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August 07, 2020

Everything You Need to Know About Hydrophobic Water Resistant and Waterproofing Clothing

A primer about water-resistant fabrics, how they’re made, and how well they work

Your clothes encounter a lot of hazards during the typical day – sweaty armpits, drops of coffee down the front of your shirt, a glass of wine knocked over on your skirt, an unexpected rain shower.  These accidents often ruin your outfit, leaving you embarrassed and scrambling for alternatives.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Imagine a scenario in which you spill a glass of red wine on yourself, and it rolls right off your shirt instead of leaving a big stain.  With hydrophobic clothing, you can fend off liquids, prevent stains, and keep moving throughout your day.

What is hydrophobic clothing?

Hydrophobic clothing is water-resistant – it repels water and liquids of all kinds instead of absorbing them.  In the scientific sense, hydrophobic means a material cannot be mixed with or dissolved in water[1].  This is because of wettability

Wettability might sound pretty straightforward, but it’s deceptively complex.  This is the contact angle between a droplet of water and the surface it falls on[2].  If a material encounters water at a low angle and gets wet, its wettability is high.  If a material only gets wet when encountering water droplets at a high angle, its wettability is low.  Hydrophobic fabrics have low wettability, meaning they can come into contact with liquids at just about every angle without getting wet.  Some materials are considered superhydrophobic, meaning they can encounter water droplets at angles of 150° or higher without any liquid absorption.

Aside from being spill-proof, hydrophobic clothing also helps block sweat absorption[3].  This means less of those yellow rings that are typically found around shirt collars and sleeve openings, leading to less trips to the dry cleaner and longer-lasting clothes. 

But how exactly does hydrophobic clothing work its magic?

How hydrophobic clothing works

Hydrophobic clothing behaves in the same fashion as the lotus leaf, a staple in alternative medicine since ancient times.  The lotus leaf is covered in rough textures that trap air and protect it against water[4].  In other words, these rough textures are hydrophobic, and their effect is mimicked in all types of water-resistant clothing thanks to innovative technology.

Hydrophobic molecules are nonpolar, which is another way to say they don’t mix with water.  To visualize this, think of what happens when oil and water are mixed together[5].  The oil separates, and instead of a mixture, you have a container that’s clearly one-half water and one-half oil.  When nonpolar molecules are exposed to water, they break down the hydrogen bonds in the water molecules, and they create a rough, protective texture on their surface[6].  Then, the rough-textured nonpolar molecules clump together to stop water exposure.  

This is what happens when liquid spills on a piece of water-resistant clothing – all of the hydrophobic molecules pull together to form a barrier that keeps liquids out.

How is hydrophobic clothing made?

There’s a bit of chemistry at play in the creation of water-resistant clothes.  In most cases, they’re crafted from two layers of polymers[7].  The outer layer is a microporous polymer that’s hydrophobic and bonded to the natural fibers of the garment, be it cotton, polyester, or another fabric.  This layer is thin and unnoticeable to the naked eye, and it serves as a protective layer between the article of clothing and liquids.

The other layer is inside the garment.  It’s made of polyurethane and sits closer to the skin.  It’s hydrophilic, which means it attracts water.  In this case, it’s designed to soak up sweat and humidity.  The two layers work together to keep the garment dry – the hydrophobic outer layer repels any liquids it comes in contact with, and the hydrophilic layer pushes the captured liquid out through the hydrophobic layer. 

With other items, rather than weaving different hydrophobic and hydrophilic materials together, they’re sprayed with a hydrophobic nanocoating.  The coating is a microscopic, thin layer of nanoparticles that makes surfaces water-resistant upon application.  The chemistry is the same, but rather than protecting clothing from spills, it has a wider range of uses including prevention of corrosion and contamination.  This nanocoating is applied to many products from cell phone cases to backpacks to ship hulls (to stop unwanted organisms from growing)[8].

How effective is water-resistant clothing?

Though some people may initially be skeptical, there’s plenty of data to support that hydrophobic fabrics really work.  As early as 2008, studies showed that water-resistant fabrics effectively repelled liquids.  Back then, a nanotech fabric made from polyester fibers and silicon filaments was created and successfully tested by researchers at the University of Zurich[9].   The fabric only needed to be tilted up 2° for the water-resistant properties to work.  Two studies, one in 2016[10] and another in 2019[11], found that nanocoatings can actually self-clean shoes and other items and de-ice surfaces.  Not to mention, many news outlets and fashion critics have sung hydrophobic clothing’s praises, from Gizmodo to Buzzfeed to The New York Times.  Both the data and the customers alike affirm that hydrophobic clothing is the real deal.

Conclusion

To stop embarrassing spills and hold onto your clothes a little longer, hydrophobic apparel is your best bet.  A little bit of science can work wonders for your wardrobe.  To try it out for yourself, shop Hyperbolic Labs’ collection of hydrophobic clothing, accessories, and limited-edition products at hyperboliclabs.com

[1] Cambridge Dictionary. (2020). Hydrophobic. Retrieved from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/hydrophobic

[2] Pirolini, Alessandro. (November 26, 2014). Producing Unstainable T-Shirts with the Help of Nanotechnology. Retrieved from: https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=3931

[3] Hurly, Adam. (2020). The Pros and Cons of a Dress Shirt That Repels Liquid. Retrieved from: https://www.birchbox.com/guide/article/dropel-fabrics-shirt-repel-liquid-sweat

[4] Dacey, James. (November 3, 2009). Lotus leaves shake off water.  Retrieved from: https://physicsworld.com/a/lotus-leaves-shake-off-water/

[5] Study.com. (2020). Nonpolar Molecule: Definition & Examples. Retrieved from: https://study.com/academy/lesson/nonpolar-molecule-definition-examples.html

[6] Helmenstine, Ph.D., Anne Marie. (July 9, 2019). The Definition of Hydrophobic With Examples. Retrieved from: https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-hydrophobic-605228

[7] A Química Das Coisas. (2012). The Chemistry of Waterproof Clothing. Retrieved from: http://www.aquimicadascoisas.org/en/?episodio=the-chemistry-of-waterproof-clothing

[8] Dacey, James. (November 3, 2009). Lotus leaves shake off water.  Retrieved from: https://physicsworld.com/a/lotus-leaves-shake-off-water/

[9] Evans, Jon. (November 24, 2008). Nanotech clothing fabric ‘never gets wet’. Retrieved from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16126-nanotech-clothing-fabric-never-gets-wet/

[10] BCC Research. (May 5, 2016). Clothes That Wash Themselves? Hydrophobic Coatings Suggest Possibility. Retrieved from: http://blog.bccresearch.com/clothes-that-wash-themselves-hydrophobic-coatings-suggest-possibility

[11] Wen, Gang, et al. (May 5, 2019). Energy-effective superhydrophobic nanocoating based on recycled eggshell. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0927775719300676

 



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