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Can a pair of jeans kill the coronavirus?

Diesel and other brands are rolling out antimicrobial clothes. Experts say they miss the point.

These jeans do not fight the virus that causes Covid-19, but they look a lot like ones that claim to.
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Are we asking too much from our jeans? Maybe. They’re expected to wick sweat, sculpt our behinds, and provide full-body motion for squats and lunges, all while exuding a cool-but-not-trying-too-hard vibe. And now, in these After Times, they’re also supposed to keep the coronavirus — the same one that has killed more than 1 million people worldwide and sent whole economies crashing — at bay. Possibly.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but that isn’t stopping denim brands such as Diesel, DL1961, and Warp + Weft from promoting jeans purported to squelch any traces of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, that presume to land on their surfaces.

They’re in good company. Italy’s Albini Group, which supplies dress shirts to luxury brands like Armani and Prada, is touting new Viroformula fabrics that use silver to “inhibit viruses and kill bacteria upon contact on the surface in a few minutes.” In London, Vollebak wove 7 miles of copper, another purported germ slayer, to create a “full metal jacket” for a “new era of disease on Earth.” US Denim Mills, which manufactures sustainable denim clothing in Pakistan, is inoculating its antiviral collection, dubbed “Safe for US,” with silver, copper, and the less commonly used peppermint. Los Angeles company Lambs sells a “snapback” glove you can slip on when opening doors and let dangle from your belt loop when you don’t need it. It’s clad in a patented silver-threaded fabric that “prevents virus or microbe accumulation.”

None of these manifested out of thin air. Antimicrobial textile finishes, the secret sauce behind BO-blasting gym shorts and sports bras, have been targeting odor-causing bacteria for decades, though few if any made claims of killing viruses, which are a different type of microorganism altogether.

Buoyed by the cresting popularity of “athleisure” that blurred the lines between activewear and everyday clothing in the early 2010s, the products enjoyed a rapid ascendancy. Their foothold slipped several rungs a few years ago, however, after studies emerged that silver nanoparticles, their most common ingredient, could breach body tissues and potentially disrupt cellular processes or damage DNA. Some experts suggested at the time that encapsulating ourselves in bacteria-zapping clothing could even throw our microbiomes — that is, the trillions of naturally occurring microorganisms, including those on our skin, that are essential to healthy bodily functions — out of whack. Warnings also sounded that nanoscale silver, which is invisible to the human eye, could slough off during laundry, contaminating wastewater and seeping into rivers, lakes, and wetlands to kill fish and other aquatic life.

“A year ago, talking to brands, a lot of them were moving away from these anti-odor treatments because they didn’t see the benefits really outweighing the risks,” says Martin Mulvihill, a researcher and adviser at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and the co-founder of Safer Made, a Connecticut venture capital fund that invests in technologies that reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals. “They basically saw these things don’t really work that well to prevent odor — maybe a little bit for polyester on workout clothes — but for the most part they couldn’t justify the cost of using potentially harmful chemicals.”

But Covid-19 has brought the category surging back with a vengeance, rejiggered for a new age of hypervigilance and anxiety wherein invisible dangers lurk in every grocery aisle, classroom, and public park. Though still silver-based, these new formulations incorporate macro rather than nano versions, do not alter the skin’s microflora, and are certified free of harmful substances by textiles-testing standard-bearers such as Bluesign and Oeko-Tex, according to their manufacturers.

But Mulvihill sees them as more of the same-old, dusted off the shelf because a marketing opportunity suddenly presented itself. “I was disappointed because I saw these things kind of cycling out of the supply chain, and now they’ve gotten a huge boost,” he says. “And whether or not they’re actually doing any good is a good question.”

They might confuse people even further. Certainly consumers don’t always know what to look for. In March — when the lockdowns started — retail intelligence platform Edited saw a 133 percent spike in the number of products described online as containing antibacterial technology compared with the month before, as safety and hygiene suddenly sprang “front of mind,” says Kayla Marci, an Edited market analyst. But as their names imply, antibacterial treatments target bacteria, whereas antivirals zone in on viruses — meaning those products wouldn’t work on SARS-CoV-2 anyway.

What are “antimicrobial” treatments, and what are they supposed to protect you from?

