If you have sensitive skin, there is a fairly good chance that you may suffer some forms of skin allergies through direct contact with textiles. Although the causes are difficult to pinpoint, there are ways to reduce the chance of occurrence if you understand the characteristics of the fabrics and what has gone into the making of the garments. If you do not have sensitive skin but find choosing comfortable fitting garments is a priority, we hope the information here will help you as well.

The causes of textile contact dermatitis or skin discomfort are many and can be generally grouped into 3 categories:

  • Physically inflicted: Fabrics having a rough edge or being too coarse, such as with denim, can cause frictions on the skin surface. Garment or elastic bands wrapping the body too tight may restrict blood flow and create red marks and rashes.
  • Structurally induced: Structure and composition of fabric can prevent absorption or wicking moisture away from the skin. Absorbency and the ability to wick moisture away from the skin are the two major factors that determine if your garments are breathable. Some fabrics are naturally breathable while others are artificially made to be breathable through chemical treatments.
  • Chemically induced: Chemicals contained in synthetic materials themselves or applied during the making of the fabric and garments are the most difficult of all to identify. The garment industry is known to have deployed thousands of chemicals during the manufacturing process. Because of the lack of proper disclosure and labeling, there is no way for an average consumer to isolate what trigger an allergic reaction. We can only make suggestions to minimize exposure to harmful substances.

More often than not, skin discomfort or dermatitis can be caused by one or more of the above. In this first article on the subject, we will start with the yarn and fabric itself. We will expand a bit more into dyes and chemicals used in the making of garments and their impacts on our health in a future article.

Synthetic Materials:

  • Nylon and Polyester in their original forms lack absorbency and have low air permeability. In warm weather, our body releases heat through perspiration to keep our body cool. When we wear nylon or polyester, our skin perspiration has no place to escape and moisture and heat will get locked up in our own micro-atmosphere, causing us to feel stuffy and suffocated. This is the feeling we typically get when we put on nylon stockings in hot weather.
  • Synthetic materials can now be made “breathable” through chemical treatment. For instances, by adding a hydrophilic coating, polyester can be made to wick moisture through. A laminated multi-porous film can also be added to nylon to allow moisture to permeate. Because these high-performance synthetic fabrics don’t really absorb moisture at the core, they do dry faster than natural materials. For athletes who exercise long hours, treated synthetic fabrics do have the advantage of being able to “wick” moisture faster than natural materials. However, if your prime concern is to avoid exposure to chemicals, you will fare better with natural materials like cotton and linen that are naturally breathable.
  • Spandex, Lycra, or Elastane are all made from the same source, a synthetic material called polyurethane. Spandex, known for its elasticity and strength, is seldom used alone in garment applications as it is knitted with other materials to give elasticity and strength to the host materials. Spandex mixed materials are now broadly used in skin tight garments, underwear, swim suit, and in stretches such as elastic bands and laces. Spandex is known to cause skin irritation however it is difficult to pinpoint whether the irritation is caused by chemicals used in the manufacturing stage or simply the tension it inflicts on the skin, and is likely both. If you have a skin condition, we recommend you pick fabric that is Spandex free or contains no more than 5% Spandex. 
  • Laces and elastic bands used in undergarments are mostly nylon mixed with approximately 15 to 25 % of polyurethane. Because laces are knitted in loose patterns, they are normally easier on the skin than hard core elastic bands. If you have skin allergies, it is never a good idea to expose your skin directly to laces and elastics. The sad thing for the sensitive skin population is that it is almost impossible to find undergarments without laces and elastic bands. When we cannot totally avoid stretches, it does help when they are insulated by a layer of skin friendly fabric to avoid direct skin contact. Softness also helps. Softness in stretches are largely dependent on how the materials are knitted, the material mix, and the quality of dyes used. If you like to have a little lace on your undergarments yet are prone to allergy, we suggest avoiding sharp colors and the least dyes the better. Opting for low impact dyes is a good practice for both our skin and the environment. Do wash them in cold cycle and hang dry since heat can harden laces and elastics quite quickly.
  • Lastly, just one word of caution on seamless underwear. Today, the garment industry can easily make our underwear sheer and smooth without any seam with hot air bonding machine. Being seamless, they are perfect to go under your skintight dress. From the outset, it sounds like a very good idea for those of you who are trying to avoid annoying elastics. But it is not meant to be if your skin reacts to synthetic materials. The reason being that the seams and edges are bonded or sealed by the pressing of heated plastic adhesive to the fabric. In addition to the adhesive, the fabric itself also needs to have a high spandex content or else the bonding simply will not work.

