Is Alpaca Wool Antibacterial? (What It Is and How It Works!?)
Updated: Oct 2
There are three reasons why you don’t need to wash alpaca woolen products: they are odor-resistant, stain-repellent and antibacterial. While the first two might be self explanatory, the last one got me excited to learn more! Let’s see: is alpaca wool antibacterial?
Alpaca woolen products are antibacterial: the fiber can kill bacteria or slow their growth. The alpaca fiber is technically hair (not wool) and therefore has keratin. Keratin has antifungal, or antimicrobial, properties. Antibacterial features help reduce odor in garments and require less washing.
So, wool is known to be antibacterial; however, alpaca is technically not wool, but hair… Let’s see how that works!?
Alpaca Wool Is Hair, Not Wool
The structure of the alpaca fiber is different from the structure of other wool-bearing animals: it is hair, not wool.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll still talk about alpaca wool throughout this article to make sure we all know what I’m talking about: the alpaca fiber, bundled together to create yarn used for knitting or weaving garments.
Alpaca wool is a special case: while it has many features of wool, its fur is actually hair. And while there are many similarities (water repellent, soft, warm, to name a few), there are also differences.
According to Life Science the difference between wool and hair is that hair is basically "keratinized filament", and wool is underhair whose main goal is insolation. Wool generally looks different, too: it is more frizzy, softer and flexible than hair.
You can easily see this when comparing alpaca wool to regular wool: it is much straighter, shinier and soft. But thanks to it being hair, alpaca wool has smaller scales. These smaller scales make the alpaca fiber different from wool scales.
So, alpaca wool has small scales that are not as protruding thanks to its low micron count: it has smoother scales than other fibers.
Now, back to the antibacterial features of either. According to Caven, Barnaby & Redl, B & Bechtold, T. (2018). An investigation into the possible antibacterial properties of wool fibers., it actually turns out that the wool fiber itself is not antibacterial, but the epicuticle can have an antibacterial effect.
Hair, on the other hand, has keratin. Keratin is a special protein that has antibacterial properties. Hair, feathers and wool have it, although hair seems to have a stronger antibacterial effect than wool. I found this golden nugget in a study a study called Synthesis, Structure and Antimicrobial Property of Green Composites from Cellulose, Wool, Hair and Chicken Feather by Chieu D. Tran, Franja Prosenc, Mladen Franko, and Gerald Benzi.
So while there is no consensus on why or how (alpaca) wool is actually antifungal, it seems to have antibacterial properties nonetheless. Everyone agrees that (alpaca) woolen items hold less odor. It just works that way.
Antibacterial Components Make Alpaca Odor Resistant
Being antibacterial has its benefits: A) it’s a great marketing strategy, and B) it makes alpaca woolen items odor resistant.
When an item is odor-resistant, it means it doesn’t maintain smells. What does this have to do with antibacterial features, you might wonder??? Well, let’s take sweat as an example.
Sweat itself doesn’t smell. However, when sweat is exposed to bacteria, it can get really smelly.
So when (or whether) you are walking, hiking, sitting or exercising, when you start to sweat, there is initially no problem. But when the sweat gets absorbed by the layer that covers your body, it can get “stuck”. When sweat gets stuck, bacteria will come and get it and then, Houston, we have a problem.
But not when you’re wearing alpaca woolen products. Because there will be no bacteria or microbes that can make your sweat get smelly.
So hey, don’t sweat it!
Antibacterial Garments Need Less Washing
Another big advantage of the antibacterial feature is that it requires less washing. When an item doesn’t get stinky, or smelly (or, in more accurate words, filled with bacteria and fungi) you obviously don’t need to wash alpaca woolen garments as much as those garments that do get that.
For example, if you compare alpaca woolen hiking socks with polyester socks, you will notice that the alpaca woolen ones will have much less odor than the polyester socks. This is in part because items made of polyester are more vulnerable to bacteria. Needless to say that your feet are some of the more prone parts of your body that can accumulate bacteria!
So while you need to wash polyester (or any other synthetic fiber for that matter) probably immediately after wearing it, airing an alpaca woolen item is enough to get rid of any smells.
The same goes for sweaters and/or T-shirts (read: garments that get in touch with your armpits). Alpaca wool is becoming increasingly popular among hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. One of the reasons is because you can wear an alpaca woolen item for a longer period of time, without needing to wash it.
Perfect for hikes and (camping) trips on which you can carry limited luggage!
There are more reasons why Alpaca Woolen Garments are AWESOME for hiking, read more about it in another article I wrote: Can You Go Hiking With Alpaca Wool?
The fact that alpaca woolen products need less washing is a huge benefit for the environment.
According to The Spruce a standard washing machine uses 41 gallons of water per load.
According to the USGS website an average person uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water a day.
Assuming that these 41 gallons are part of your daily water usage, washing takes up 40-50% of your daily water usage right there.
Assuming that washing is additional to your daily water usage, it is an additional 40-50% of your daily water usage.
Either way, it is a lot of water.
Saving water by wearing your clothes (much, much) more than once can help save a huge amount of water!
Woolen Products Are Also Breathable
Just as important as the antibacterial features of alpaca wool is the fact that alpaca woolen garments are super breathable.
Imagine you are wearing an alpaca woolen garment and the temperature starts to rise (either because you’re involved in some kind of physical activity or because the temperature is increasing), naturally your body will start to heat up and you might start to sweat.
One way or another, the increase in temperature (the hot air underneath the garment) will get absorbed by the fiber. The fiber basically swallows up the heat and evaporates it into the air. Problem solved: your body feels good again and the garment refrains from getting sweaty.
Compare this to a synthetic fiber, which is not breathable and “naturally” (nothing natural about polyester, sorry) wicks away water. This way the fiber remains dry, which actually causes an even better environment for bacteria to grow (according to Science Daily)!
This also is in line with what I’ve read in another article about (alpaca) wool fibers being more antifungal when they get wet! It is the breathability that enhances the antibacterial properties of (alpaca) wool fibers. And polyester clearly does not have these.
Alpaca Wool Can Still Get Mouldy/Mildewy!
So, while the antifungal properties of alpaca wool are definitely beneficial for maintaining a pleasant odor, it is not a guarantee that all fungal threats are worn off.
Alpaca wool is still (very) prone to getting mildew or mould. This often happens when alpaca wool is stored in a dusty, old attic where mildew thrives!
In order to protect your garment from mildew, make sure that you store it in an airtight container after having washed it carefully, and only store it once a garment is completely dry.
Read more about it in another article I wrote: How to Store an Alpaca Garment? (Summer Maintenance Tips)