Antimicrobial finishes take a broad-spectrum approach, blitzing viruses, bacteria, and other pathogenic microorganisms with equal aplomb — in theory, anyway. Companies sometimes “promote” an antibacterial treatment to an antimicrobial one by tweaking the dose of the chemical, which has to be stronger to snuff out viruses. That’s basically what Polygiene did when it launched ViralOff, its antiviral technology, in April, not long after Covid-19 graduated from burgeoning epidemic to full-fledged pandemic.

The Swedish chemicals company, whose signature “stay fresh” recipe infuses compression tights from Adidas, wrinkle-free Untuckit button-downs, and women’s suiting from M.M.LaFleur, adapted its bacteria-inhibiting silver-chloride active ingredient to strike against SARS-CoV-2. It has now partnered with Diesel to bring the jean maker’s “virus-fighting” denim and “always on” technology to stores next spring. The agreement is exclusive — only Diesel’s jeans will sport this particular treatment.

ViralOff doesn’t kill the coronavirus per se. It ruptures the bubble of fatty lipid molecules that surround the pathogen, inactivating it so it can’t replicate or hijack another host, thus curbing “any further evildoing,” says Polygiene’s marketing manager Niklas Brosnan. In September, Polygiene declared itself the world’s first ISO-approved commercial textiles treatment to reduce SARS-CoV-2 by more than 99 percent over two hours, which Brosnan says bodes well not only for consumers but also for shop assistants who don’t have to sanitize or sequester a garment just because someone tried it on.

The treatment, which is applied to the fabric at the finishing stages of production, is rated for 20 washes without a decline in efficacy. Since any garment will inevitably shed fibers — along with any protective chemical — when wrung through the spin cycle, for best performance (and maximum planet-friendliness) Polygiene advises consumers to wash less frequently and only when necessary. (The sustainability angle is something the company takes pains to emphasize. “The less you wash things, the better they’re going to hold up,” Brosnan says. “And, of course, that provides a much bigger energy savings as well.”)

One downside: Consumers can’t reapply ViralOff on depleted garments because the company has strict controls about the chemical saturation per weight of fabric. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Hoi Kwan Lam, chief marketing officer at HeiQ, the Swiss firm imbuing all new jeans from DL1961 and Warp + Weft with its Viroblock treatment, recently showed off over Zoom a sleek reapplication spray currently being validated for consumer use. (The finish has been tested to last up to 40 washes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit.) “We haven’t shown this to press yet,” she says with a tone of glee. “But we plan to go to market really soon.”

First developed in response to the Ebola crisis in 2013, then swiftly revalidated as soon as the first coronavirus warning signs came out of Wuhan in China, Viroblock has been tested according to ISO standards to reduce concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 and other types of viruses by 99.9 percent in 30 minutes, Lam says, making its technology especially appealing to face-mask manufacturers who have overwhelmed the company with urgent requests. A zipper manufacturer worked with HeiQ to create the “world’s first antimicrobial zipper.” It’s even developing an “antiviral mattress” with Serta Simmons Bedding.

Lam describes the treatment as a “silver and vesicle” technology that uses globules of encapsulated fat known as liposomes to drain the virus’s membrane of its cholesterol content and leave its innards vulnerable to attack by silver ions. Not that HeiQ can say any of this in the United States: Because of EPA and FDA regulations, neither HeiQ nor Polygiene — nor the brands they work with — can make claims, however tangentially, that might be construed as medical assertions. Companies without explicit approval to do so can be subject to legal action such as seizures or injunctions. Rather, companies are limited to either describing antimicrobial treatments as protecting the textile itself or employing euphemisms like “self-sanitizing” and letting customers connect the dots. “We cannot talk about the transferred benefit to the users themselves,” Lam says.

Virus-fighting clothing might not be effective, but they may also be here to stay

With apparel spending poised to shrink by as much as 30 percent this year, according to McKinsey & Company, it stands to reason that brands and retailers are desperate to do something — anything — to win back hearts and wallets. Denim, in particular, has ceded its supremacy to sweatpants, leggings, and other soft, elasticized bottoms as we spend increasing amounts of time at home. G-Star Raw, Lucky Brand, and True Religion filed for bankruptcy in the aftermath of the outbreak. Levi’s third-quarter sales tumbled 27 percent year over year because of reduced traffic due to lockdown-related store closures. Could antimicrobial jeans be partly born of desperation?

