Monday, September 9, 2013

Monday Mailbox: Cycling, Clothing and Skin Sensitivity

Moore's of Coleraine
When discussing athletic cycling clothing, or even dressing for the bike in the context of utility cycling, I will occasionally mention being sensitive to certain fabrics. Because of this I get lots of questions from readers who are in the same predicament. There are those who find themselves unable to wear cycling apparel typically available in bike shops. There are also those who find that the fabric in their ordinary, everyday clothing - which was fine for driving and walking in - begins to cause problems once they start getting around by bike. Having had both experiences, here is my perspective after some years of cycling. 

Firstly we all mean something different by "sensitive." Here is what I mean by it: When I wear certain items of clothing, my skin gets easily and dramatically irritated - to the point of rashes, abrasions or even lesions forming in the course of a single bike ride - in areas where the fabric contacts my skin. This does not appear to be a chafing issue, but more like a chemical burn or allergy type of reaction. 

After nearly 5 years, I still cannot pinpoint precisely what causes it in my case. In the beginning, I believed it was "artificial fabrics" on the whole, so I tried to avoid them and wore only natural fabrics (wool, silk, etc.). But over time I learned that it is not a clearcut artificial vs natural fabrics issue. For example, I now know that I can usually wear lycra and spandex directly against my skin without any problems. My earlier assumption that I could not wear lycra was based on the fact that much of the cycling clothing casually referred to as "lycra" is in fact either partly or entirely polyester. It was the polyester I was sensitive to. This theory held true for a while, as I'd try different articles of polyester clothing and inevitably develop rashes. Even those wool/poly blends I usually cannot wear directly against my skin. Then again, one time I wore a jersey that was 100% polyester to which I had no sensitivity, even after a 60 mile ride in the summer heat and humidity. 

Point being, these things can be tricky to figure out, so don't jump to conclusions. If you are sensitive to an article of clothing, it could be the fabric, but it could also be the dye, or some surface treatment used on the fibers, or some other factor entirely, or a combination of everything - including how these things interact with your unique body chemistry, and in particular, sweat (the latter would also explain why you might be entirely fine with certain fabrics when sitting around at the office or walking to and from the car, but not once you start pedaling and working up a bit of a sweat).  

So, what do you do if you have skin sensitivity to cycling clothing? My first suggestion would be to eliminate chafing as the culprit. If your clothing is either too loose or too tight, this could cause abrasions from chafing that might be mistaken for skin sensitivity - I have seen it lots of times with local cyclists. 

Once you are certain chafing is not the issue, pay attention to the clothing labels and see whether an obvious pattern emerges. Experimenting with fabrics is expensive, but many shops' return policies now are amenable to exchanges after items have been worn. And to determine whether it is the dye or surface treatment you are sensitive to, try washing the garment before wearing it again and see what happens. I recently tried some cycling-specific trousers that gave me a rash when I first wore them, but no longer caused that reaction after I put them through the wash a couple of times based on a friend's suggestion. And finally, for what it's worth, I think avoiding artificial fabrics remains a valid tactic. 

Some of us can wear anything on the bike and don't see what the problem is. Others are frustrated by wasting money on clothing that irritates. Hopefully over time we figure out what works for us and what doesn't. In the meantime, there is always the second hand market - and trading clothing with friends!

34 comments:

  1. Some wash soaps might be the culprit.

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  2. I'm an especially hairy man. I find that certain clothes, and this is determined by fabric, tightness, and cut, rip out my hair in the darndest places. If I wear those clothes often, the pain and the rash eventually go away and I simply have a bald patch.

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    1. "I am an especially hairy man." HAHAHAHAHA!!!

      As another especially hairy man I found that opening line SO incredibly funny that I had to walk away for a bit till I could stop snorting. I don't know why.

      It takes a lot to make me snort like that. Thanks.

      Spindizzy

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  3. Also consider fire retardant which is sprayed on everything I think? I am very sensitive to synthetics, but for me the lack of breathability in most synthetics is a turn off. Polyester is particularly bad. Some wool can be very prickly! The cost of materials keeps going up, so more and more synthetics are being added to cotton and wool, so watch out! I think it is horrid that sportswool is a polyester blend, but as an outer jacket I also find it okay to wear.

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  4. Lots of fabrics are treated with finishes which are very hard on the skin. Washing a garment before you wear it is prudent. Sometimes detergents are hard on skin, and a change of laundry product may be in order.

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  5. Thank you for this informative post. One point that should also be mentioned is the rider's choice of laundry detergent. In particular there is a three way (or more) interaction between skin, fabric type (wool, polyester) and sweat. In my experience, soap choice seemed to be more relevant than fabric choice - as with you, sometimes polyester irritated and sometimes not. It turned out that for me it was detergents containing SLS (and copious amounts of sweat) that generated the irritation.

