Is antimicrobial fashion really effective against COVID-19 virus? Experts share their take

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Fashion and sportswear companies have rapidly adapted their ranges to include face masks branded with logos and trendy designs as there doesn’t seem to be an end to the global pandemic in sight.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), while cloth masks made of traditional materials can help slow the spread of COVID-19, some labels are going one step further. New accessories, and in some cases entire clothing collections, are advertised as having antimicrobial properties which claim to prevent the growth or decrease viral activity of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. What’s more? They are sold out within hours.

But what does antimicrobial fashion do, and during a pandemic, can it provide extra protection?

What do they claim?

In recent months, brands including Burberry which is a British fashion brand, have introduced masks that, they claim, are protected from microbes and germs. Burberry’s upcoming beige and blue designs come in the label’s signature check.

Diesel, the Italian retail clothing company, is selling denim that it claims is “virus-fighting.” The brand announced that it will use a technology called ViralOff, which it says “physically halts 99% of any viral activity,” in a number of items in its Spring-Summer 2021 collection. ViralOff works “by interacting with key proteins, inhibiting the virus from attaching to textile fibers,” reads Diesel’s press release.

In most countries, brands cannot claim that products will protect wearers from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, without providing sufficient evidence. ​Therefore, some labels simply allude to extra protection or hygiene, though the small print often reveals that antimicrobial treatments are only intended to inhibit bacterial or viral growth, not protect the user from pathogens. Meanwhile, WHO says that washing garments with soap once a day can also kill bacteria and viruses.

Experts speak

According to Amy Price, a senior research scientist at Stanford Anesthesia Informatics and Media (AIM) Lab who has advised the WHO on its face mask guidelines, it is difficult to determine whether antimicrobial treatments can protect wearers from the novel coronavirus without sound scientific testing by brands.

“The challenge is that sometimes claims are made, but they aren’t tested on the actual masks or with the actual virus,” she says.

Ms. Price, who studied the effectiveness of fabric masks alongside AIM Lab’s director, Larry Chu, said there are a number of variables that determine how much protection a product offers.

“Oftentimes, bacteria and viruses have different ways of reproducing and different things are effective against them,” she explained. “With antimicrobial (treatments) it’s important to know what you’re dealing with, what it’s been tested with and if it’s safe for human skin.
“(With) anything that you put on your face, especially that you’re going to be wearing day in and day out, you want to make sure it is really something that is safe or approved.”

The guidance around mask-wearing has continued to evolve since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic by the WHO in March. In order to reduce the transmission of the virus, many countries now mandate face coverings to be worn in public spaces.

“If you’re wearing a mask and the people around you are wearing it, we’ve seen that transmission of the coronavirus probably drops in the 90% plus range, which is pretty good odds,” Dr. Atul Grover, executive director of the Association of American Medical Colleges Research and Action Institute, said in August.

In their study, Ms. Price and Mr. Chu found that cloth masks can “do better than surgical masks in terms of blocking particles,” Price said, but only “if they’re made well,” with a triple-layered and tight-fitting design.

“Ultimately, it’s about having some form of barrier with multiple layers,” they said.

Related Studies

To date, few studies have been published that investigate the effect of antimicrobial and antiviral fabric treatments on the new coronavirus. And clothing brands do not use any particular form of technology, so each will require detailed individual research to determine their effectiveness. It will be necessary to consider whether a treated fabric will neutralize the virus and, if so, how long it takes, as the virus can get in within nanoseconds, as well as the number of washes that the antimicrobial treatment can withstand. ​

As companies race to appeal to anxious consumers, ​claims about antimicrobial garments’ effectiveness against the novel coronavirus itself appears to be expanding.

There is still much that is unknown about SARS-CoV-2, though keeping your clothing virus-free may potentially decrease the risk of cross-contamination. The primary routes of transmission and the amount of the virus needed to render a person sick are still disputed. While the risk has not been ruled out, according to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “touching a surface or object that has the virus on it is not considered to be the primary way the virus spreads.”

Antimicrobial ‘jeans’?

The possible benefits of antimicrobial fabrics are even less clear for garments that don’t usually come into contact with the face, like jeans, Ms. Price said. “Unless you’re going to just be sitting there, rubbing your legs and then rubbing your face, then what’s the point?” she asked. Plus, even if a textile treatment is proven to reduce certain viral activity, that doesn’t necessarily make it practical for all types of garments.

Ms. Price doesn’t discount the potential value of antimicrobial textiles, but so far, she said, the studies offer an incomplete picture. “Should this be tested? Yes,” she said. “But it should absolutely not be marketed to the public through press releases and industry brochures before the results are vetted and replicated in a fair test of treatments, like a well-run randomized clinical trial.”