Most clothing advice for eczema doesn’t go beyond recommending loose clothing that isn’t rough on your skin.
For those of us who live and deal with eczema on a daily basis, this is frustrating to say the least.
As it makes direct contact with the skin and forms a barrier between us and the elements, clothing is one of the most important things you can optimize to make living with eczema a little bit less annoying and a lot more comfortable and bearable.
On top of this, clothing can also be the source of many irritants and allergens that flare up eczema symptoms.
As the skin barrier is delicate and damaged, anything that’s found in or on fabric is a potential irritant. This includes everything from detergents, dyes, and fragrances to pesticides, chemicals, and bacteria.
Thankfully, as eczema is a common skin condition (affecting around 10-20% of the population) some clothing manufacturers are catching on and offering more and more natural fabrics processed in a way that’s safe for eczema and sensitive skin.
To find out which are the best fabrics for eczema, we put the most recommended to the test, including the likes of 100% cotton, Tencel, linen, and bamboo.
But before we get to the full breakdowns and comparisons of the fabrics, let’s take a look at the fabrics every eczema sufferer needs to know and avoid like the plague.
Table of Contents
Why Synthetic Fabrics Are So Bad For Eczema
All fabrics are either natural, synthetic, or a blend of the two.
As opposed to natural fabrics that come from the natural materials of plants, animals, or minerals, synthetic fabrics are completely man-made using chemical processes.
Many synthetic fibers are made from petrochemicals, in other words, any chemical made from crude oil and natural gas. As these non-renewable resources are abundant (currently), cheap, and create long-lasting, durable materials, they have been strongly adopted by the clothing and fashion industry.
In fact, polyester, the most popular synthetic fabric, overtook cotton in 2002 to become the world’s most-used fabric (52% of global fiber production).
Plastic-based fibers for fabrics like polyester use an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year. Recent studies also show that such fabrics shed microplastics into the water every time you wash them, accounting for 500,000 tonnes of plastic being washed into the water waste (the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles each year).
Add this to the fact that synthetic fabrics are often treated with toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and it’s no wonder that covering your skin for hours and hours a day with such a material leads to irritation, dryness, and eczema flare-ups.
In one study from Stockholm University, researchers tested 60 garments from international clothing chains for four groups of toxic substances. The highest concentrations of two of the types of substances were found in polyester.
Synthetic fabrics may be soft, but they don’t allow your skin to breath, don’t absorb sweat or moisture, trap odors, and are therefore also a breeding ground for bacteria.
Common synthetic fabrics known to cause rashes, irritation, and other negative reactions include:
• Rayon (Viscose)
Wool & Merino Wool
Wool is a fabric made from the natural fibers of mammals such as goats, rabbits, alpacas, camels, and more. But mostly it’s made from sheep.
Despite being a fabric that’s typically made from all-natural fibers, wool is not recommended for people with eczema for one clear reason: it has a rough texture that can seriously irritate sensitive and eczema-prone skin.
Merino wool, on the other hand, is often recommended and proven effective for eczema. Merino wool fiber is much finer than traditional wool, meaning it’s much softer and gentler on the skin.
Like other natural fibers, merino wool is heat-regulating, meaning it can keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
The fabric is also praised due to lanolin (also known as wool wax), a natural oil that’s secreted from the glands of sheep to help keep their fur soft, moisturized, and protected from the sun.
However, whereas raw merino wool contains up to 25% of its weight in lanolin, most processed merino garments contain less than 1% unaltered lanolin.
The major downside of merino wool is its price. You can expect to pay 25%-50% more for merino wool garments than clothing of the same type made from other natural fabrics.
Is 100% Cotton Good For Eczema?
If you ask a doctor what fabric or clothing is best for eczema, nine times out of ten they’re going to say cotton.
Cotton comes from a natural source, the cotton plant, is soft, cool, isn’t bad at absorbing moisture, easily washable, and, of course, pretty widely available.
However, when you look beyond its convenience and ubiquity, cotton is far from the best fabric for eczema. Perhaps the biggest warning sign is that the cotton industry is the third largest user of pesticides in the US. In a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, cotton was found to use almost 1 kilogram of hazardous pesticides is used for every hectare of cotton.
Many manufacturers of cotton clothing also use Azo synthetic dyes as they’re cheap and effective. These dyes are banned in the EU due to their toxicity, but they are still widely found in the fast fashion industry. As they are water-soluble, they are easy for your skin to absorb and often lead to symptoms such as skin and eye irritation.
