The Best Workout Material for Activewear Performance

Woman working out
Photo: Westend61/Getty

Your activewear does more than make you look good — the best workout materials can also increase the efficiency of your sweat sesh by keeping you cool and comfortable.

01 of 12

Bamboo

Nola Crop Leggings
Tasc Performance

If you want super soft yet moisture-wicking activewear, turn to bamboo. Bamboo pulp yields a natural fabric that's light, breathable, and has an anti-static nature, according to an article in the Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management, meaning you won't have to tug your tank top off of your stomach the entire time you're working out. This best workout material can also protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet rays while you jog outdoors, per the Children's Melanoma Prevention Foundation. "It feels insanely soft, repels odors, regulates your temperature, and is UPF 50+," says Sarah Chase, a Tasc Performance designer. (Hold on, what does UPF mean, anyway?)

Tasc Performance blends chemical-free bamboo with organic cotton, wool, and spandex to make workout clothes like the Nola Crop Leggings (Buy It, $68, tascperformance.com) and St. Charles Bamboo Quarter Zip (Buy It, $72, tascperformance.com). "Bamboo is the Swiss Army Knife of performance fabrics," says Chase. "You could run a marathon, then go to spin class, then run errands, and you'll stay fresh, dry, and sun-protected."

02 of 12

Cotton

Pact's Go-To Crop Leggings
Pact

In the battle between cotton and polyester, cotton wins the whiff test. A 2014 study, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, showed that this best workout material gives off less post-exercise stench than polyester because cotton absorbs sweat and those nasty odors, while synthetic fabrics don't absorb as well due to their molecular structure. Plus, stink-causing bacteria grow better on synthetic fabrics. (If your gear still reeks after a wash, follow this guide to cleaning your clothes.)

But don't head to spin class in a cotton tee just yet. Cotton absorbs moisture, potentially making you feel like a dishrag during a high-intensity workout. To get the best of both worlds during yoga, weight training, or other low-sweat activities, go with clothes made from cotton blends — like Pact's Go-To Crop Leggings (Buy It, $38, wearpact.com) or Alo Yoga's Heat Wave Crop Tank (Buy It, $44, carbon38.com)

03 of 12

GORE-TEX

Brooks Ghost 12 GTX
Dick's Sporting Goods

When you're running, biking, or hiking, you need protection from the elements. In those cases, GORE-TEX is your best friend. While not exactly a fabric on its own, this synthetic membrane coats regular fabrics, making it waterproof and windproof yet allows the skin to breathe. "Water from the outside doesn't penetrate, the cold wind does not pass through, and perspiration can escape," says Cindy Otto Woods, North America product champion for Gore Bike Wear and Gore Running Wear. Translation: You won't be drenched in sweat *and* frozen to the bone.

No wonder so much outside gear, such as jackets, footwear, gloves, and more, are made with this best workout material tech. Find it in running shoes such as Brooks Ghost 12 GTX (Buy It, $160, dickssportinggoods.com) and the GORE WEAR R3 running shirt (Buy It, $60, amazon.com).

04 of 12

Nylon

Beyond Yoga's Twinkle Legging 
Revolve

The first commercially viable synthetic fiber and famously used to make women's stockings, nylon is stretchy, quick-drying, and mildew resistant. But is nylon breathable? You bet. The fabric allows cool air to reach the skin and also wicks sweat from your skin to the fabric's surface, where it can evaporate.

Thanks to these traits — plus its soft-as-silk feel — you'll find this best workout material in all kinds of sportswear, like the Beyond Yoga's Twinkle Legging (Buy It, $99, revolve.com) and the Free People Keep It Up Tank (Buy It, $58, revolve.com). "It can stand up to even the sweatiest of workouts," says Isabelle de la Fontaine, the product director of the now-defunct women's clothing store Lucy's. "It also has tremendous stretch and recovery, so your pants move with you."

05 of 12

Polypropylene

Coldpruf Single Layer Pants
Amazon

Like polyester, polypropylene is made from plastic. But unlike polyester, this synthetic material is totally water-resistant, says Lauren Hallworth, product line manager for Brooks Running apparel. Plus, polypropylene forces moisture to pass through its fibers, expelling it to the fabric's surface where it can evaporate. "Even if you're sweaty after a run and the outside of the shirt is wet, what's touching you is completely dry," says Hallworth. "It's great as a base layer."

