If you have ever found yourself facing racks upon racks of workout clothing in Target or Kohls, you know how difficult it is to pick just the right pair of leggings for a dance class or the perfect tank top for a marathon. Besides figuring out what style and size you want, you also have to decide what kind of fabric will provide the most comfort while you exercise. For example, many activewear contains polyester, but before making a purchase, many athletes find themselves asking, is polyester breathable?
Polyester fabric can be breathable if it is manufactured correctly. While polyester fibers are essentially solid plastic that does not allow air or moisture to flow through them, modern textile arts have created special methods for weaving polyester into a structure that results in a moisture-wicking and breathable material perfect for athletic wear.
In this article, you will learn the characteristics of breathable fabrics, what makes a kind of polyester fabric breathable or not, and whether this material makes good masks!
What Makes a Fabric Breathable
Breathable fabrics allow air to flow through their structure. A lot of factors contribute to making material breathable. These include the weave structure, the weight of the material, and the ability to absorb liquid.
If you have ever gone for a run on a summer day and found yourself peeling your shirt from your sticky skin in disgust, you know exactly what it feels like to wear non-breathable fabrics! This is why the amount of air that can flow through material matters for athletic wear. It also makes a difference in everything from bedding to face masks.
While the type of material does impact the cloth’s permeability, its structure might matter even more. You can have a tighter or looser weave, for example. A looser weave has larger air gaps between the yarns and thus allows more airflow.
Some types of cloth have a different yarn structure altogether. For example, the jersey knit you can find in most t-shirts doesn’t contain the typical warp and woof threads you would expect in woven cloth. Instead, the yarns in this cloth are knitted together, which creates a stretchy, looser material for air to flow through!
The size of the individual yarns (sometimes called threads) in the weave can also determine how much air can squeeze through those almost microscopic gaps.
You might not think that wetness has a lot to do with airflow. The way a material handles liquid also plays a big role in its breathability.
These days textile manufacturing involves a lot of fancy science. This includes the ability to make special synthetic fabrics that have moisture-wicking capabilities.
Wicking materials balance out the dampness on both sides of the cloth. If you’re really sweaty, the fabric will transport that liquid to its other side, where the liquid can evaporate into the less-wet air.
Wicking materials also typically do not absorb water. This means they dry quickly as the wetness evaporates into the air.
This ability to get rid of moisture removes the dampness that can prevent airflow through the cloth. Of course, it also makes you much more comfortable, because no one likes wearing damp, clingy clothes.
The cut or style of a garment can also make a difference. Moisture-wicking cloth, for example, often works best while tightly hugging the skin. Even extremely non-permeable materials can offer cool relief if cut in a loose, billowy style like a peasant skirt.
Finally, special features like mesh panels can allow for extra airflow in some items. You see this in some sports tank tops, but mesh panels in non-permeable fabrics also feature in items like tents and hiking shoes.
Is 100% Polyester Breathable Fabric?
Some 100% polyester fabrics are breathable, depending on how they are manufactured. Other kinds are not. Because of its plastic fibers, polyester fabric’s lack of permeability can make it feel hot and sticky in warm weather.
You might see a lot of debate over this question. Some people claim that all polyester is non-breathable. Others love polyester athletic wear because they say it is super permeable!
This big difference of opinion stems from the fact that the structure is everything for synthetic fabrics.
Polyester fibers are solid plastic, and obviously, air can’t flow through solid plastic. This is why the construction of the cloth matters more than the material it’s made out of. Think of a chain-link fence: air can’t flow through the metal, but it can blow right through the gaps in the chain!
Think about the differences between a winter coat and a running shirt.
Many winter coats have an outer shell made from wind-resistant, water-resistant polyester. This material is purposefully non-permeable. You want a coat to insulate you, not keep you cool!
On the other hand, a polyester running shirt usually features a knitted, mesh-like structure of yarns. This loose weave allows wetness and air to pass through the material.
So, how do you know if a polyester garment will feel like a sheet of plastic wrap or allow comfortable airflow? Before answering this key question, let’s take a quick look at how this synthetic material is typically manufactured.
Polyester comes from a byproduct of petroleum. It turns into cloth in a complicated process that involves melted plastic shooting out of industrial nozzles. Eventually, the long, stable fibers created in this way get twisted together into yarns.
Natural fibers often have space in their molecular structure to allow air to pass through them. Unlike natural fibers, these synthetic fibers are non-porous.
Its yarns are also not permeable. They do not absorb water or allow air to flow through them.
However, manufacturers can take these non-porous threads and craft them into a breathable material. Specific weave patterns and knitting processes create space for air to pass through the material.
Knit materials, in particular, feature a looser structure. This creates space between the yarns that promotes airflow and wicking. These knits often serve as the cloth of choice for athletic wear.
Polyester does not usually feel as airy as many natural materials. You may find that it does not allow your skin to breathe in quite the same way as a natural material, either.