The result is that everything from pesticides to toxic dyes can be found in the average piece of cotton clothing hanging on the rack, warranting cotton with its title as the dirtiest crop in the world.
Organic cotton is a much better option than conventional cotton. However, organic cotton clothes still have to be dyed and finished, and this is often the most chemically intensive step in the process. The best cotton clothing for eczema is made from certified organic cotton, for example, by The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and that’s also certified by OEKO-TEX to ensure the finished product is free from harmful chemicals.
Is Viscose (Rayon) Good For Eczema?
Viscose, also commonly known as rayon, is a fabric made from regenerated cellulose i.e. wood pulp. It is the world’s third most commonly used textile fiber (also used in things like bedding, carpets, cellophane, and sausage casing) and it’s typically made from trees such as eucalyptus, beech, and pine.
Viscose has similar advantages and disadvantages to cotton. It’s generally cheap, lightweight, durable, breathable, and comfortable. But it’s also often sourced from unsustainable, pesticide and fertilizer-intensive farms and involves toxic chemicals and dyes in its production.
Viscose is plant-based but it’s considered semi-synthetic as it’s made using chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. Along with pesticides, these chemicals can remain in trace amounts in the finished garment, leading to symptoms such as irritation, dryness, and itchiness.
One of the saddest things about viscose is that its production destroys forests and wastes approximately 70% of the tree.
In an interview with The Guardian, Canopy founder Nicole Rycroft shared that an estimated 30% of rayon and viscose used in fashion is made from pulp sourced from endangered and ancient forests.
Is Silk Good For Eczema?
Silk is another fabric that’s often recommended for eczema sufferers. The fabric, made by silkworms on their way to becoming silkmoths, is a great option if you need one or two pieces of clothing that are soft and breathable that you can wear directly on top of your skin.
However, unless you have money to burn and you don’t mind all your clothes having a shiny, silky-smooth finish, then silk is not an option for most people.
But the disadvantages of silk stem way beyond cost and availability. Silk garments can’t be washed as easily as conventional fabrics and they can get marked easily by oils and creams.
The creation of silk garments (unless it’s Peace Silk), is also a cruel process as it also involves boiling up the silkworms in their cocoons so that the silk unravels into useable threads.
If that wasn’t enough to disprove silk as a good option for eczema, studies have also shown it’s no more effective than conventional clothing.
In a 6-month clinical trial for eczema, children (aged 1-15) were split into 2 groups: one receiving standard care for eczema and wearing 100% sericin-free silk clothing, and one group receiving standard care alone.
The group of children wearing the silk clothing not only didn’t see any benefits versus the control group, they experienced more skin infections (28% versus 25%). The researchers also calculated the yearly cost of using silk at a little over $70,000!
Is Linen Good For Eczema?
Linen is known as the strongest natural fiber in the world. It’s 30% thicker and stronger than cotton, which makes it very popular in homeware like tablecloths, upholstery, soft furnishings, and curtains.
Linen is made from the flax plant, also known as common flax or linseed. Unlike cotton, it is not made from the seeds of the plant (which are sold as food), but from the fibers derived from the stems of the plant.
Linen clothing is incredibly cooling and therefore favorable in hot and humid climates. According to Consultant Dermatologist Dr. Krishna, the fabric is highly absorbent, antibacterial, quick-drying, easily washable, and has tiny breaks in the material that provide a gentle massaging effect.
Despite all of these advantages, linen has one major disadvantage: it’s much more time and resource-intensive to make than other fabrics. The result is that few brands use linen and few customers are willing to pay the higher prices of linen clothing.
Overall, linen is a great option for eczema and sensitive skin, especially if you live in a hotter climate. If you can’t find much clothing made from linen, it can make a great choice for your bedding.
Is Tencel Lyocell Good For Eczema?
Tencel is a brand name for lyocell, a cellulose-based fabric that is similar to viscose but that involves less chemicals and more ssustinable production methods
Tencel is perhaps the most popular type of lyocell.They’re pretty much the eame thing, however lyocell is most often made from birch and Tencel, produced by Austrian textile company Lenzing AG. is mainly made from sustainably sourced eucalyptus wood harvested from natural forests and sustainably managed tree farms.
