Are you familiar with antimicrobial clothing? Over the last year, microbe-fighting fabric finishes have been incorporated into everyday wardrobe-essentials. Initially, these antimicrobial treatments — like Viroblock from Swiss chemical company HeiQ — were designed to help clothing prevent both odor and viral growth, but brands have shown increased interest in them due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, Viroblock is used to treat products from notable brands like Kenneth Cole and Outdoor Research. HeiQ created the fabric treatment in 2013 to enhance mask protection against Ebola. Its patent-pending formula is made up of silver and vesicle booster technologies which are added to textiles during the final stage of the manufacturing process.
According to ViroMasks, silver particles act as potent antibacterial and antiviral agents, and eliminate viruses upon exposure. The vesicle booster properties deplete viral membranes of cholesterol, neutralizing the virus (making it more vulnerable to silver ions).
“This technology was shelved because the need for antiviral textiles was non-existent,” says HeiQ’s CMO, Hoi Kwan Lam. “But in January 2020, our CEO saw signs of a pandemic and reactivated the product; re-testing it and then re-launching it on March 16th.” Since then, numerous brands have partnered with HeiQ to use Viroblock technology.
“In 2020, we onboarded more than 500 brands for HeiQ V-Block alone. Most are clothing brands using the tech on clothing, face coverings and accessories," Kwan says. "About 150 styles of Viroblock infused products are already on the market." The invisible coating has also proven effective on home textiles for furniture and even bedding or mattresses.
HeiQ has shown this additive eliminates SARS-CoV-2 upon contact and prevents it from spreading, and numerous brands have touted this angle over the past year. But, according to Dr. Ramon Sanchez, a Harvard Research Associate and Environmental Health expert, this isn't a significant discovery.
“Antimicrobial properties such as Viroblock are very effective,” Dr. Sanchez, says. “However, antimicrobials are not going to add protection against SARS-CoV-2 when applied to clothing because once the virus touches those fibers it is likely to stick there which prevents an infected particle from entering the body. This trapped virus would eventually die when exposed to an antimicrobial material or eventually die itself because it can’t reproduce outside the body. Antimicrobials will primarily prevent other bacterial growth within clothing fibers — it's much more performative against bacterial airborne diseases (like tuberculosis) that linger in the air.”
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease spread through aerosols — like respiratory droplets — and it loses concentration the longer it's in the air. While Viroblock isn't designed as a main tool to fight COVID, it can be effective in certain scenarios. According to Dr. Sanchez, "an antimicrobial might kill or inactivate large virus-infected droplets in contact with coated fabrics, but that is only effective when the source of infection is less than six feet away (like an unmasked infected individual talking nearby)."
New research shows COVID-19 can survive on clothing (not treated with Viroblock) for up to 72 hours and can extend to other surfaces. The highest risk fabric is polyester, while items made of 100-percent cotton can harbor the virus for 24 hours and products made of poly-cotton can hold the virus for up to six hours. For those in the medical field or other high-risk industries, antimicrobial clothing can be practical. “Viroblock technology is likely to reduce viral survival times if your clothing is coated with it, but don’t solely rely on this technology to prevent COVID-19 as infections are more likely to come from SARS-CoV-2 infected aerosols instead of contaminated surfaces,” explains Dr. Sanchez.
Viroblock does eliminate airborne diseases like influenza and the common cold and even COVID-19, but in the case of COVID, people are most likely to catch it through unmasked interactions with infected individuals or by touching a contaminated surface and then directly touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.
If you work in the medical field, are an essential worker or are in close contact with a range of other people, you may want to check out what garments are offered with Viroblock. Offerings aren't limited to masks, and even include staples like denim offered by family-run brands like Warp + Weft. “As safety is at the forefront of our consumer concerns, we want to be there to help," says Warp + Weft founder Sarah Ahmed.
Along with providing an added layer of protection for people working high-risk jobs, Viroblock also has the potential to extend the life of clothing. "When you factor in antimicrobial coding, people can wear sustainably sourced clothing longer without odors and the garments will take care of lingering bacteria on its own," says Dr. Sanchez. That means microbes will be less likely to break down fibers, and you won't need to wash clothing as frequently.
So while Viroblock gear is worth the money for some individuals, don’t expect these items alone to keep you from getting sick. Keep wearing a mask, washing your hands and practicing social distancing.