Is Sweat-Wicking Clothing Really a Better Choice When You Exercise?

Is Sweat-Wicking Clothing Really a Better Choice When You Exercise?

(Last Updated On: June 30, 2019)

Sweat-Wicking Clothing

What’s your favorite exercise clothing? Is it a loose cotton t-shirt or the high-tech sweat-wicking clothing that’s so popular these days? If you’re not up to speed on this more expensive twist on athletic clothing, sweat-wicking clothing is made of a special fabric, called technical fabric. The fabric is specially designed to absorb moisture and odors.

How does it do this? The fabric contains tiny capillaries and openings that allow sweat and moisture to more easily reach the surface of the fabric where it can evaporate. The idea is that you’ll stay dry and smell better when you exercise in this type of athletic clothing. Sweat-wicking clothing also feels lighter as it doesn’t accumulate moisture that can weigh you down.

The type of clothing made to be sweat wicking is expanding. At one time, it was mostly tank tops and shorts that were woven together with high-tech fabric, but these days you can also buy hoodies and a variety of clothing that zips ups, buttons or pulls over your head, including jackets. Some people throw on a jacket made of a sweat-wicking material to act as a barrier between their workout clothes and their coat. Doing this helps keep you smelling fresher if you don’t have time to change clothes right away after a workout.

Sweat-wicking clothing has some advantages during a workout too.  This special fabric draws sweat away from the body and toward the surface of the fabric so it can evaporate quickly. So, you feel drier when you’re in the midst of a HIIT session! Some of this athletic wear is also treated with chemicals that destroy bacteria. By wiping out the bacteria that produce gases that smell funky, you don’t experience as much body odor. The same isn’t true of cotton. As soft as cotton feels against your skin, it holds onto moisture and that can serve as a breeding ground for bacteria and a source of odor. However, you can find specially treated cotton clothing that has better moisture wicking capabilities.

To get the full benefits of sweat-wicking clothing, you need a garment that fits snuggly against your body. When the material fits tightly, the capillaries in the fabric can more easily pick up the moisture and transfer it to the surface. It all sounds good, but are there drawbacks to slipping on sweat-wicking shorts and a tank top for a workout?

Drawbacks to Sweat-Wicking Fabrics

Some people steer clear of sweat-wicking fabrics because they’re made of synthetic fabric. They point to concerns that these fabrics may negatively impact health and the environment. So far, it’s an issue that hasn’t been thoroughly explored and the garment industry is not well regulated. In 2014 Greenpeace issued a report stating that some synthetic exercise wear is made or treated with chemicals, including plasticizing chemicals, solvents, and hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates.

What’s concerning is the potential for these chemicals to be absorbed more easily because the garments fit tightly against the skin and movement produces friction that may boost absorption of any chemicals applied to the fabric. Sports clothing manufacturers claim they’re safe but some, like Nike, are taking steps to reduce these chemicals in their clothing. You can argue that the amount of chemicals applied to treated athletic clothing is small, but what if you wear and sweat in them every day? Those small exposures add up. Still many unanswered questions.

Can Sweat-Wicking Clothing Improve Performance?

One upside to wearing sweat-wicking clothing is the potential for them to positively impact athletic performance. Although research is still limited, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that these garments are effective for temperature regulation. Plus, people perceive them to be more comfortable. In fact, the study found that these garments can improve performance. Other studies show that athletes feel cooler and more comfortable when they do light to moderate physical activity in sweat-wicking clothing. Therefore, these garments may have the comfort and performance factor on their side.

Alternatives to Wearing Sweat-Wicking Clothing

Although sweat-wicking clothing might be convenient and comfortable and the ultra-hip styles you can buy these days are enticing, they are more expensive. Plus, the fact that the fabric is synthetic and treated with chemicals that may be absorbed in small amounts is concerning for some. If you’re exercising at home, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to wear expensive, sweat-wicking attire. One of the many upsides of home workouts is you can change clothing as soon as your workout ends. If cotton clothing feels wet, simply take it off and toss it in the washer.

Since 100% cotton tends to hold on to moisture and trap it against the body, consider a blend of nylon or polyester and cotton for better “breathability.” Exercising in a 100% cotton during a sweaty workout can leave you with a damp shirt that’s slow to dry. Another disadvantage of cotton is it wrinkles easily. A combination of cotton and a synthetic material helps tame the wrinkles better.

If you’re exercising in a colder environment, wool is a natural fabric that breathes well but also doesn’t hold on to moisture as much as cotton. If you buy merino wool, you’ll pay a little more, but it’s lightweight enough to wear even in the summer. Plus, it contains small gaps in the fabric that absorb moisture and release it to the outside, giving it good cooling capabilities.

The Bottom Line

Choose the type of athletic clothing that works best for you! It should be comfortable and not so constrictive that it interferes with your movements. Now you know some factors to consider before purchasing exercise clothing in the future. You have more choices than ever these days. Take the time to select what best meets your needs and budget and will feel comfy during a workout, even a high-intensity one!



·        Show Biz Cheat Sheet. “The Pros (and Cons) of Each Type of Activewear Fabric”

· “Sweat it out: could your sportswear be toxic?”

·        Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: March 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 3 – p 700–707.

·        doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000783.


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