Antimicrobial textiles are textiles that are manufactured with nanoparticles, natural antimicrobial agents, and/or have actual antimicrobial compounds embedded in the fabric. The goal of these textiles is to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, fungi, and viruses. The textiles are used for clothing in addition to numerous other uses such as filters, towels and cleaning products, food packages, and healthcare products. I noticed after COVID with face mask use and production, there appeared to be a keen interest in these textiles. Read more...
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What are antimicrobial textiles?
Antimicrobial textiles are textiles that are manufactured with nanoparticles, natural antimicrobial agents, and/or have actual antimicrobial compounds embedded in the fabric. The goal of these textiles is to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, fungi, and viruses. The textiles are used for clothing in addition to numerous other uses such as filters, towels and cleaning products, food packages, and healthcare products. I noticed after COVID with face mask use and production, there appeared to be a keen interest in these textiles.
What is the goal of antimicrobial textiles?
The goal of antimicrobials in textiles can be vast. They can serve to reduce the transmission of pathogens via materials such as healthcare worker clothing, towels, bedsheets in hospitals, hats, car seats, earbuds, curtains that separate hospital beds or in hotel rooms, carpets, mops, etc. Antimicrobials in textiles can also serve a role in reducing the tendency of microbes to overgrow on textiles subject to moisture such as tents, tarps, and umbrellas- this reduces the tendency for these fabrics to be degraded over time as well as in odor control. Constantly laundering textiles is not always feasible in many circumstances.
How do antimicrobials in clothing affect our skin?
Before jumping into the antimicrobials used in clothing, let's talk about microbes and your clothing and how they interact with your skin.
I always talk about how your skin is your body’s first line of defense against the environment from an immune perspective and for regulating body temperature. Ultimately most of your skin’s body surface area comes into contact with textiles during some point of the day or night - through clothing, bed linens, upholstery, etc.
We do know that our skin maintains an acidic pH - somewhere between 4.5 and 5. Why? To make it unfavorable for microbes to grow and exist. This pH favors the growth of certain bacteria that can serve to benefit our skin.
Now clothing and textiles in contact with our skin can have their own microhabitat of microorganisms. Some microorganisms can even break down textiles such as Aspergillus, Penicillium, and Microsporum, and bacterial genera Bacillus, Streptomyces, and Pseudomonas.
Microbes on clothing can contribute to odor, and irritation, and impact the integrity of our textiles.
Synthetic fibers can be a little more resistant to the impact of microbial attachment and growth whereas natural fibers may actually serve as a source for their overgrowth. However, synthetics may harbor more oils and residues that can contribute to an accumulation over time. Some bacteria attach more easily to textiles than others. For example, Staphylococcus adheres more easily than E coli.
Bacteria prefer rougher surfaces and residues to attach to - so if there are more crevices for bacteria to hide they may prefer these surfaces. Remember that lice can also preferentially attach to seams.
How do microorganisms on clothing affect our skin?
We know that microorganisms live on and interact with our skin, but what about our clothes?
Our clothes can have one of 4 possible interactions with microorganisms of our skin:
Alter our skin biome
Alter sweat production or trigger unpleasant odor by impacting our skin’s natural balance
The main bacterial phyla found in textiles include Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, and Proteobacteria are also of known importance to the human skin microbiome. Staphylococcus and Micrococcus are common with the armpits or axillae dominated by Staphylococcus and Corynebacterium. Corynebacterium is one of the main odor-causing bacteria. The longer the garment is worn- the higher the concentration of the bacteria present.
These bacteria and organisms can impact our health. Healthcare uniforms can harbor MRSA and VRE amongst other potential pathogens and staph and enterococci can live on these surfaces for months. There have been cases of transmission of pathogens from healthcare workers to patients where it was necessary to not only decontaminate the clothing but also the washing machine that served as a reservoir for the bacteria. Even after clothes are washed, they tend to be rapidly recontaminated even within 3 hours of wear.
How do antimicrobials in textiles work?
Enter the world of antimicrobial textiles. If we cannot launder the textiles constantly knowing they are recontaminated rapidly, then the theory with antimicrobial textiles is that there can be agents embedded in the textiles used to kill the microbes or finishes that prevent their adhesion.
