Is bamboo really antibacterial?
There is a lot of content out there that talks about bamboo being anti-bacterial. Is this really true, can we honestly claim that bamboo clothing fights odours and that bamboo is really anti-bacterial?
It’s time for an honest review to discover whether bamboo does kill germs or possess antiviral properties, or is this all made up?
How do my clothes smell?
To understand how bamboo supposedly stops your clothes from smelling, it’s important to go back to basics and understand how your clothes start to smell in the first place.
Believe it or not, sweat is actually odour free. Bacteria that are naturally present on our skin are responsible for the smells, as they react with our sweat producing odourful compounds. This moisture with the bacteria living within can survive in the fibres of your clothes, causing clothes to smell.
The theory goes that bamboo prevents bacteria from growing due to its natural anti-bacterial properties. Bamboo plants have a powerful anti-microbial agent called “bamboo kun”. It's this natural resistance that allows bamboo to thrive in harsh conditions without the need for herbicides or pesticides.
The problem with the theory that bamboo clothes are naturally antimicrobial is that bamboo rayon, the most common form of bamboo clothing, undergoes intensive chemical processing to turn it into fabric, possibly removing any natural anti-microbial properties.
Evidence to support the fact bamboo is really anti-bacterial
Most evidence reported online seems to have originated from a single source, a Chinese bamboo clothing manufacturer which conducted their own tests in the early 2000s. Since then, a number of claims have been made based on these findings, however they have never been definitively proven to be true.
There is evidence to support the notion that bamboo helps fight odours. One study, published by the Journal of Family Ecology and Consumer Sciences found evidence that bamboo viscose does possess a certain amount of anti-bacterial properties by proving it slowed bacterial growth.
Whilst it does not link this ability to kill germs directly to the presence of Bamboo Kun, it does go some way to prove bamboo fabric is really antibacterial. The problem comes that it shows other viscose fabrics (fabrics made by adding chemicals to turn a natural material into a pulp, then weaving into a fabric) have a similar anti-bacterial resistance, suggesting it’s something inherent in the way these fabrics are produced rather than the bamboo itself.
A separate 2014 study reinforces these findings, showing that polyester and cotton does not slow the growth of bacteria while chemically treated nylon and materials produced by viscose processing (not just bamboo viscose) helps prevent it.
There are other studies such as the China Textile Industry Testing Centre and The Japan Textile Inspection Association which also claim bamboo fibres reduce the speed of bacterial growth, the latter of which shows bamboo fabric kills up to 70% of bacteria within 24 hours, however the accuracy of these studies have been called into question.
Should we be sceptical? Why bamboo is not antibacterial:
There’s good reason to question whether bamboo really is antibacterial.
Sandra Roos, with over 12 years of experience in the textile industry, explains that bamboo’s natural anti-bacterial elements are removed as you peel away the bark and break it into a pulp. She explains that there is little evidence to show bamboo viscose is any different to other viscose fabrics, regardless of what type of tree it came from.
She feels that viscose fabrics may have trace elements of zinc in the material which helps prevent bacterial growth, a by-product of the chemically intensive manufacturing process. She also states that bamboo’s superior ability to absorb and wick moisture from the skin are likely key reasons why bamboo doesn’t start to smell as quickly.
In fact, the American FTC charged 3 companies with falsifying claims that bamboo clothing holds antibacterial properties, stating these claims were “unsubstantiated” and confusing consumers. In other words, the FTC believes the evidence is not conclusive enough to state that bamboo really is antibacterial.
There is evidence to suggest that bamboo clothes do help slow down the growth of bacteria, however this cannot directly be linked to any natural anti-bacterial properties of bamboo or bamboo kun. It seems most likely that bamboo’s natural anti-bacterial agents are removed through such an intensive chemical processing treatment.
With all this being said, there is also a certain amount of proof that bamboo does help slow the growth of bacteria, which will help stop your clothes smelling as quickly. We cannot say for certain whether this is due to bamboo’s ability to wick moisture from your skin quickly, it’s breathable nature keeping you cool, or the fact there are trace metals remaining on the fabric from the viscose process which help kill bacteria.
So the truth, is bamboo antibacterial? It seems that yes, bamboo is antibacterial to a certain extent, but this is not specific to bamboo. Instead it seems all viscose fabrics are anti-bacterial. Bamboo also won’t completely stop your clothes from smelling as bacteria can still grow, it just might grow slower than a cotton or polyester garment.
If you’re interested in finding out the benefits of bamboo, we have a full article explaining 15 advantages and disadvantages of bamboo clothes.Alternatively, you may want to read about how sustainable bamboo is, and whether bamboo clothing is really eco friendly.
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