That's why Coldpruf, an outdoor apparel brand, uses the best workout material in its Enthusiast Single Layer Pants (Buy It, $20, amazon.com) and Enthusiast Crew long sleeve (Buy It, $19, amazon.com) to provide thermal protection in cold weather when you're camping, hiking, or skiing.

And polypropylene is inherently stain resistant. The reason: The fabric can only change colors when it's in a hot liquid form, way before it's transformed into the tank top you're wearing, according to Revolution Fabrics. If you spill your protein shake all over yourself, you can easily wipe away the liquid and clean it with bleach with some bleach without ruining your outfit's color.

06 of 12

Spandex

girlfriend collective

Spandex — also known by the brand name Lycra — puts the stretch in workout wear. The synthetic fabric can stretch up to six times its normal length, and then snaps back in place, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity focused on accelerating the transition to an economy that aims to eliminate waste and continuously reuse resources in the fashion and textile industry. This best workout material also wicks moisture, dries quickly, and offers an unrestricted range of motion. And if you're still wondering, "is spandex breathable?", the short and sweet answer is most definitely.

You'll typically find spandex blended with other fabrics, rather than on its own. Lululemon Athletica's Align Super High Rise Shorts (Buy It, $58, lululemon.com) are largely made with nylon, while Lycra gives the bottoms stretch and keeps them from becoming baggy over time. Girlfriend Collective's Compressive Leggings (Buy It, $68, girlfriendcollective.com) are composed of 79-percent recycled polyester and 21-percent spandex so you can take on any HIIT workout without your pants falling down.

07 of 12

TENCEL

Merrell Trek Tencel Full Zip
Merrell

Similar to bamboo, TENCEL is made from sustainably sourced wood pulp. The best workout material is not only breathable and biodegradable, but it also contains tiny fibrils, or small hairs, that give the fabric sweat-wicking properties and a luxurious texture — the same high performance qualities as plastic fabrics. (

"The fiber is really close to polyester in structure, so it's super durable," Laura Zimmerman, apparel and accessories merchandising director at outdoor gear company Merrell, previously told Shape. The name TENCEL actually stands for Tenacity and Cellulose combined, and because it's a natural fiber, it has anti-microbial benefits along with a smooth finish, adds Zimmerman. You can find the material in Merrell's Trek Tencel Full Zip (Buy It, $99, merrell.com) and Tencel Tank (Buy It, $30, merrell.com).

08 of 12

Wool

Athleta Foresthill Merino Wool Ascent Top
Athleta

This best workout material is no longer a staple just for hikers. The material creates pockets that trap air, so it's fantastic at regulating heat and keeping your body warm. But it's also breathable and moisture-wicking, making it ideal for any outdoor workout, from jogs around the block to long walks on the trails, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Bonus: Wool is naturally antibacterial and can be washed less than polyester and other materials, Tara St. James, founder of Study New York and an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, previously told Shape.

You'll find wool in Athleta's long-sleeve tees (Buy It, $74, athleta.com); Nagnata's knit bike shorts (Buy It, $117, nagnata.com); Athletic Propulsion Lab's hoodies (Buy It, $275, athleticpropulsionlabs.com); and Icebreaker's leggings (Buy It, $485, icebreaker.com).

09 of 12

Polyester

Spanx's Medium Impact Sports Bra
Spanx

Polyester is the workhorse of the workout fabrics and the one you see on labels most often. Basically plastic cloth, it's durable, wrinkle-resistant, lightweight, and non-absorbent, which means that moisture from your skin evaporates instead of being drawn into the material. But is polyester breathable? Sure is — so you won't feel like you're suffocating while wearing polyester gear.

The best workout material is also one of the best for protecting against UV rays thanks to its tightly woven structure, which prevents the sun's rays from shining through and hitting your skin, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Turn to polyester activewear such as Spanx's Medium Impact Sports Bra (Buy It, $58, spanx.com) and cold-weather products like Athleta's Running Free Jacket (Buy It, $128, athleta.com) whether you're breaking a sweat indoors or out in the sunshine.

