Sweat is an unfortunate constant if you're going to get a good workout, and choosing the right clothing for your type of activity has to take perspiration into account. Moisture-wicking undergarments transport perspiration away from the skin and evaporate moisture more quickly than traditional fabrics. A proper moisture-wicking undergarment can greatly improve your comfort over the course of a hike, run, bike ride or workout, and the type of material you choose can also help control the associated odor that comes with intense physical activity. Moisture-wicking undergarments vary, and each material has its benefits and drawbacks; choose the material that best suits your activity.
Types of Undergarments
Depending on the activity, your undergarments will vary in their length and cut. For most workouts and activities, a pair of moisture-wicking undergarments can be used underneath your usual workout clothes. However, in cooler weather and winter activities, a complete base layer that covers most of your body can be appropriate and should be made of a moisture-wicking material. Fabrics like cotton absorb perspiration, cooling the body dramatically, which can be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous in cooler conditions. Choose the style of your next-to-skin layer based on the type of activity and the conditions you expect to encounter.
Polyester and Nylon
Synthetic undergarments use petroleum-based fibers of specific sizes and weights and are widespread in athletic clothing. Synthetics like nylon and polyester evaporate perspiration very quickly because the fibers are nonabsorbent. These materials usually do a poor job of preventing odor buildup, although many companies weave silver or bamboo charcoal into the garment to give the fabric odor-resistant properties. These fabrics are also more durable than other fabrics of the same weight.
Silk is a more traditionally used wicking undergarment and maintains some of the highest durability among fabrics. Silk fibers are slightly absorbent but they evaporate moisture faster than traditional garments. Silk is most useful for cool-weather activities, and the luxurious hand of the fabric makes it ideal as a next-to-skin layer. Silk resists some odor naturally but works best with frequent cleaning. Some silk fabrics are treated to improve their moisture-wicking properties.
Merino wool is a special variety of wool that is harvested from merino sheep, which grow the finest and softest wool available. This moisture-wicking fabric does not resemble traditional wool, with a fine weave and a soft hand. Merino wool boasts the best odor resistance of any fabric due to a natural protein structure in the fiber and is ideal for extended use between washings. The fabric can be woven with spandex to maintain its shape, as the fibers naturally stretch with use. However, most merino wool garments do not shrink in the wash like traditional wool. The main drawback of this fabric stems from a reduced durability when compared with silk and synthetics.
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.