Antimicrobial Activewear – What is the real Purpose?

An antimicrobial inhibits the growth of or even kills micro-organisms such as bacteria.  There are many different types: in the medical field you may hear of antibiotics treating bacterial infections or antifungals treating fungus; disinfectants and antiseptics are also two types.  But how can you apply them to the textile industry?  A synthetic chemical agent can be used as a textile finish to provide antimicrobial properties to the fabric.  This brings us to Antimicrobial Activewear.  What does the antimicrobial actually do by preventing the growth of microbes?  It eliminates odors!  The question is: Do we really care about microbes in our activewear, or are we just fighting the odor by eliminating the source?

So what causes the microbes to appear?  When we work out and sweat, natural oils from our skin can get into the fabric.  These oils breed bacteria which create the odor we smell, especially on synthetic fabrics such as polyesters and blends.  Name brands such as: NIKE®, Reebok®, and UnderArmour®, all use antimicrobial chemistries in a lot of their products to keep activewear fresh and odor-free longer.  Don’t be confused though; not all activewear uses these chemistries.


(a) Microbe meets Chemistry, (b) Chemistry captures Microbe, (c) Water finds trapped Microbe, (d) Microbe is flushed out, (e) Antimicrobial remains ready for next time

Antimicrobial Chemistry
How does it work?  There are several chemistries available but the most commonly used are the 3 following.  Cyclodextrin acts like a bucket that traps smells until they can be released or flushed when doing laundry.  Silver type antimicrobial like NICCA’s KIRAKURU RB-47 acts on the bacteria walls, intracellular and nuclear membranes, to cause structural changes that will lead to the death of the bacteria. While quaternary silane type antimicrobial like NICCA’s KIRAKURU RB-14 will puncture the wall of the bacteria and cause the bacteria to die.

It’s important that the chemistry have a durable finish that will last after numerous laundries.  This is especially true for antimicrobials that would be placed on activewear which will be washed after use and worn frequently.

What is the purpose of antimicrobials?  I think we can all agree that it is to fight odors.  If microbes had no scent, would we even notice them?  Maybe not.

About Kayla Murdaugh

Kayla's hometown is Smoaks, South Carolina, a small town near Charleston. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a minor in Japanese language from Clemson University. After graduation she moved to Greenville, South Carolina and joined the NICCA USA, Inc team. Her current role is Plant Engineer where she focuses on project and process engineering. An EIT, she is a member of AIChE and their local chapter WSC-AIChE. She is currently working towards JLPT and PE certifications.
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