“Water is the driving force of all nature” - Leonardo Da Vinci
When something is antimicrobial it kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms and when something is antibacterial it interferes with the growth or reproduction of bacteria.
The lanolin found on sheep’s wool protects sheep’s skin from infection. Lanolin is secreted by the sebaceous glands and this fatty substance has antibacterial properties.
Research conducted in 2007 (McQueen et al.) had five males wear different fabric samples, of which wool was one, over a number of days before assessing the odour of each. The results showed that polyester was the most odoriferous and wool was the least.
Tests conducted by the CSIRO in Australia in 2006 showed that wool socks were preferred because of lack of odour after wearing and after washing.
Given the above, it’s easy to see how you could jump to the conclusion that wool is antibacterial and antimicrobial.
However, in the paper, ‘Wool in Human Health and Well-Being’ by Raechel Laing and Paul Swan, the authors concluded that “No evidence has been identified which shows wool is intrinsically antibacterial or antimicrobial”, but also that “Wool fabrics (garments) after wear, have less intense odour than matched cotton or polyester fabrics”.
When wool is processed for fabric most of the lanolin is removed.
Furthermore, in the McQueen et al. study mentioned above, the bacterial counts on day one were similar for all fabrics.
So then why is it that when tested wool garments consistently come in lowest on the odour scale?
If you look at what body odour is, you see a picture emerging. Body odour is caused largely by bacteria and other organisms that are present on our skin. When these interact with human sweat, they can result in an unpleasant odour. Clothing can attribute to this due to organisms that can reside in certain fabrics. So it makes sense that the less you sweat the less you smell and that what you wear can make a difference.
Wearing wool garments can slow thermophysiological responses meaning you remain comfortable in a wider range of conditions.
Wool is naturally hygroscopic and thus has the ability to absorb moisture and transport it away from the body leaving your skin dry and comfortable. Unlike synthetic fabrics where sweat build up becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, wool’s breathability reduces the risk of your clothes taking on unpleasant body odour.
Because of the above, wool clothing outperforms other fibres when it comes to odour resistance, and it doesn’t need to be washed anywhere near as frequently as synthetics. Simply airing your wool garment will help cleanse the fibre. This is an added benefit if you are hiking or biking and need to keep the clothing you carry to a minimum. Reducing the number of times you washing your clothes is also beneficial for the environment.