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  6. The odds are pretty good in your favour if you stick to cotton

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    1. As pajamas, yes. The problem is when your cotton tee shirt becomes drenched in sweat as you ride and gets stuck to your entire back. It's especially unpleasant when the temperature subsequently plummets.

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    2. Soft breathable cotton best takes advantage of self-actuated breezes. If you are sweating, you may need to pedal easier and in the upright position.

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  7. Wool is a real problem for me. I simply cannot wear cycling clothing with even a trace of wool.

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  8. I'm fortunate in that I'm not particularly sensitive to fabrics or, apparently, detergents. I do find wool, even very fine and thin merino, itchy and hot at much above 70F, but that's about it for sensitivity.

    But I do have this question: does there exist a summer weight jersey, not wool, that does not feel clammy in hot, high-humidity temperatures? I say "jersey" because I can always wear T shirts, but I want something with a zipper and rear (or front, for that matter) pockets, and something cut trim -- not tight -- so that it doesn't flap in the wind. Oh, and that has a long tail.

    All the synthetic summer jerseys I have tried stink after a couple of hours of riding. In winter I use wool -- no problem there. But in hot weather I've taken to wearing rayon shirts -- all seem to be Hawaiian -- since rayon seems to be the only thing that wicks and doesn't stink until it has accumulated many hours of use -- I often will get 4-5 hours of hot weather riding out of a Hawaiian shirt, to which is added daily schlupping around in it, perhaps even a night or so of sleeping in it ...

    Does anyone make trim fitting rayon shirts; or rayon jerseys? Non-stink, non-cling-wrap alternatives?

    Again, a cycling jersey with zip, long tail, and pockets.

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    1. Look for bamboo clothing - fabric labelled bamboo IS rayon. And while "rayon" tends to be made mostly into casual clothing like dresses and tops and your hawaiian shirts, there may be more sports/outdoors styles in "bamboo" since the ecofriendly marketing ties in nicely with the outdoorsy marketing. Don't know if you could find bike jerseys specifically, but you may be able to find some fitted shirts designed for hiking or similar.

      Also, I don't know if you sew, or know anyone that does, but rayon wovens and knits are widely available at chain fabric stores.

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    2. i'm no more a fan of wool than I am of polyester. I agree that jerseys and tech Ts stink after a few hours but after a few hours in wool I smell like a sheep. Smelly human or smelly sheep... is either really better than the other?

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    3. I wash my synthetics in a sports specific wash using (in the UK) Halo Sports wash or nikwax' base layer wash. Both cure the stinky clothes problem for me and leave a residual cleanness that last for an all day ride; for me at least.

      When my helmets get a bit high as well I just soak them in a solution of Halo and that cures the problem for several months.

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    4. I find that Tactel shirts don't smell - Helly Hansen used to make good Tactel based polo shirts etc

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  9. When I was a kid I wore whatever my Mom got me from the thrift store or the latest thing my older brother could no longer squirm into(new clothes were mostly for my sisters and since there were, what? like four of them? My brother and I just rocked the Mod threads of the 60's way into the Punk era).

    I don't remember thinking about what fabrics were best, but I do remember that once in a while, especially in the summer, a garment would reach a point where just giving it a good old cleansing shake in the morning no longer restored that crisp freshness that goes so far in preventing heat rash, fermentation and, you know, boils. So we'd just kick down to a deeper layer and grab something else. We may not have been the absolute grubbiest children in the neighborhood but we were right there breathing down the filthy necks of those what were.

    You'd arrive back home about dinnertime after riding all day, only to be asked "Whure's yer shirt?", and have to stand there scratching one's head and admit that one couldn't really be sure but it might be out in the field where one were jumping ramps. Next day there it would lay, right where it fell off, dried up and curled like a discarded Cicada shell. Frilly edges burst by the emerging adolescent male. Dang we were pigs.

    By the time I went off to school and had to do my own laundry, I had long since adopted modern hygiene and the clothing of my own generation, but like a lot of my cycling peers, I only owned a pair or maybe two, of the cheapest bike shorts we could find.
    And we washed them about twice a semester. Back to fermentation and boils. Still pigs even if we were masquerading as stallions.

    Now I'm a hundred and fifteen years old and delicate as a new born fawn. My riding clothes have to be cut just so and from only certain types of wool, or one of a couple of synthetics (or gosling down and Fairy skin)or I will be struck down.

    And oh my word, the lotions, the ointments, the special soaps for my hands, my leathery face, the back of my scarlet neck. The boy who met the world head on with a vacant stare and a protective crust 3/8" inch thick, is now the old man peering out from under a moist towel and darting from one patch of shade to the next. Now, because of all this tenderness and sensitivity, my laundry ritual is like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It's so stupid, but my gear is now lavished with care Liberace's cape never enjoyed.

