The science behind sweat-wicking activewears and where to find them

Cotton used to be the best clothing fabric, but you rarely find it in workout clothes. Instead, activewears made of synthetic fabrics and labelled as “sweat-wicking” are considered the holy grail for optimal sports performance.

What’s the science behind all this and how do you find the best sweat-wicking clothes?

What does sweat-wicking fabric do?

The whole idea is to get rid of sweat during high intensity workouts so that you can be kept cool and dry. Pro athletes have been wearing sweat-wicking clothes to regulate their body temperature since the beginning of the century. Today, we are at an exciting time where everyone, not only the pros, can wear sweat-wicking clothes for the best fitness experiences!

A sweat-wicking fabric does some important jobs:

  • It quickly moves (wicks) moisture from your skin to the fabric’s outer surface. This prevents skin conditions like maceration.
  • It helps regulate body temperature and ventilation to prevent overheating.
  • It dries rapidly instead of soaking sweat, keeping the cloth light.
  • Sweat-wicking pants can prevent irritation of sensitive genital areas and buttocks for both men and women. For ladies, they keep you protected from what’s known as sports vagina.

How does sweat-wicking work?

You will be pleased to hear that your dollars are well spent on solid technologies. Sweat-wicking action uses some impressive physics principles.

Adsorption instead of absorption

These two terms are only one letter apart but mean completely different things. Absorption is the easy one to understand, where liquid is simply soaked up like how a sponge works. The sponge soaks because it has large storage space to fit liquid. As you can imagine, we don’t really want good absorption in workout clothes. Sweat-soaked clothes will simply trap your sweat, heat you up, and weight you down.

On the other hand, adsorption is when a liquid is spread evenly over a surface, without penetrating deeper than the surface. There are no big pores within the fabric and hence no storage space. As a result, your sweat keeps moving within the narrow spaces between fabric fibers, without getting trapped.

Capillary action

Within the narrow spaces, your sweat is then moved to the other side by capillary action. This is because wetting creates a pressure difference, which quickly pulls sweat toward the surface of the fabric. This process naturally occurs in plants, when they draw water from the roots to the outer surface. In sweat-wicking clothes, your sweat is constantly transported away from your skin and toward air, where it can easily evaporate away.

Hydrophilic instead of hydrophobic

  • Hydrophilic = water-loving
  • Hydrophobic = water-hating

Without much technical explanations, let’s just say that great workout clothes should be hydrophobic, or hate water. This way, they can repel sweat and be kept dry.

The best and worst wicking fabrics

Having explained the science behind wicking fabrics, we are looking for fabrics that

  • Do not trap moisture (non-porous)
  • Transport sweat to the other side (capillary action)
  • Repel sweat (hydrophobic)

Synthetic fabrics

Although the word “synthetic” might turn you off, synthetic fabrics are the best moisture-wicking fabrics hands down. Scientists have applied the physics principles and refined the technology to produce fabrics that tick all 3 boxes. Polyester and nylon are the best options among synthetic fabrics.

Wool

Wool is a great alternative to synthetic fabrics. It does absorb some liquid (16% to 18% of its weight), but not too much to make you feel uncomfortable. Wool has natural wicking properties through small spaces within the fabric created by a special protein called keratin. Although the results are not as good as synthetic fabrics, a type of wool called Merino wool can get pretty close.

Cotton

This is why you don’t see athletes wear cotton – it is anti-wicking! Cotton is highly porous, making it essentially like a sponge. Cotton can absorb a lot of water and doesn’t like to let go. Therefore, if you don’t like your clothes sticking to your sweaty skin, avoid cotton.

How many layers of wicking clothes should you wear?

If you are wearing a few layers of clothes, the moisture may be trapped between layers. Ideally, all layers should be made of moisture-wicking fabrics so that your sweat can move all the way to the top. For example, a lightweight street-side jacket made of Polyester will be perfect for outdoors. Having said that, the most important layer is the one closest to your skin so that your sweat can at least leave the body.

How to find the best activewears

Now you know to look for sweat-wicking fabrics like polyester and nylon, you’ve got the most important element. On top of that, we have some pro tips and a whole other blog “Why you need the right workout clothes and how to choose them” for you.

  • Elastic material that makes clothes fit to your body shape such as spandex
  • Seamless design to avoid skin irritations and chafing
  • Strong support features for your bust and pelvis areas such as back straps, compression, and a high waist cut
  • Open back and mesh patterns that promote airflow
  • Stylish look that allows you to wear it outside the gym/studio

When you look out for these features, you are bound to find the best activewear. If you are pumped to take your fitness to the next level, be sure to check out our outfits designed with function, convenience and fashion in mind!