How Moisture-Wicking Fabrics Work and Why You Should Care

To put it another way: Stop wearing regular old cotton clothing in the gym. Your body will thank you.

By Brent Hannify | September 16, 2022

If you’ve ever had a tough workout while wearing a standard cotton shirt, you might be familiar with the unpleasant sensation that feels like you’re drowning in your own perspiration. Cotton isn’t your friend in the gym because it absorbs sweat and doesn’t dry quickly, leaving you with a wet and heavy feeling that can irritate your skin and slow you down.

That’s where moisture-wicking athletic apparel comes in, made with fabrics designed to keep you cool, comfortable, and moving right during whatever workout you’re doing.

How does moisture-wicking fabric work?

As you exercise, you sweat. At least, you should sweat. If you’re not, you’re either a marvel of humankind or you’re doing it wrong. In any case, as you perspire, sweat gets drawn away from your skin towards your clothing. If you’re wearing a highly absorbent natural fabric like cotton, the moisture gets absorbed into the fibers of the clothes, then basically stays there.

Moisture-wicking fabrics on the other hand, are specially designed to transfer the moisture from the layer of the shirt next your skin, then transports—or “wicks”—it through to the outer layer side of the shirt. Since the moisture is now physically on the exterior of the shirt, it dries quicker and doesn’t get weighed down like cotton does.

What’s the best moisture-wicking fabric?

The term doesn’t apply to just one type of fabric. Polyester, polypropylene, nylon are all examples of synthetic fabric that can be moisture-wicking.

Polyester is a synthetic—or, lab-made—fabric that’s durable, lightweight, and breathable. It also tends to be flexible, especially if it’s combined in a fabric with nylon, making it an ideal fabric for physical exertion.

On the natural side, there’s Merino wool, grown by Merino sheep. These magical sheep produce very fine soft wool that’s prized in the apparel industry because it naturally adapts to moisture and temperature. Wearing Merino wool when it’s cold outside locks in heat and keeps you warm, and when it’s hot outside, it naturally wicks moisture in much the same way that synthetic fabrics do. This is why it’s the fabric of choice for Darn Tough socks, renowned for their durability and reliability on the trail and in the gym. The downside of Merino wool is, like many natural resources, it’s expensive, which is why most athletic apparel is made of synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and elastane.

GovX Gear athletic apparel features moisture-wicking fabrics.

Moisture-wicking fabric isn’t everything. Design matters too.

Now we’ve gone over the basics of how moisture-wicking fabric keeps you dry and comfortable during your workout. But what about those extra touches that brands include in their garment designs?

Many designers include thoughtful additions like mesh zones and ventilating panels, strategically placed at points on the body to promote not only unencumbered movement, but extra breathability as well. Essentially aiding the already-underway moisture-wicking process.

The Resolute Training shirt for example, includes mesh zones on the sleeves under the armpits, giving you that extra bit of comfort during particularly grueling workouts. (Of course, who needs sleeves at all when you’re rocking a tank top?)

There are also shorts with ventilating panels near the hem, promoting extra airflow that really comes in handy during warm weather outdoor training or muggy weight rooms on humid days.

The GovX Gear Archon shorts include ventilation zones on the hems for added breathability.

How to properly take care of moisture-wicking clothing

Make sure to read the care label on all your clothing. Some technical fabrics may require special treatments than others. But for general instructions, consider these tips:

  • Wash in cold water, preferably with like colors.
  • Use powdered detergent instead of liquid detergent. It tends to be gentler on the fabric.
  • Tumble dry on low heat, or even better, air dry.
  • Don’t dry clean.
  • Don’t use bleaches or fabric softeners.

We hope this guide has convinced you to never throw on any old cotton t-shirt when working out. As you can see, moisture-wicking fabrics are a smarter choice for physical exertion. So if you truly want to focus on your form while feeling free and ventilated and lightweight, load out with moisture-wicking athletic apparel and discover the difference for yourself.

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