    And it doesn't work. The rashes, the rolled up dreadlocks on the backs of my thighs, the fiery impressions of the seams of my shorts engraved, HELL, branded on my tender butt. Wash my kit with Tide or All or anything like that and I end up looking like one of those miserable red-skinned Demons the Samurai are always merrily choking in those old Hokusai wood block prints. And Puhleeze, no fabric softener of any kind, OK?
    My youngest daughter thought she was helping by putting Daddy's bike stuff in the dryer with her Gowns and Frocks, next day I'm out on an EPIC 15miler with a dryer sheet ticking away in the leg of my shorts.

    Damn near had to be medevac'd home.

    Spindizzy



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    1. LOL Now that is funny, Spindizzy. Thanks for the chuckle!
      -AMK

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    2. I know just how you feel.

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  10. Wool can cause irritation and everyone is slightly different in terms of sensitivity as has been pointed out. Generally and not withstanding previous remarks, wool irritation is primarily caused by fiber diameters greater than 18 microns, usually from the mid 20's and up. The reason is that the thicker fibers have sufficient stiffness to trigger a nerve response in the skin and the resulting itch results. Most people do not have anything other than a pleasant experience when wearing quality wool when the fiber diameter is as stated above. And it doesn't stink!

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  11. I can't wear wool next to my skin so the current merino trend simply doesn't work for me. Also many cotton shirts, regardless of cost, are simply too irritating - possibly because it the chemicals used in their manufacture. For shirts I often end up having to buy them really well used on eBay!

    I don't have any problems with Polyester, Lycra or pretty much any synthetics, although a few years ago I couldn't wear any of the poly cotton fabrics around.

    Sometimes it seems to simply be the diameter of the fibre and it's surface that cause the irritation.

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  12. I have had similar contact dermatitis issues and in my case it is due to dried salt from sweating regardless of the clothing material. So I have to be sure to wash my cycling clothing on a regular basis, particularly the shorts.

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  13. Seersucker [all cotton] is fantastic in summer. Works for me now matter how many miles I go. The shirts flap open a little in back, letting air in. The little puckers keep the cloth from sticking to your skin when you perspire. I'm a big fan on merino wool in the winter with a synthetic top layer. Use gentle fragrance-free soaps if you are sensitive. Some recommend washing your face/body before and after a ride.

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  14. Many fabrics are treated with resins that release formaldehyde. For most people it doesn't seem to be a problem, but for those who have been sensitized, the treatment certainly can cause problems including contact dermatitis. My biology professor was very sensitive. He said he always washed his new clothes a couple of times before wearing.

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  15. Mike Jenkins: thanks -- will indeed look for those. In fact I'd read about bamboo clothing and just forgot. Rayon, indeed!

    Spindizzy: You were even more primitive than I, in cycling youth. I rode thousands of miles in the equatorial sun (at 5-7K feet, too) around Nairobi as a teenager in jeans, t-shirt, and Safari Boots, with nerd black plastic glasses slipping in the sweat while I rode in the statutory hooks and tried to hold the glasses onto my half-oriental nose with my ear muscles. Good times!

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  16. Nothing to do with this post, but a local cyclist is riding from Minnesota to the tip of South America to raise money for cancer awareness. I've been addicted to reading it since I heard his story on the local news. I thought you would enjoy following it as well.

    Matt

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  17. oops Here is the aforementioned blog:
    http://pedalingforpennies.info/

    Matt

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  18. I don't have a sensitivity to any specific fabric per se but I get this strange rash whenever i wear gloves. I get a hivey itchy rash on both sides of my hands, front and back, and also on my feet, top and bottom, if i wear gloves. I don't get itchy feet if I wear socks and shoes, only if i wear gloves. i put leather tape on my handlebars, ditched the gloves this spring, and haven't had a problem since. How's that for weird?!

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  19. My boyfriend is really into cycling and I am really not. I tried going with him a few times and I did not have the proper cycling gear and so I got a rash and it was awful. I think I'll leave that as something for him to do by himself from now on.

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  20. I don't have any fabric sensitivity but I still prefer Wool. I have an aversion to clothing that reeks after only one or two wearings. I also have a problem with clothing made from coal or oil. Has anyone out there tried linen? I would think that it might be a good substitute for cotton imho.
    Emile

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  21. could it be laundry products? the apparent differences in fabrics may have something to do with how much of the offending detergent/fabric softener/whatever they retain traces of after washing.

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  22. Having worked in the garment industry I think that one factor most folks don't think about aside from the content of the fabric and dyes are the chemicals used to preserve the fabric through shipping. Most fabric is treated with formaldehyde - even fabrics labeled as "organic" - which is why it is always a good idea to wash everything before you wear it...I wash a new item at least twice before I wear it which Charlie's Soap. :) Just a thought?

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  23. It's also possible you're own physiology has changed over the years. Your age, your exercise and - maybe? - eating habits have changed over the years. It could be that you've changed and you're now insensitive to items which once would have irritated you.

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  24. This all looks great! I loved the blog! I've recently been looking around for cycling gear in Algonquin, IL. Do you know where I could find it for a cheap price?

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