Polyester's main drawback, however, is the stink factor. Synthetic material can foster bacteria growth, and it also doesn't dry quite as quickly as polypropylene or nylon.

10 of 12

X-STATIC

Lululemon Athletica Swiftly Tech Racerback 2.0
Lululemon Athletica

There's a secret weapon that keeps X-STATIC clothing from smelling like a locker room after a workout. It's silver. The fabric is woven with this heavy metal, which is an antimicrobial that prevents bacterial and fungal growth. Now, brands like Brooks Running, The North Face, and Lululemon Athletica are using silver in their own products. "It will never wash out or stop working," says Tara Poseley, chief product officer for Lululemon Athletica. This best workout material is used to keep items like the Swiftly Tech Short Sleeve 2.0 (Buy It, $68, lululemon.com) and Swiftly Tech Racerback 2.0 (Buy It, $58, lululemon.com) fresh and stench-free forever.

11 of 12

Econyl

Kaira Active Leggings and Bra
Kaira Active

As for innovative fabrics with a sustainable edge, you'll find Econyl, a branded type of recycled nylon. Econyl's production company rescues fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and industrial plastic, restores the nylon to its original state, and turns it into a fabric that can ultimately be recycled again when the customer is done with the garment. You can try this best workout material out for yourself in Kaira Active's leggings (Buy It, $84, kairaactive.com) and sports bras (Buy It, $58, kairaactive.com); FIKA's hoodies (Buy It, $168, fikawear.ca); Outfyt's metallic sports bras (Buy It, $70, shopoutfyt.com); and even prAna's swimsuits (Buy It, $70, prana.com).

12 of 12

Recycled Plastics

Reformation’s Ecostretch High Rise Legging and Cropped Tank
Reformation

If you're looking for easy ways to reduce your closet's environmental impact, shopping for activewear made from recycled plastics is the perfect place to start. ICYDK, producing new plastic-based fibers (think: polyester, nylon, and acrylic) for textiles uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year, but opting for recycled versions of these fabrics can help reduce that number, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Not to mention, the technology used to recycle plastic returns the fibers to their original state, according to the Foundation, so you can expect activewear made from recycled plastics to have the same qualities as garments made from virgin ones. For example, recycled polyester — which the most common type of recycled material and is typically made from recycled PET bottles — will dry fast and resist creases just like your other polyester workout apparel. (BTW, you can find this material in sustainable swimwear, too.)

Luckily, you can find this best workout material in both sporty, tight-fitting gym apparel and cozy, roomy yoga attire. If you're into running, shop Reformation's Ecostretch High Rise Legging (Buy It, $88, thereformation.com) and matching Cropped Tank (Buy It, $48, thereformation.com), which are both made from recycled plastic bottles. If you prefer to stretch, meditate, or practice yoga, snag Desert Dreamer's Essentials Oversized Pocket Tee (Buy It, $20, desertdreamerbrand.com) and adorable Snoopy Nature Recycled Socks (Buy It, $14, desertdreamerbrand.com), which are made from recycled polyester. And if you're planning on hitting up a barre class, grab barre3's very own Signature Side Seam Tank (Buy It, $75, barre3.com) and matching Signature Legging (Buy It, $93, barre3.com), buttery soft garments crafted from reclaimed from water bottles.

Updated by
Karla Bruning
Karla Bruning Shape headshot
Karla Bruning (she/her) is a writer, TV host, and emcee specializing in running, sports, fitness, and travel. As an event announcer, she's worked at the TCS New York City Marathon and the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon. She has hosted the TV broadcasts of the New York City Triathlon and Brooklyn Half Marathon. Her byline has appeared in Shape, Parents, Time, Newsweek, Redbook, SELF, Runner's World, Women's Running, The Week, and dozens of other outlets.After getting her start as a Newsweek reporter, Karla won a Fulbright scholarship as well as reporting grants from the Carnegie, Knight, and Scripps Howard Foundations. She covered the Olympic Games in person. When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is usually pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed 10+ marathons, 10+ triathlons, and 100+ other races around the world. An avid traveler, Karla has visited 45+ countries on six continents, nerds out over hotels, and is an unabashed Disney fan.
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