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What’s that smell?

My Take | July 10, 2017 | By:

There have been antimicrobial and antibacterial treatments available for textiles for some time now, and they’re effective against a variety of serious pathogens. It’s understandable that the textile industry has focused on tackling dangerous infections rather than … well, stinky clothes.

One might expect that a treatment that can kill microbes that cause illness and infections will destroy malodors, too. Not necessarily. In fact, there’s even a word for odors that won’t wash out of textiles: permastink. That’s right, permanently stinky clothes. And you don’t have to be a marathon runner to run across this problem.

With the popularity of “athleisure” clothing in the workplace – and every place – even a relatively sedentary office worker can add “permastink” to his or her vocabulary. The reason may be in the material: the wonderfully versatile polyester, which is a popular fabric for athletic and leisure clothing. And why not? It keeps its shape nicely, dries fast and its comfortable.

But it has a problem. A story on in September 2014 reported that researchers at the University of Ghent, Belgium, think they know what it is: “The bacteria that flourish on a sweaty polyester T-shirt are different from those that grow on cotton.” Furthermore, industry researchers have found that once those smells are trapped in the fabric, resulting in permastink, washing the garment (or the bedding, or other textile product) isn’t likely to get rid of it.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Except that help is on the way. You won’t have to transfer the gym bag you forgot in the trunk of your car (parked in the hot sun) directly to the trash or recycling. You will have to pay attention to the information on the tags of your clothing purchases, though. You can start by reading Debra Cobb’s feature on this site, “Rethinking odor control,” so when you read the tag you’ll know for sure that you’re getting a product that uses a textile designed for odor control.

With the success of these new technologies, you might even be able to wear your clothes from the gym to the office. But don’t do that quite yet, please.

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