The main thing to know about Tencel and lyocel is that, as opposed to using harsh chemicals to dissolve the wood, they use of a natural enzyme solvent (that is nearly 100% recycled each time). This means that, unlike viscose or rayon, lyocel doesn’t involve any significant chemical changes to the structure of the cellulose.
What this means for eczema sufferers is that Tencel and lyocell generally retain more of the natural properties of the source material and contain less trace chemicals. Along with its softness and breathability, this has attracted many researchers to study the performance of Tencel and lyocell for eczema.
In one eczema study by the Department of Dermatology at the University Hospital Case Medical Center, Cleveland, lower average itching and decreased TEWL were seen in participants while they wore lyocell when compared to cotton.
Another eczema study by the Department of Dermatology at the University Medical Center Jena, Germany, ahowed that wearing Tencel lead to a decrease in the severity of eczema symptoms, including redness and itching, and an improvement in quality of sleep.
As it holds 50% more moisture than cotton, Tencel and lyocell are recommended as effective options for eczema wet wrapping.
Is Bamboo Good For Eczema?
As a natural resource that can grow incredibly fast with little to no pesticides or fertilizers, bamboo already has a lot going for it over other crops used to make fabric.
The natural fibers of bamboo are also light and breathable due to microholes in the structure of the fibers, as well as up to 4 times more absorbent than cotton.
The properties alone have led bamboo to be recommended by The National Eczema Society (UK), National Eczema Association (US), and people like Daniel Boey, a world-renowned fashion producer and director who suffers from eczema.
When you see bamboo on a clothing label it typically refers to bamboo viscose or viscose derived from bamboo. Bamboo viscose is made from the regenerated cellulose of bamboo plants and often includes using chemicals to dissolve bamboo canes into a pulpy substance that can be turned into threads.
According to author and textile scientist Rosie Broadhead, bamboo fiber “contains anions that are helpful in purifying blood, calming the nervous system, and relieving allergy symptoms, which is beneficial to the health of the human body and skin.”
However, as the FTC claims, the antibacterial properties of bamboo may not survive the viscose process, and so they may only remain present in mechanically processed bamboo fabrics such as bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell.
Bamboo clothing is a relatively new industry, and so there are still relatively few regulations in place to prevent unsustainable harvesting and chemical-intensive production processes Therefore, it’s paramount to only buy toxin-free bamboo clothing from brands that source organic bamboo, create viscose using few chemicals, and have OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certifications.
Table Comparing All Recommended & Best Fabrics For Eczema
How to Choose The Best Fabric For Eczema
1. Look for 100% Organic Fabrics With Certifications
A fabric that is certified organic means it’s much less likely to be contaminated by the residue of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as potential allergens such as disperse dyes and formaldehyde resins. These are often found in clothing labeled ‘wrinkle-free’ or ‘stain-repellant’.
To take things a step further, some fabrics also have an OEKO-TEX certification. These are harder to find (many bamboo clothing brands are OEKO-TEX certified), but they are the best way to ensure clothing is free from harmful substances.
OEKO’s certification process involves checking every single component of a product, from button to thread, for known harmful and prohibited substances including formaldehyde, asbestos, lead, cadmium, chlorinated phenols, and lindane.
2. Avoid Harsh Detergents & Fabric Softeners
Choosing the right fabric is important. However, if you wash that fabric in harsh detergents that are full of artificial fragrances, then it can still lead to many issues with your skin.
The main washing and care guidance for eczema is to wash clothing once before wearing in case there are any remaining chemicals or dye, use 100% fragance-free detergents, and avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets.
3. Test New Fabrics & See What Works For You
The triggers of eczema vary widely from person to person. Whereas 100% organic cotton may work for one person but not silk or bamboo, it could be the complete opposite for the next person.
The result is that finding the right fabrics is a process of trial and error. Experiment with different fabrics that are safe and recommended for eczema and see what works and doesn’t work for you.
Best Fabric For Eczema : Final Verdict
It’s certainly not easy to live with eczema. But finding fabrics and clothing that keep you comfortable and don’t lead to flare-ups doesn’t have to add another layer of difficulty.
As we move into 2023, there’s now a range of brands that are turning to natural and sustainable fabrics and processing them in a way that is safe and comfortable for eczema and sensitive skin. Check out this other article we wrote to find the very best bamboo clothing brands for eczema.
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