That said, synthetic materials do provide excellent wicking abilities that natural materials lack. In the end, you may find these materials cooler against your skin than natural fibers!
As you’ll find out in more detail later on, another great way to get the pros of synthetic material without the cons is to wear a poly blend. Many textile manufacturers merge the fibers of multiple types of fabric. This creates unique materials that highlight all the best features of each kind of cloth!
Polycotton is a great example of this marriage of two materials. This blended material combines the lightness and breathability of a natural fiber with the quick-drying, moisture-wicking polyester properties. This is why so many t-shirts these days are made out of this blended material!
Is Polyester Good for Hot Weather?
Depending on its structure, some polyester cloth can feel either cool or super hot and muggy in the summer.
Once again, you can find mixed opinions on this topic.
Some people swear that polyester is the worst summer fabric. Certain types of this material, such as sheers and some wovens, really do trap heat against your skin. If you have ever felt like your pretty floral blouse was about to melt into your shoulders while you strolled down the boardwalk, you know what this feels like!
On the other hand, polyester materials advertised as moisture-wicking will provide you with cooling relief that even a highly permeable material like linen can’t supply.
Many people recommend natural fabrics for the most comfortable, coolest feel against your skin. They certainly aren’t wrong–these kinds of cloth can provide extra comfort!
However, natural fibers often don’t handle dampness well. This is where synthetic materials steal the show.
Let’s compare cotton to polyester to get a good idea of each type of cloth’s pros and cons.
Cotton allows air to flow freely through its weave, though thread count and the tightness of the weave do make some difference. This material also absorbs wetness instead of repelling it. It does not dry quickly and can remain damp for lengthy periods of time, especially in humid weather.
Polyester does not naturally allow air to pass through its fibers. Despite that, certain weaving or knitting patterns can create space for air between the individual threads of the fabric.
The plastic fibers of this fabric do not absorb water. With the right weave, this cloth does a good job wicking wetness through its scientifically designed structure.
Keep in mind that the cut and style of any garment will also make the garment cooler or hotter.
Is Polyester Good for Athletic Wear?
Polyester is a popular choice for activewear, based on the fact that a huge amount of athletic wear sold around the world contains a good amount of this synthetic material. Admittedly, some of the popularity depends on the fact that synthetic fabrics cost a lot less than their natural counterparts. Polyester has many advantages for activewear besides its low cost, though!
First, it has a big advantage over natural materials when it comes to sweat. Cotton absorbs sweat well, but then it holds onto the liquid. Polyester doesn’t absorb liquids easily, so it wicks the sweat off your skin and lets it evaporate into the air.
Unfortunately, polyester can still show sweat. It will push the liquid to the outside of the fabric, but this may leave visible dampness.
Second, polyester has tough and strong fibers that make the material incredibly durable. You can wash your activewear many times without any fading or wear and tear!
This fabric also provides insulation when layered correctly, making it a good choice for winter workouts.
Lastly, polyester resists wrinkling or stretching and will hold its shape even if you wear it for long periods of time.
The only downside to wearing polyester workout gear is that some people find that it holds onto odors even after washing. Also, it is not quite as breathable as some natural fabrics.
Is Polyester Breathable for a Face Mask?
Polyester does not make the most effective face masks because it traps dampness between your face and the fabric. This is one instance in which its water-repelling abilities have a negative impact!
The CDC doesn’t specifically recommend a fabric for masks, though they do state that two or more layers of fabric offer the best protection. They suggest a “breathable fabric.”
Other sources recommend a fabric with a tight weave. Whether you plan to buy or sew your fabric mask, you should make sure it has more than one layer of cloth for the best protection.
A polyblend such as 50/50 should offer you comfortable breathability, but 100% synthetic material probably will not.
Whatever fabric you select, do be sure to wash the fabric mask after every use. Even a nice, permeable fabric will smell funky and collect bacteria after prolonged use!
Is Polyester Breathable for Bedding?Polyester can make comfortable bedding, but it is less breathable than a natural material like cotton. That said, many people like polyester sheets because they last a long time, don’t wrinkle easily, and cost less than half the price of bedding made from natural materials.
Like everything else you have read about here, the way the fabric is structured does make a difference. Polyester bedding usually features a kind of microfiber that doesn’t really allow airflow and can therefore trap body heat.
Not all microfiber sheets are equal, though. You can buy pricier bedding that has great wicking ability and more comfortable airflow.
Microfiber is made of tiny fibers so thin you almost need a magnifying glass to see them! This super lightweight and smooth fabric weighs hardly anything!. Microfiber is much more absorbent than many synthetic materials and has wicking abilities as well.
All of this goes to say that natural fabrics probably do provide the greatest airflow and comfort for bedding. However, the much cheaper microfiber option also has a lot going for it!
Is Polyester Breathable for Underwear?Health experts seem to agree that polyester provides very helpful wicking properties to protect sensitive areas of your anatomy. This is especially important if you plan to run a marathon on a hot day or play beach volleyball in Florida in the summer!
