Antimicrobial Material Could Become a Bigger Part of Apparel’s Future

One provider is rebranding its self-cleaning fibers as consumers seek health products

Mack Weldon storefront
Mack Weldon is one of the clothing purveyors utilizing Noble's antimicrobial technology. PRNewsfoto/Mack Weldon
Headshot of Richard Collings

Key insight:

Antimicrobial fibers are doing a lot more than fighting odor these days.

The sale of the self-cleaning material, typically used in products such as underwear, is soaring since the Covid-19 pandemic began in March, as consumers increasingly seek out health and wellness products.

According data provided by Nielsen, sales of health and beauty care products are up 9% year-over-year for the ten-week period ended May 9, while the purchase of vitamins has jumped almost 47%.

Noble Biomaterials, a provider of these types of fibers, said in an email that sales of its healthcare and personal protective equipment segment rose 356% from 2019 to 2020. The ionized fibers—the ions are produced by silver woven into the cloth—are found to be effective at both killing bacteria and neutralizing viruses in general. The company can’t claim in its marketing, however, that the material is effective in combating viruses such as Covid-19 due to federal regulations.

Because of heightened awareness around and demand for products with antimicrobial attributes, Noble is overhauling the brand name for a key ingredient from XT2 to Ionic+.

The XT2 name was a bit problematic because customers had a difficult time remembering it, according to CMO Christy Raedeke. Ionic+ was inspired by and refers to how silver in ionic form combats microbes by throwing off ions when it comes into contact with water.

“The name is focused on mechanized action, and we wanted to tell a story around it,” Raedeke explained.

The fiber Noble sells is permanently embedded with positively charged silver ions, she explained, adding that a garment is self-cleaning if just 7% of the fabric is composed of Ionic+, while the remaining 93% can be other natural or synthetic fibers.

Antimicrobial fibers are added to items such as athletic apparel, bedding and towels, and historically have been used by hospitals in everything from scrubs to privacy screens.

It’s the latest sign of changing times, as health and safety are top of mind for all businesses, including apparel companies.

Notable retail brands such as Athleta, Mack Weldon and Outdoor Voices are among Noble’s key customers, which buy its fibers and then weave them into their products.

Many of these customers partnered with Noble long before the pandemic because fabric with the ionized fibers prevents odor-causing bacteria. The new branding is in part to acknowledge that ionized fibers do so much more than prevent odor, and will slowly be rolled out with its clients, with new hang tags appearing on apparel items touting the Ionic+ ingredient.

Noble’s partnership with Mack Weldon, for example, goes back to the brand’s beginnings in 2012, said Matthew Congdon, creative director of the men’s apparel brand.

As consumers transition to the new normal, antimicrobials will increasingly factor into the way people dress, Congdon tells Adweek. Before, it was largely limited to activewear and niche categories, but it is expanding beyond that now.

One of the company’s first underwear products, in 2012, contained antimicrobial fibers to fend off odor-causing bacteria and has a growing and loyal following, he said. But since the arrival of Covid-19, consumers are looking for clothing that has a number of uses.

“Clothing should act on multiple levels,” he said.

Next week, Mack Weldon will begin selling face masks made of the material with the added benefit of being water resistant. Congdon expects more apparel products will contain fibers with antimicrobial properties in the future.

The men’s apparel company will also be relaunching an “ionic” bag with an antimicrobial lining, which it first introduced two years ago.

In addition to Noble, other providers of antimicrobial fibers include Unifi, which is also known for making fibers from recycled plastic bottles, as well as Matexcel, which just began selling such materials in April.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect data from Nielsen that shows the growth of health and wellness products during the pandemic.

@RichCollings Richard Collings is a retail reporter at Adweek.