Dermatologist Dr. Erum Ilyas, FAAD sees about 6,000 patients each year at her office in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Most, during the course of their visit, will mention that they wear sunscreen on their face every day. The rest of their body? Not so much.
“There are lots of barriers and excuses to using sunblocks. Some don’t like the feel of them, some don’t like the smell, some don’t like the idea of chemicals,” said Ilyas.
But after telling patients every day for almost 15 years to wear sunscreen all over — Ilyas estimates she’s given this advice well over 100,000 times —she thought, “What if wearing sunscreen were as simple as getting dressed?”
In 2016, she began researching and testing textiles that offered sun protection because of their knit or tightness of weave. A year later, Ilyas launched AmberNoon, women’s clothing with built-in UV protection.
“The response has been tremendous,” said Ilyas. “I often get calls thanking me for providing a product that was simply not available.”
Clothing used to be “just” a reflection of personality.
However, in recent years, thanks to the evolution of athleisure, comfort’s taken fashionable precedence.
But now, we’re on the cusp of what’s called “well fashion”— clothes that add a little something extra in their fabric or structure in an effort to improve wellness, that aspirational triad of physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
At the recent Global Wellness Summit in New York, an invitation-only international gathering that brings together experts from different sectors of the $4.2 trillion wellness economy, “well fashion” was deemed one of the buzziest trends of 2019.
“We wear clothes all the time, and when you think about it, the fact they haven’t done anything for us is really bizarre,” said Beth McGroarty, vice president of research and forecasting for the Global Wellness Summit. “Technology’s been around a long time but our clothes have been stupid.”
Not, however, for much longer.
Well fashion isn’t one size fits all. For instance, the collagen peptides in Buki’s limited-edition shirts, hoodies, and scarves promise to soften, hydrate, and protect your skin.
Monsoon Blooms sells organic cotton clothes dyed with Ayurvedic medicinal herbs, part of India’s ancient medicine system. (Their dye house in Kerala even sells clothing to locals based on their ailments.)
Cool-jams sleepwear, initially developed for the Canadian Armed Forces, uses a moisture-wicking fabric to help battle night sweats caused by conditions like menopause, diabetes, and obesity.
Medical experts are also starting to realize how they can help their patients. Ilyas knows podiatrists who’ve started their own shoe lines.
“Consider the fact that you cannot buy a coffee without a warning that it can burn you, but you can buy four-inch platform heels with no warning about what could happen to your ankles when you try to take your first step,” Ilyas pointed out. “Who better to understand the causes of our ailments and directly address them than those that manage and treat them every single day?”
Of course, tech’s playing a part, too.
“Fitness wearable technology that monitors your heart, movement, even your sleep — that stuff was held up from moving into clothing because of clunky technology,” McGroarty said.
(Not to mention a reputation for being “geek gear.”)
Now, University of Massachusetts at Amherst scientists have figured out how to transform common clothing into sensors by applying polymer coatings onto existing fabrics, threads, and garments.
“We can build electronic devices directly on the textile surface,” explains Trisha L. Andrew, PhD, director of the Wearable Electronics Lab at UMass Amherst.
Over the past three years, she and her team have transformed off-the-shelf fabrics and yarns into a variety of stand-alone electronic devices, including electrode-decorated underwear that can monitor heart rate and special fabrics able to detect joint motion, sleep posture, or how fast or slow you’re breathing.
Despite their complexity, these fabrics don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. They’re made to withstand bending, folding, scraping, rubbing, machine washing — even a hot iron.
All the while, they “retain the weight, feel, flexibility and comfort of the starting fabrics and yarns,” Andrew said.
Researchers at the University of Maryland have developed a revolutionary new fabric that can automatically control the amount of heat that passes through it.
“When hot and humid (when the wearer is sweating), the textile will ‘open the gate’ and allow more thermal radiation to get through so body heat can be removed more quickly. When cold and dry, the textile will ‘close the gate’ and reduce the thermal radiation transmission and emission, therefore keeping heat in the body,” explained Zhiwei Peng, PhD, assistant research professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland.
More work is needed before you can buy items that contain this “meta-cooling technology,” but “no doubt, the smart clothing system in the future could play an important role to monitor, maintain, and even improve the wearer’s health,” said Peng.
Smart clothing like this can help people who have trouble regulating their own body temperature, including older adults and infants.
“Also, this new technology could be helpful for military personnel in the battlefield, outdoor athletes, and workers in hot and humid plant sites,” said Peng. “In such extreme conditions people aren’t able to maintain their body temperature fluctuations with normal clothing systems.”
As smart as any of this new clothing may be, you’ll still need to use some common sense.
You still need to take care of your health
For instance, as far as UV clothing’s concerned, “there’s no protection for skin that isn’t covered,” pointed out Dr. Eudene Harry, medical director for Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center, a wellness practice devoted to integrative holistic care in Orlando, Florida.
Cooling- and heating-assist clothing can help keep you more comfy, but they “do not imbibe you with superhuman powers, [so] overexertion and overexposure to extreme temperatures still pose the same risk of hyperthermia and hypothermia,” Harry said.
What about antibacterial chemicals?
There’s still a lot that scientists need to study. Antibacterial clothing’s a good example.
It raises several questions, said Harry, including, “How concerned should we be about the development of super bacteria that become resistant to our arsenal of antibiotics? The skin is known to be absorbable, so what materials are used to imbibe antibacterial and odor-killing properties into these fabrics? Are the substances used to infuse clothing safe for use in the long term?”
According to a Washington University study, the chemical triclosan (which can be used in antibacterial clothing) may accidentally toughen bacteria to survive normally lethal concentrations of antibiotics.
So, perhaps wear everything, including your beloved anti-stink gym clothes, in moderation.
The placebo effect is real
You think you’re well, and therefore you are.
Yet, “as we know, the placebo effect is a real phenomenon,” Harry said.
Nothing wrong with that, but “don’t ignore a health symptom based on the fact that your pain or symptom seems to have improved with the clothing,” advised Harry.
It’s well fashion, after all. Not magic.