Antimicrobials in fabrics are classified as
Leaching or non-leaching
Biostatic or biocidal
Anti-bacterial, anti-viral, or anti-fungal
Leaching antimicrobials are embedded in the fabric and intended to slowly come out or “leach” onto the microbe to kill it. Examples of this include silver nanoparticles embedded in cotton and loomstate textiles.
Nonleaching describes antimicrobials chemically bonded to the fabric and do not leave the fabric. They offer long-lasting protection and are non-toxic to microbes. Examples of this include metallic silver, silicone, and copper used in polyurethane. For cellulose fibers, chitosan, and for cotton treatment antimicrobial agents such as triclosan, glucapon, and sodium pentaborate. These tend to be preferred because the antimicrobial properties tend to last and are safer for skin contact.
What types of antimicrobial finishes are there?
Let’s start with nanoparticles. We discussed this concept with my video on flame retardants. For antimicrobial finishes, silver nanoparticles can kill many microbes without direct toxicity to human skin cells. They have antiviral activity (even to covid). Titanium, tin, zinc, gold, and copper have also been used. Some of these metals directly penetrate bacterial cell walls while others can release ions to interfere with bacterial overgrowth.
There are natural compounds that have been used as antimicrobials in textiles. Curcumin, honey, natural dyes, and pigments can be used. Curcumin damages bacterial cell membranes, while honey can serve to either lower the pH or actually produce peroxide.
Cyclodextrins are oligosaccharides that have a hydrophilic outer surface and a lipophilic central cavity that can damage bacterial membranes. Lignin coatings have activity against Staphylococcus epidermidis. Chitosan from chitin offers anti-odor properties with antibacterial activity against S. aureus, E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes. Halogens have been used with activity against S. aureus and E. coli.
Curcumin from turmeric is commonly used as a non-toxic natural dye for wool and cotton with sustained pigment and antimicrobial benefits after laundering. Silk is considered to have natural antimicrobial properties but a limited range. It can be treated with natural dyes to increase the spectrum of activity. Mordants are used while dying textiles to help fix the dye to the fabric. These have been studied to enhance the antimicrobial properties of textiles.
Mode of action
Types of textiles
Effect on skin
Damage cell wall/ cell membrane
Inhibition of the synthesis of cell wall/membrane resulting in cell leakage and cell death
Inhibition of DNA/RNA, protein synthesis
Inhibition of specific metabolic processes within the cell
Possibly changes cell membrane permeability
Pronounced effect on Staphylococcus aureus more so than Staphylococcus epidermidis
Quaternary ammonium compounds
What are the uses of antimicrobial textiles?
In healthcare, these materials can be used in wound care, help deliver medications to the skin, and help manage some skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and fungal infections.
In apparel, I’m seeing lots of brands marketing antimicrobial clothing. These are found in baby clothing, bras, underwear, socks, and workout apparel. Antimicrobial textiles in sports apparel have the potential to produce less odor but in practice may not be as effective as we think.
They are used in space craft given the inability to wash clothing.
The challenge posed by the use of antimicrobial-treated personal protective equipment (PPE) is that the metals used in textiles can be released into landfills.
Are there any skin conditions associated with the biome?
Dermatologic conditions associated with dysbiosis of the biome:
Rosacea as it relates to Demodex mites
Role of biome
Effect on biome
Effect on skin
Excess colonization of Staph aureus triggering inflammatory response
Antibacterial against Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneuomoniae
Rapid improvement of severity of atopic dermatitis
Improved sleep quality
Antibacterial against Staphylococcus aureus
Reduced symptoms of atopic dermatitis
No specific antibacterial effect noted
Some improvement in lesions of atopic dermatitis
Inhibited Staphylococcus aureus while promoting growth of other Staph species
Improved disease severity
Healthcare associated infections
Didecyldimethylammonium chloride (DDAC), poly-hexamethylenbiguanide, copper and two silver chloride concentrations
All samples showed a clear inhibition of C. albicans, activity against Trichophyton sp. varied significantly; for example, DDAC completely inhibited T. rubrum growth, whereas T. mentagrophytes growth remained unaffected even in direct contact with the fibres.