As a human ecology professor, Rachel McQueen has a professional interest in stinky clothing. And her area of expertise has, at times, overlapped with her personal life.
Once, when her husband was training for a marathon, she noticed that the smell emanating from his running clothes was much stronger and lingered longer in his polyester tops than if he ran in a merino wool top.
“I was repulsed,” she says of the pungent personal observation. Even freshly laundered, her husband’s polyester running tops stunk. “The smell was as strong as if they had just been worn,” says McQueen, a textile scientist in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.
Her research has put textiles under the microscope to find the causes of what she calls “perma-stink.”
McQueen wanted to know why fabrics differ in odour intensity. In a study comparing the relationship between body odour and different fabrics, she had male volunteers wear test T-shirts, which had swatches of polyester, cotton and merino wool stitched to the underarm regions. They wore the shirts for two consecutive days and then the swatches were removed for testing. Smell tests using sensors were conducted on each fabric after one day, seven days and 28 days of storage. “Polyester was by the far the most odorous,” she says. “Wool was the least smelly, and cotton was low to medium.”
The physical shapes of various fibres may affect stink levels, but possibly more important are the chemical odour-binding sites. So McQueen focused her attention on the chemical makeup of fibres and how it affected odour retention.
Both wool and cotton are hydrophilic and absorb more water than polyester. “Wool is a fibre with an amorphous structure,” explains McQueen. “It has open spaces and is more porous than a synthetic fibre, so it can absorb a lot of sweat.”
The odour-causing compounds produced when bacteria on our skin feed off sweat are more likely to bind strongly to the more complex structure of wool fibres than to polyester, which has weak surface interactions with odour molecules. In other words, if odour molecules are trapped within wool or cotton, we can’t smell them as readily. With fewer chemical odour-binding sites in polyester, our noses are likelier to catch the scent.
McQueen is here to tell you what you need to know to be active, feel comfortable and keep perma-stink at bay.
- Look at clothing labels. Canadian laws require that labels disclose the fibre content of the textiles we wear. “If you’re experiencing a problem with body odour, choosing fabrics that have higher cotton or wool content can help,” McQueen says. “People are generally attuned to their own body odour. If you’re concerned, go with natural fibres.”
- Be wary of anti-odour claims. McQueen tested different fabrics treated with antimicrobials such as silver chloride. She found the so-called anti-odour fabrics worn by test participants were just as smelly as the untreated ones. She also cautions against possible harmful effects. “You don’t want the antimicrobial materials to leach from the textiles onto your skin and upset the balance of your natural skin microflora.”
- Wash your clothes less often. Everyday clothing made of wool and cotton doesn’t necessarily need to be washed after one use. Laundering less frequently saves money, water and electricity. “Washing clothing too often degrades the textile and shortens the life of your garment,” she says. “It’s also harmful to the environment.”
- Wear cotton; it’s cool for the office. McQueen has an affinity for merino wool but recognizes that cotton is more readily available. For office wear, she suggests easy-to-find cotton shirts for men and natural, breathable fabrics or blends with high natural fibre content for women.
- Go merino for a post-run latte. McQueen hasn’t entirely banned polyester from her life. While training for a half marathon, she would sometimes wear polyester tops if she planned to go directly home to shower and change. “But if I’m going to meet someone in a café after running, I feel more comfortable in wool.”
- Don’t be jealous: some people are odour-free. According to a University of Bristol study, about two per cent of Europeans carry an inactive form of a gene associated with B.O. Known as ABCC11, the gene produces a chemical in sweat that reacts with bacteria in the armpits to make pits smelly. In the vast majority of East Asians, this stink-making gene is turned off. Are you one of the lucky?
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