disease, human conditions, medicine, technology

The Future of Clothing – Making it “Biofunctional”

For thousands of years, clothing has served obvious functions – it protects us from the elements (keeping us warm when it’s cold out, preventing sunburn, keeping us dry when it rains, etc.) and from injury during physical activities. We’ve even made it have more specialized functions, such as protecting us from hazardous chemicals, weapons, honey bees, or travel in the vacuum of space. But it’s likely that clothing will do even more in the near future.

Candida albicans vaginal yeast infection
Candida albicans, shown here, is a fungus that commonly causes vaginal yeast infections. Underwear made using modified silk may help treat women who have recurrent infections. (Image credit: CDC/Brinkman)

As advanced technologies from different fields merge together, we may see clothing serve other useful, biological-related functions, from protecting us against microbial infections to actively regulating our body temperatures. Bio-sensing clothing may be developed in the future that can monitor our core body temperature (in addition to other key physiological parameters, such as heart rate). This could be combined with tools that adjust the clothing to be warmer or colder. (For example, by changing the composition of a jacket’s lining – a study recently reported that jackets with a type of chemically modified down were more effective at keeping people warm than regular down.) Electrochemical sensors on clothing could even take biological measurements from sweat. Such sensors would likely be medically useful in bandages to help monitor patients.

But perhaps what is more readily feasible is biofunctional clothing that physically affects the wearer. For example, during rehabilitation from injury or disease, some patients benefit from localized pressure that increases blood flow to specific parts of their body and improves muscle growth. This can similarly be useful in sports; compressing certain muscles can help increase blood flow. Athletes may also benefit from more aerodynamic outfits that reduce drag! And, of course, those in the military may see the development of clothing that’s resilient against ballistic weapons and other hazards (chemical, nuclear, and biological), while also being light-weight.

People who have different, more specific needs, such as children, the elderly, women who are pregnant, and people with disabilities or medical conditions, may also benefit from developments in the biofunctional clothing field. For example, research on atopic dermatitis (an irritating skin disease) has already found that symptoms are lessened by wearing certain types of fabrics (such as cotton and silk for some) and combating bacterial infections. Products containing antimicrobial components, such as silver nanoparticles, may consequently be beneficial for these individuals. Similarly, a company that sells underwear made from “specially treated silk” has found that it is useful for treating women who have persistent vaginal yeast infections. Clearly there are many different possibilities for biofunctional clothing.

So next time you find yourself stumped over choosing between the same style jacket in either blue or green, think of how difficult the choices will be when you have different biofunctions to choose from as well!

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