sweat week

The Best Sweat-Wicking Clothing for Exercise, Sleep, and Everyday

Photo-Illustration: retailers

There are lots of ways to deal with sweat: You can use antiperspirant to stop it at the source, deodorant to minimize its odor, or an array of powders and balms to absorb the moisture and protect your skin from uncomfortable wetness. But even with all of those measures in place, there are still times when you’re going to sweat — like when you’re working out, sleeping, hiking, or trying to do much of anything when you’re stressed. That’s where sweat-wicking clothing comes into play.

If you’ve shopped for sweat-wicking activewear in the context of outdoor activities before, you might’ve heard the phrase “cotton kills.” This refers to cotton’s tendency to absorb moisture instead of wicking it away, making it harder for your body to regulate its temperature, leaving you hot and wet (or cold and wet if you’re exercising outside in the winter). The often-suggested alternative is a synthetic fabric that uses capillary action to draw sweat off your body, through the garment, and out into the air where it can evaporate. While this is technically accurate, the full story is a little more complicated.

Preeti Arya, an assistant professor of textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, tells us synthetic fibers, which are petroleum-based plastic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, have a chemical composition that doesn’t bond with water, so they don’t absorb moisture like cotton or other natural fibers. This does mean they’re great for moisture-wicking, but they also have some downsides: Since they’re derived from plastic, these materials don’t biodegrade, so they remain in the environment, often to ill effect (we’ve written more about the effects of microplastic fibers here). Also, Arya says, the moisture-wicking qualities of synthetics can degrade each time you wash them.

The reason most brands make their activewear out of synthetics is that these materials are much cheaper than natural fibers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a natural alternative, Arya says. “All natural fibers can be performance fibers.” Things like cotton and wool can either be blended in such a way that makes them more moisture-wicking, or woven so they’re just as lightweight as most polyester workout gear.

If you are looking for something a bit more environmentally friendly, she suggests blended fabrics, like ones that combine cotton and acrylic, for example, that still give you the moisture-wicking benefits of a synthetic but with a reduced impact on the planet. On days you’re not working out or sweating heavily, a lightweight, loosely woven cotton or linen garment might be enough to keep you dry. Angela Ballard, a registered nurse and advocate with the International Hyperhidrosis Society, says “hemp absorbs and releases perspiration quickly, and breathes well, and bamboo is breathable and repels odors.” Like Arya, she recommends linen for a breezy feel that might keep you cooler than traditional cotton. Wool, though, offers the best of both worlds. Wool absorbs some moisture, but that moisture stays in an inner layer of the garment so the surface still feels dry to the touch. As Arya says, it “doesn’t make you feel wet, or clammy, or sticky,” which explains why it’s a popular alternative to synthetics in activewear.

In putting together the list below, we’ve rounded up some of the best sweat-wicking garments experts have recommended to us for working out, everyday wear, and sleep. Despite their environmental impact, there are some synthetic garments on this list because they’re budget-friendly and work exceptionally well at keeping you dry. We’ve also pointed out which pieces are made from natural fabrics or natural-synthetic blends, in case that’s your top priority.

For working out

Exercise requires the most heavy-duty moisture-wicking, especially if you’re a heavy sweater. Most options out there are synthetic, but there are also brands making the effort to offer natural options, especially wool, as well as natural-synthetic blends. When we spoke to athletes about the best clothes for exercising in the heat, the Boston-based brand Tracksmith got a couple of mentions. Tracksmith uses merino wool in lots of its performance pieces, including the Harrier tops for men and women that are made from 89 percent merino and are still lightweight and breathable enough for serious workouts on seriously sweaty days. For even more merino gear, check out Smartwool and Icebreaker, two leading brands in the wool activewear game.