It's admittedly rare that I can make it through dinner without spilling anything on myself, but last night I did it on purpose, pouring Sriracha, red wine, and chocolate sauce on a new white T-shirt to see what would happen.
Everything slid off—in the case of the hot sauce, with the help of a napkin—and the shirt looked exactly as clean as it had before. The manufacturer, one of a handful of companies making "hydrophobic" clothing, uses nanotech to repel liquids from the cotton fabric.
In theory, you almost never have to wash the clothing.
"We set out to create the perfect T-shirt because we love white T-shirts, but they are virtually impossible to keep clean," says David Mason from Threadsmiths, the Australia-based startup making the shirt. "We believe in the future all clothes will be made with this application."
In the life of a piece of cotton clothing—from the water and pesticides used to grow the cotton, to the manufacturing and shipping and the fact that it's likely to end up in a landfill—laundry tends to have some of the biggest impact on the environment, particularly climate change. An internal study at Levis found that if Americans wore their jeans 10 times before washing, instead of two times, it would reduce energy use almost 80%.
In the case of the Threadsmiths shirt, it might still need an occasional wash, though it isn't likely to smell; the hydrophobic coating on the fabric also resists bacteria and moisture from sweat. On average, people usually wash the shirt every three weeks.
Should all clothing be made this way? Some nano-materials, like silver, can wash out in the laundry and lead to environmental problems, and even antibiotic resistance, when they end up in streams or soil. Threadsmiths uses a proprietary coating, but may use silica, something that the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety said hasn't been proven safe for health yet.
"The risks might be dermal exposure and entry into the body, but this depends on how likely the nanoparticles are to be dislodged from the clothing and how likely they are penetrate the skin," says James Bonner, a professor and director of the Toxicology Graduate Program at North Carolina State University.
If it is proven safe, hydrophobic coatings could change the way we do laundry, and eventually—as the technology evolves—even eliminate it.
"I think as the technology improves it will one day be possible to make a shirt that never needs to get washed," says Mason.