat close to the skin for me.

100% viscose – (viscose is also known as Rayon, also known as artificial silk). This is a semi-synthetic fibre that I find fairly OK and good for all but the most sweaty of days.  As a fabric it is apparently fairly OK for sweaty people.

98% cotton 2% elastane – These are my slightly stretchy jeans. I’ve not found these to be very sweaty at all, well, for jeans.

Viscose/ nylon cardi-  This is a very sweaty piece of clothing for me. It seems to make me sweat even when I’m cold. Nylon is good at repelling moisture so while that sounds good, it repels it from its self (the fibre) and back towards the skin.

Moving the chemistry on with this knowledge.

As a cosmetic chemist I still have to focus on what I can bring to the party – designing fabrics is not one of those things. So, with that in mind what I can do is create formulations that work as well as they can to reduce any negative impacts that different fibres may bring. This may mean that I have to make more breathable formulations or formulations that can absorb more moisture.  It may mean that I need to have anti-microbials and antioxidants in their to help reduce staining and mould related damage to clothing as well as thinking about how these ingredients interact with and counter sweat.

Overall every challenge is an opportunity and I feel it is always important to focus on those who face the greatest challenges. That way, I feel you capture the main essence of the problem and hopefully solve it for the greatest number of the population.  That said,  in these days when everyone wants natural, pure and simple formulations it is important that we do run fair comparative in-use tests so that us cosmetic chemists aren’t running ragged trying to solve problems that we alone can’t solve.   My formula, your product can only do so much.

The bottom line.

A deodorant can only do so much on its own.  The fabrics we choose to put next to our skin can help or hinder our quest to be pong free.  Choosing and promoting fibres that keep our sweat-prone areas dryer for longer and then looking after them (proper washing and drying) is key to achieving great outcomes.

And that, my friends, is something that I’m quite excited about!

Amanda x


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