From your everyday tees and jeans to your towels and sheets, experts share what to choose, what to avoid, and the common mistakes that could be messing with your skin.
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Tossing on your favorite wool sweater or pulling on skin-tight blue jeans day after day might not bother you. But for anyone with sensitive skin, choosing the right fabrics is essential. Make the wrong decision, and you'll be itchy, rashy, and red for the next few days. Ugh.
Sensitive skin, or skin that is easily irritated by external factors, is super common—but reactions and the kinds of skin conditions you can suffer from vary, and therefore the irritants and treatments do too, says Deirdre O'Boyle Hooper, M.D., a dermatologist in New Orleans.
Of course, knowing the kind of reaction you're experiencing can help you determine the best way not just to treat it, but also to prevent it. That's why if your skin is super sensitive or it seems like you're allergic to something, it's best to touch base with your dermatologist, who can help determine what the root issue is.
But know this: Buying the best shirts, bath towels, and bedding, and washing these fabrics appropriately, can also mean the difference between skin that's calm and soft, or inflamed and irritated. (The right skin care helps, too.) Here, a guide to how our skin reacts to some common fabrics (and how to keep 'em clean).
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Across the board, for bedding, towels, and clothes (including underwear), 100 percent cotton is the best fabric to avoid irritating your skin. "It's the least reactive fabric," says Mara Weinstein, M.D., a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. There are two caveats, however. Because cotton is a natural, porous fiber, it tends to hold onto anything that drifts passed it—think pollen and dust—which means you may need to wash those sheets more often if you have seasonal allergies. Additionally, cotton clothes and sheets are commonly treated with chemicals like formaldehyde resin, which can irritate skin, says Luz Fonacier, M.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
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This synthetic fiber is relatively safe for sensitive skin on its own, but trouble can occur when dyes and or sweat come into play. Dyes used on clothing are one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, says Dr. Fonacier. "These dyes account for two-thirds of the cases of allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) [a skin rash that can happen as a result of coming into contact with a substance], and they are primarily used in synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and spandex."
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It's no surprise that wool, although natural, fared worst on our experts' lists of fabrics. Even if you don't have sensitive skin, a wool sweater can cause an itchy neck or red wrists. The reason could be either allergic (from lanolin in all lambswool) or irritant (from the scratchy, rough texture of the fabric in general). Regardless, experts say, avoid it. Can't seem to part ways with your wool cardigan? Throw on a protective cotton undershirt to reduce the wool's contact with your skin, says Dr. Weinstein.
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Silk is generally a safe option for people with sensitive skin or reoccurring eczema outbreaks. But many silks are heavily dyed, says Dr. Weinstein, so be mindful if you have an allergy to colored dyes. Additionally, fabrics such as silk and polyester that don't breathe very well can react negatively with deodorant, causing body odor. "It mixes with the deodorant and your sweat and can exacerbate body odor, even if you're not normally a smelly person," she says.
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Jeans tend to have a lot of dye in them (think those jet black jeans you never want to wash, or the true blue denim shorts you live in all summer). If your skin is sensitive to dyes (blue is a common irritant, say Dr. Hooper), you could find rashes around your waistband or groin area, especially if your jeans are tight, cautions Dr. Weinstein. (FYI: Tight jeans could be giving you back pain, too.)
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Spandex (and polyester) is used in lots of athletic clothing—like yoga pants and that long-sleeve running tee you've had forever. Many of these items offer moisture-wicking benefits, too, which aim to draw sweat away from your body. "It's a great concept, but the only problem is that the shirt wicks your sweat, but where does it go? It holds onto it," says Dr. Weinstein. If you don't change your clothes after a long run or rinse off the sweat, you could be left with issues like folliculitis, an infection of the hair follicles that can cause white and red, pimple-like bumps. (Related: How often should you wash your yoga pants?)
And now, a little bit about washing these fabrics...
Here's something all of our docs agreed on: Always wash your clothes, bedding, and towels with a fragrance- and dye-free liquid detergent. "Fragrance is probably the number-one trigger for eczema flares and itchy skin in my practice," says Dr. Hooper.
The bottle might say "for sensitive skin" or "organic" or "all-natural", but if you don't see the words "fragrance-free," avoid it. This means skipping scented fabric softeners, too.
If you have sensitive skin, simply washing the sheets at all will decrease the bothersome allergens (pollen, dust mites, dyes, or chemical treatments), says Dr. Fonacier. But choose liquid detergent because powder versions have a tendency to leave a residue on clothing, which can irritant the skin. Bonus: If your machine offers a double-rinse option, go for it—it can help take away any irritating chemicals. You can also simply run the load of laundry through a second rinse-only cycle.