“Denim losses have recovered somewhat since the depths of the pandemic; however, sales are still down compared to last year,” says Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at GlobalData, a research firm and consultancy. Whether the Hail Mary works remains to be seen. Slumping consumer demand isn’t because denim is seen as unsanitary but because people are going out less and dressing down more. Still, Saunders doesn’t see this trend going away soon, even if we manage to get a handle on this contagion. “The rise of the ‘sterilized society’ will drive demand for all sorts of products claiming to reduce microbes, bacteria, and other nasties, including apparel,” he says.

Diesel CEO Massimo Piombini says the brand’s upcoming jeans, which will not be more expensive than its untreated ones, are an “important tool” to offer its customers. “We’re already protecting ourselves from coronavirus with masks, visors, and hand sanitizer,” he wrote in an email. “Now we can add the latest must-have in our Covid-fighting [arsenal] with antiviral clothing.” Washing, which people are doing more of, he says, takes time, is inconvenient, and “more importantly, puts a huge strain on the environment.” The ViralOff jeans would mitigate this need.

The HeiQ-enhanced jeans from DL1961 and Warp + Weft won’t cost any extra, either, says Ryan Lombard, PR manager at DL1961 — which falls under the same parent company, Pakistan’s Artistic Denim Mills, as Warp + Weft. “This is just an added benefit to protect our customers,” he says.

Even so, questions continue to swirl around the effectiveness of antimicrobial clothing as a Covid-19 defense. Antiviral face coverings might be a different matter; as far as we know, the main way the virus spreads is through respiratory droplets and aerosols spewed by talking, coughing, and sneezing, not via surfaces below the neck. It’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to practice hand hygiene, wear masks, and maintain a physical distance of 6 feet from others, rather than rely on nostrums and quick fixes. The coronavirus is also blessedly susceptible to soap. Washing clothes with regular laundry detergent and giving them a whirl in the dryer is enough to remove any SARS-CoV-2 that might have hitched a ride, however unlikely.

“I worry in this situation,” says Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University. “There’s a lot of selling of products, based off fear, that really aren’t going to be effective. I would rather people be vigilant in masking, distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, and avoiding crowded indoor settings.”

Even more worrisome than possible “Covid-washing,” say scientists like Mulvehill of Safer Made, is the current scorched-earth approach to germ warfare that could roll back years of efforts to tamp down the harsh chemistries we’ve been inflicting on our environments, often to the detriment of our overcoddled immune systems, which need “good bacteria” to thrive and beat off disease. It makes sense, at the peak of the coronavirus peril, to deploy maximum firepower and leave nothing to chance, yet Mulvehill isn’t sure if this is the “right response in the long term” in all but the riskiest of environments (read: hospitals). And while the EPA and the FDA take measures to sort the quacks from the credible for most health products — like, say, bogus vaccines or unregistered disinfectants — clothes, he says, are “much more of a Wild West.”

For Ashley J. Holding, an organic chemist and principal of Circular Materials Solutions, a circular economy consultancy in Manchester, England, antimicrobial textiles could complicate existing attempts to manage the deluge of garment waste — thanks, fast fashion — flooding landfills every day, especially if prognostications that such treatments will become the new normal come to pass.

Though the science is scant, biocides may stymie the biodegradability of natural fibers, since microbes are responsible for breaking down organic matter. Textile recyclers, already hesitant about reintroducing materials that could threaten product safety due to uncertain chemical content, may balk at the prospect of including more additives of dubious provenance, though the reality is that we simply don’t know what will happen. “It’s a question of scale and proportion, really,” Holding says.

It’s also important to note that not all antimicrobials are created equal, cautions Rachel McQueen, an associate professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in textile science. Not every technology that claims to stifle viruses will live up to its hype or translate seamlessly from sterile lab conditions to the imperfect real world, and snake oil salesmen will, unfortunately, always abound. Buying from reputable, “tried-and-true” companies, McQueen says, is key, though she admits her own personal selection would be fairly narrow.

“Maybe I would wear a mask [with] effective antimicrobials on it,” McQueen allows. “Jeans, probably not.”

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