Can antimicrobial fabric stop the spread of viruses? It’s not a new question, but it has been dragged to the forefront of many minds as we watch the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, sweep across the world.
The practice of using specific materials on various surfaces to prevent the buildup and spread of germs has a long history. In ancient Egypt, spices and herbs were used on burial dressings for mummification. Bamboo with antimicrobial properties was used for building in China, and up through the 19th century, copper pots and brass door knobs were common, whether or not our ancestors understood precisely the benefits of these materials.
Around World War II, it became common to apply various substances and chemical treatments to fabrics for truck covers, uniforms, and other textiles to prevent the growth of microbes like mold, mildew, and bacteria, while keeping fabrics clean and strong, although those treatments often came with little regard to the health and environmental effects of their application.
Today, technologies related to antimicrobial textiles are incredibly varied and increasingly eco-friendly. However, in discussion of the use of antimicrobials to prevent the spread of disease, particularly in relation to the spread of COVID-19, it’s important to understand what antimicrobial fabrics can and cannot do.
First, let’s take a look at what antimicrobial fabric is.
Antimicrobial fabric is fabric treated with or infused with one or several of a variety of substances to keep microbes such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses from flourishing within its fibers. This is particularly important, as the porous surfaces of textiles tend to hold in moisture and heat, especially when close to the human body, which makes an environment that is exceptionally conducive to the growth of microorganisms.
A single bacteria cell, in the right situation, can multiply to over a million in the span of just 8 hours without intervention. Unchecked microbes can lead to infections in those with prolonged close contact with contaminated fabric and the spread of pathogenic disease, as well as deterioration of the strength of the fibers, so prevention of their growth is highly important.
Antimicrobial fabric is used in healthcare, primarily for bed dressings, drapery, and gowns, so that said textiles don’t become contaminated and need to be replaced as often. It is also used in filters, packaging, and uniforms in countless other industries.
That said, antimicrobial fabric is not a material that kills all germs on contact.
Even the fastest acting antimicrobial fabrics can take up to ten minutes to kill many microbes, and those are just one end of a spectrum of results that are all labeled ‘antimicrobial’. Some fabrics merely slow or stop the growth of germs without killing them, while others may kill a percentage of germs over time.
In terms of availability, the vast majority of fabrics, particularly fashion fabrics, marketed to the public as antimicrobial fall into the ‘slowing or stopping growth’ portion of the spectrum. They’re meant for use in athleticwear, and they’re great at it, as they prevent moisture buildup that starts to smell. When paired with moisture-wicking material, you’ve got the perfect material to keep you and your clothes feeling cleaner and smelling better through a long, sweaty workout.
However, a mask made of the average antimicrobial fabric is no more effective against coronavirus than a mask of any other fabric, and depending on the density of the weave of the fabric, may even be less effective than a mask of, say, a tightly woven cotton.
That said, specialty fabrics infused with zinc and copper oxides or silver ions have been proven effective in destroying viruses, particularly lipid-enveloped viruses like coronavirus. These fabrics, however, are still in the early stages of production, primarily in Switzerland and Israel, and the companies producing them are directing them to the production of personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals. As the need for PPE increases, it’s unlikely that we’ll see them available for public use in the near future.
So, there have recently been many improvements in antimicrobial fabrics for preventing the spread of disease, particularly in a healthcare setting, but the use of antimicrobial fabrics is not a substitute for good hygiene and social distancing.