Semi-Synthetic Materials

  • Rayon, Viscose, Modal, and Lyocell are of the same group that is referred to as regenerated cellulose fiber. Although they are derived from natural materials like bamboo and wood pulp, they are classified as semi-synthetic because the cellulose is extracted through a chemical process using carbon disulfide. The widespread use of carbon disulfide is now considered an industrial health threat in many countries.
  • Under FTC definition, unless a yarn is made from mechanically processed bamboo, it cannot be called bamboo fiber and should be referred to as “rayon” because the molecular orientation within the natural fiber and its degree of polymerization has been altered by the chemical process. As a marketing gimmick, false claims are quite common these days. Almost all self-claimed bamboo fiber are rayon in reality because mechanically processed bamboo is not being mass produced.  The majority of products classifying themselves as bamboo fiber are actually chemically altered. Tencel® is a German brand of lyocell that claims to be using stringent environmental standards. However, we do notice products these days are using “Tencel” as a generic name and we do not have enough knowledge to know if they are manufactured following the same environmental standards. Something that certainly deserves more investigation.
  • As a material, rayon is in a general class that is often referred to as artificial silk. As such, it can be made into to very fine and smooth fiber that is soft to the touch. We consider them as good alternate materials for loose fitting clothing. However, rayon is not our preferred material to wear tight and close to the skin. Because Rayon has unusually high absorbency, it is not an ideal medium to wick moisture away from the skin. This explains why underwear made with rayon appears smooth and comfortable, but when you put them on, they tend to stick to the skin more than other materials.


Natural Materials

  • Silk is highly breathable and has a hollow structure that naturally wicks moisture away from the skin. A silk scarf in the winter can keep us well insulated while a silk blouse in the summer can help us stay cool. Silk as a protein-based fabric is definitely one of the most skin friendly materials. It is however a costly material to produce and is a bit too delicate to handle for our modern life style. There is also cruelty and environmental concerns surrounding silk farming that we need to consider.
  • Wool has good absorbency and wicking properties. It provides good insulation in the winter, but direct contact with skin may cause discomfort because of the loose fiber ends touching the skin. In general, fine wool like cashmere or pashmina is better for the skin. If fine wool still bothers you, you will need to limit its use to outerwear only. Do take note that wool used as a base layer in sportswear is mostly chlorinated to help the garment stay dry.
  • Cotton is a natural fiber preferred by many for obvious reasons. It is soft to the touch and is naturally breathable with good absorbency to take away moisture from our skin, serving us well both in cold and warm climates. For our regular daily activities, cotton can be considered as the most comfortable, loved and skin friendly materials of all. The growing of conventional cotton however requires heavy irrigation, and constant applications of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It is a dilemma that we cannot easily resolve and we recommend organic cotton over conventional cotton. Organic farming takes away the harmful chemicals and pesticides and significantly reduces the need for irrigation through proper soil management. Although it still cannot totally eliminate the carbon footprint of cotton growing, we can decelerate the environmental impact of convention cotton farming by switching to organic cotton. It is for this reason and for comfort that we have chosen organic cotton as the preferred material for our sensitive skin sufferers, in particular when we come to undergarments that are the closest to our skin.
  • Linen is probably one of the oldest, most environmental and skin friendly fabrics of all. It is a highly breathable cool fiber processed mechanically from flax and, and sometimes hemp, using a natural enzyme. Linen can absorb and wick moisture at the same time faster than cotton does. Since the growing of flax and hemp requires no pesticides and chemical fertilizers, its water and carbon footprint is very low. Once forgotten, linen is now making a comeback to the garment industry due to its lower environmental impact. Because of the lack of elasticity, 100% linen does have the disadvantage of not being able to regain its shape once folded and thus does wrinkle easily. Linen that is too coarse can also be abrasive to the skin so fine linen is preferred. We like the idea of mixing linen with cotton as fabrics for outerwear. Cotton will soften the linen and lessen the wrinkles whereas linen can help to wick the moisture away faster than cotton. It also helps to ease the consumption of cotton and its impacts on the environment.

The above list is not an exhaustive list, but we hope you have enough to help you make better choices. Before we drill further on harmful substances in garments and their health impacts, if cutting away harmful chemicals is your prime concern, then choosing textile products manufactured following GOTS or OEKO-TEX standards is probably the safest bet!


    • Avatar
      Wanda Tracey
      Sep 25, 2018

      I tried the iKotton undies and loved the softness against my skin. They felt so light as air and wonderful it was hard to believe I had them on. I am a person with some #sensitive skin issues as I have #eczema and normal underwear sometimes make my skin itchy and sometimes the elastics leave welt marks in my skin from being too tight or because the elastic feels too rough for my skin. However with the iKottons there was none of these problems. They were by far the most comfortable fitting underwear I have ever worn.

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