What Exactly Is “Antimicrobial?”

“Antimicrobial is a chemical treatment applied to fabric to prevent odor-causing bacteria from growing while perspiring,” says Kate Souza, internal communications specialist for Charles River Apparel. “Inhibiting the growth of odor-causing bacteria leaves the wearer feeling dryer and cleaner.” (A common misconception is that antimicrobial treatments “kill” bacteria; rather, they prevent growth in the first place.)

During or after the manufacturing process, garments are chemically treated to gain antimicrobial protection. “While this technology has been available for a while,” says Danny Tsai, vice president of merchandising for Tri-Mountain, “it’s only been in the last few years that it’s become more popular and commercially viable for apparel.” The very first antimicrobials were derived from silver ions. Those treatments are still in use today, though there are questions about whether the silver leeches into the environment or the human body. A multitude of other antimicrobial treatments exist now; three new active ingredients and 15 new uses in antimicrobials are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency each year.

What are its benefits?

+ No more smelly clothes.
Or bacteria against your skin, for that matter. “The bacteria cause an unpleasant smell,” says Morey Mayeri, president of Royal Apparel. “Putting in this antimicrobial treatment controls the growth and keeps the fabric fresher longer.”

+ Teams up with moisture-wicking.
“Antimicrobial is mostly being put on polyester, especially knits and any active-wear,” Tsai says, “and pretty much 100% of the time, these garments have moisture-wicking properties.”

+ Machine-washable.
Any embellishment method that works on non-antimicrobial apparel should work equally well on apparel that includes the feature.

Who should consider antimicrobial apparel?

Athletics and Sports Teams
A rigorous workout or day out in the sun is going to cause some perspiring, which is why consumers want antimicrobial garments. “We’ve had great success with our golf shirts that feature antimicrobial protection,” says Tsai. “At the end of the day, consumers are gravitating toward more functional apparel that’s easy to care for and comfortable.”

Restaurants and Hospitality
A hot kitchen, spilled food, the brisk pace of service: An antimicrobial garment is perfect for that environment. “Some people in the uniform business might wear the shirt for an extended period of time,” Mayeri says, “and for health reasons, they’ll buy fabric with the antimicrobial treatment in it.”

Hospitals and Healthcare
Any medical facility is a haven for germs, bacteria, and who knows what else. Antimicrobial scrubs and other apparel can keep medical workers healthier by preventing the spread of such agents.