The Sock Talk: Why Materials Matter

by Adam Stuhlfaut, Director of Running

One of the more easily preventable foot ailment are blisters.  Blisters form from a combination of heat, sweat and friction between your feet and your shoes.  Poorly fitting shoes are major a factor, but problems related to poorly fitting shoes can be eased by a good sock and exacerbated by a poor sock.  At SHOES-n-FEET we recommend both polyester and wool socks. Those materials perform the best when it comes to four key areas: softness, absorption, moisture transfer and temperature regulation.  

Wool as an allergen

We’ll look at those four categories, but first I want to make a note about wool as it relates to allergies. The specific allergy associated with wool is not to the actual wool fibers themselves, but to lanolin.  Like humans have naturally occurring oil on our skin and hair, so do the animals that produce wool.   Lanolin is the natural oil that is on wool.  Humans can be allergic to lanolin and that can lead to bad rashes.  Allergies to wool fibers, on the other hand, are quite rare.  The good news is that the process that turns wool in to consumer goods strips out nearly 100% of the lanolin.  As always, consult with your doctor, but if your allergy is to lanolin, most wool based consumer products are safe.

Softness

The reason why many people associate wool with itchiness has to do with the QUALITY of wool.  If you look at wool under a microscope coarse wool is a thick, scaly fiber. While a high-quality wool, such as a Marino or alpaca wool, is a smaller, softer fiber that is much less irritating to the skin.  Both cotton and polyester fibers are similarly soft, although polyester fibers are smoother and finer than cotton. If made correctly and any of these materials will pass the softness test on a consumer products level.

Absorption

Where sock materials start to differ is on moisture management and temperature regulation.  Both cotton and wool absorb lots of water.  Wool is the best and can absorb around half of its weight in water. Cotton is next best, and polyester last.  Polyester is actually water-phobic, meaning it doesn't want anything to do with absorbing water. 

Moisture Transfer

Where wool and cotton differ is moisture transfer.  Cotton is like a dish sponge.  It can absorb lots of water, but unless wrung out the water just basically sits there.  Wool, on the other hand, is like a little water transfer system that pulls water through the fiber and allows it to evaporate. Polyester is also a great moisture transfer material. Too bad polyester is bad at absorption, but it does stay dry due to its water-phobic nature. An additional benefit of wool is that it is naturally anti-microbial and won’t build up with foot odor.  Cotton will hold onto all the bacteria and odor, even though a spin in the washing machine.  The next time you wear that cotton sock, it’s like putting on a dry, smelly dish sponge. This fact makes polyester socks at least a little more appealing because they do wick away the sweat they pick-up and are less likely to hold onto all that bacteria, fungus or other microbes.

Temperature

Wool retains heat when it gets wet making it a great choice for our nine months of rain here in the Pacific Northwest. Wool is also good in the summer as the fibers help to regulate temperature. Its why wool covered animals don’t tend to overhead in the summer. Cotton and polyester do not typically stay warm when wet. 

As with all these products, the quality of production matters greatly.  For you budget shoppers, the best socks simply don’t come in multi packs at your discount store.  There is a difference in wool, cotton and polyester AND there is a difference in the quality of the source you get them from. And if you are a budget shopper, don’t get lulled into thinking you are saving money.  Poorly made socks will just wear out faster.  Well-made socks really lost longer.  
 

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