While adhering to social distancing guidelines and wearing a face mask still top the list as the most effective methods to avoid contracting and transmitting COVID-19, some fashion brands have started manufacturing garments that they say could also help prevent infection.
Italian brand Apposta, maker of high-end, custom button-front shirts, recently introduced an antiviral fabric with Viroformula technology. The customizable Apposta shirts cost $155 to $175 each.
Diesel partnered with Swedish firm Polygiene to launch their fabric treatment technology called ViralOff, which will be used on select pieces in the Spring and Summer 2021 lines.
And Intelligent Fabric Technologies North America (IFTNA), a Canadian-based biotech company, has provided brands like Under Armour with a textile coating technology it calls PROTX2 AV. Under Armour uses the antiviral treated fabric as a layer in its Sportsmask ($30), which sold out in an hour in early June. IFTNA doesn’t disclose exactly which chemicals are used in its antiviral coating or where it conducted the efficacy testing against COVID-19, but the company states that it kills 99.9% of the virus within 10 minutes of contact and works by destroying the fatty molecules that surround the virus.
How these fabrics claim to work
Apposta’s Viroformula relies on a technology called Viroblock, developed by Swiss company HeiQ. Viroformula and Viroblock use silver-based applications to attract and bind viruses as well as a “fatty vesicle technology that works as a booster.” HeiQ conducted testing with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, with results showing a 99.99% reduction of the virus on treated fabrics.
Antibacterial and antimicrobial textile treatments are not new technologies.
“We’ve known for a long time that you could add coatings to fabrics to prevent the growth of and kill different types of bacteria. That’s been around since the 1990s,” microbiologist Jason Tetro (aka The Germ Guy) told HuffPost. “[We have] silver-impregnated fabrics that are designed to make sure your feet don’t smell, so this whole idea is not new. What is new is that we’re looking at using it for facial protection and as a prevention against pathogen transmission.”
Lee W. Riley of the University of California’s School of Public Health explained that viruses have DNA, RNA and proteins, and within these are phosphorus and sulfur molecules.
“Silver ions bind to the sulfur and proteins, which disrupt the virus’s DNA so it can’t replicate,” Riley told HuffPost. “Especially affected are the proteins on the membranes of the microbes; once the membrane is disrupted, the virus or bacteria no longer remains viable.”
Silver, by itself, is a reactionary chemical. “In other words,” Tetro said, “if you have just a little silver element and then you bring water into it, and then you bring other things around it, it’s going to want to react with them and create bonds. It’s just a hugger.”
What this means is that the silver in the textile coating or treatment gravitates to and bonds with the sulfur-containing amino acids and proteins of the virus.
“And, if that sulfur-containing molecule happens to be what’s necessary for the virus to get into you, then the silver is effectively blocking the opportunity for the virus to enter your cells. We call that inactivation,” Tetro explained.
HeiQ’s fatty vesicle technique works because, just like our blood forms cholesterol membranes, viruses also use cholesterol to form their membranes. This knowledge comes from a 2008 study published in Virology, which found cholesterol was a necessary component for a virus to really get into human cells.
“You want to prevent the virus’s ability to infect by taking away the cholesterol. You create these liposomes (a spherical sac or bubble often used to deliver drugs to the body). And what that’s going to do is when the liposomes come up against something that has cholesterol, it’s going to suck the cholesterol right out of it. And when you do that to a virus, not only are you preventing the protein from getting in, but you’re also preventing the entire chemistry of the virus infection to happen,” Tetro said.
“Now, that may take hours. It’s not instantaneous,” he added. None of these fabric coatings or treatments kills the virus instantly on contact.
Polygiene’s ViralOff works a little differently than the HeiQ formula. “What they’re doing is taking metals that are known to have antimicrobial activity, like silver titanium, and they’re just spraying it into the fabric. What that does is essentially, when the virus gets in there, it’ll eventually come into contact with the sprayed-on metal. And then as they say, in their [words], it’ll die within two hours,” Tetro said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s titanium, copper or silver: all of those ions have that ability to want to be huggers. And as a result of that, they can bring down the protein levels and inactivate the virus,” Tetro said. This is why some face mask manufacturers have put copper in their masks.
Can you contract COVID-19 from your clothes in the first place?
The possibility of contracting COVID-19 from fabric you’re wearing is not very high, according to Riley. “It’s not really transmitted through clothing,” he said.
“It takes about an hour [of exposure to these treated fabrics] to just bring down the number of virus particles by maybe 20%,” Riley said. COVID-19 is thought to be spread primarily via droplets and aerosols when somebody talks, coughs or sneezes as opposed to from surfaces.
“So just having these [treatments] on clothing, even on masks, is not going to be that effective. Some groups have tried to make masks with copper wires in them and they really are just not going to do that much because it takes time for these types of products to have an effect on the total number of microbes that somebody might be exposed to,” Riley added.
“In order for a person to get infected, the virus has to be aerosolized. If somebody touches those surfaces and then rubs their eyes, or sticks their finger into their mouth, then yes, potentially you can get infected, but those types of transmission mechanisms are very, very, unlikely,” Riley pointed out.
Silver-based technologies used in textile treatments do indeed inhibit the virus as they claim to, but consumers should keep in mind that COVID-19 is really a respiratory virus. As both Riley and Tetro point out, transmission from clothing is not incredibly likely. That being said, adding another barrier against virus transmission can’t hurt. Just don’t forget to wear a mask with your new antiviral jeans (while also socially distancing).