Antibacterial, or “anti-odor,” clothing is one of those concepts that sounds too good to be true. Yet you can easily find a diverse array of socks, shirts, and jackets with antimicrobial properties for sale online. The garb is advertised as being resistant not only to odor-causing bacteria, but even the very germs that can make us sick.
Sounds great, but what’s the catch? Well, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Alberta, the catch is that they don’t really work—like, at all.
A team led by Dr. Rachel McQueen studied two types of bacteria-resistant fabrics: one designed to reduce the risk of infection, and another crafted to prevent unpleasant odor.
The first test measured the antimicrobial effects of three different textiles commonly found in these products, and showed no significant reduction in bacterial presence. The second test showed nearly identical results: no difference in odor or bacterial intensity.
How could this be? How could advertisers make such grand claims with virtually no scientific evidence to back them up? The key, according to Dr. McQueen, is in the way the textiles were analyzed.
In lab tests, researchers actually did observe significant reductions in bacterial activity for both types of textiles. But the human tests—really, the only tests that matter—showed no measurable difference in microbial growth.
“We aren't necessarily seeing the same results in the lab about antimicrobial activity translating into antimicrobial activity when we're wearing them next to our bodies in real life,” McQueen said in a statement.
The reason is likely due to the multitude of variables—from proteins to swear—that could interfere with the antimicrobial properties of certain textiles. The lesson, says McQueen, is to be skeptical of marketing claims.
"If you're actually buying something that says it's antimicrobial, it may not be," she added. "I think that's important to consider in relation to a lot of claims made about textiles—that is, to be skeptical about the claims marketers make."
Advertising claims aside, other research suggests these antimicrobial materials may have harmful effects on the human body. For example, silver nanoparticles—a microscopic material known for its antibacterial effects—are too small to cling to their host fabrics, and may leach into your skin and cause unknown cell damage in the process.
Ultimately, it's just another reason why you should treat miraculous marketing claims with a hefty dose of skepticism.