Not all synthetics perform so well in this area. Health experts recommend steering clear of lycra undergarments, despite their stretchiness. This material will trap heat and dampness against your skin. This could lead to discomfort or even infections.
Cotton, another solid choice for your most intimate garments, can soak up dampness. This might cause chafing. Prolonged damp conditions such as lengthy physical exertion that cause you to sweat may make this type of underwear very uncomfortable.
However, this natural material’s far greater permeability does make it the more comfortable choice for non-athletic wear. You might feel a little sweaty on a warm day, but the softness and airiness of the natural fabric provide greater safety and comfort than any other material.
Does Polyester Make You Sweat at Night?
Some kinds of polyester can trap heat around you as you sleep, causing you to get night sweats. This is one of those areas where you get what you pay for, in general. Moisture-wicking, high-quality microfibers can keep you nice and cool.
However, it’s true that lots of cheaper microfiber bedding or pajamas can make you sweaty. Unfortunately, the cute, faux-silk robes and nighties that often look the prettiest often turn out to be hot and uncomfortable for this reason. If you get hot easily, you might prefer a light sleepwear set made from a natural material that allows for freer airflow.
Both sleepwear and bedding are often made from poly because it is cheap and also flame-resistant. This means that it takes longer to catch on fire than many natural materials.
Ultimately, though, you often have to decide between the durability, wrinkle-resistance, and fire-retardant qualities of polyester and the breathability of a natural material.
Is Polyester Breathable for Babies?
Experts offer contradictory opinions on whether or not the polyester fabric is breathable for babies. Some applaud the use of this synthetic material for infant sleepwear, baby blankets, or other baby items because it offers extra flame-resistance to keep your little one safe in case of emergency. Others point out that the chemicals used to treat synthetic fabrics can cause allergic reactions in infants.
If your little one has an allergic reaction to any type of material, you should immediately stop using it! However, barring that, the material’s quality usually determines whether or not it makes infants hot, sweaty, or uncomfortable.
The great benefit of using polyester baby gear is that it lasts forever, even after multiple runs through the wash. Plus, it’s usually quite a bit cheaper, which means you can pick out more cute outfits or cozy baby blankets to buy!
Are Polyester Blends Breathable?
Some polyester blends provide a great deal of breathability. Others provide very little airflow and might prove uncomfortably hot. Here’s a quick look at three of the most popular blends: poly-cotton, polyester and spandex, and tri-blends.
Poly-cotton, sometimes called 50/50, has seen increasing popularity in t-shirts and sports shirts such as jerseys. This material combines varying percentages of each type of material, weaving them together to create a blended fabric.
Alternatively, more expensive types of 50/50 combine the two materials by twisting the fibers together into one thread and then weaving the cloth out of the blended thread.
Polycotton is usually not as breathable as 100% natural material. However, it has the wicking properties of polyester fabric. This can make it the superior choice for t-shirts and sportswear.
Polyester and Spandex Blends
Polyester and spandex blends, on the other hand, do not allow for easy airflow. However, spandex was first invented as a rubber alternative. As you might expect, it does not allow a lot of air through its fibers!
This fabric makes excellent leggings and compression tops because of its extreme flexibility. The downside is that the addition of spandex tends to make the fabric very nonporous.
Tri-blends can contain multiple different kinds of material. The most popular version features polyester, cotton, and rayon. Because rayon looks and feels like silk, the tri-blend fabric has an extra-soft texture and an excellent drape that makes it perfect for fitted tees.
As a relatively new product, tri-blend fabrics quickly gained popularity. They typically feature the breathability of cotton, the durability and wicking of polyester, and the silky softness of rayon. This makes them an excellent choice for any slightly clingy garment. You will stay nice and cool while wearing this comfortable fabric, too!
What Fabric is Most Breathable?
Generally, cotton wins the award for the most breathable fabric. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it always provides the coolest and least sweaty experience. However, this material does reliably allow air to flow through its lightweight weave.
Interestingly, despite the controversy over its breathability, polyester fabric often ranks second! Remember, though, that this synthetic fabric must have a carefully structured weave or knit to provide the moisture-wicking that gives it great airflow. Otherwise, it can cling to your skin like saran wrap in hot weather!
Like many natural materials, linen’s naturally absorbent fibers and super-loose weave create a light, airy material! People love the breeziness of this cloth. However, linen doesn’t dry quickly and can look awkward if you sweat through it.
Wool might seem like an odd choice for breathable fabric, but it has a natural ability to allow both air and liquid to permeate its fibers. It remains a popular choice for hiking wear and cold-weather gear because of this.
Rayon doesn’t wick moisture, though it is a synthetic fabric. However, it does have a pretty fair ability to move air comfortably through its weave. You may find rayon as a component part of a fabric blend more often than you would buy a pure rayon garment. This is because rayon adds a touch of silkiness to many blends.
You might also see nylon quite often in athletic wear because it wicks away water so well. Most people find nylon less breathable than some other synthetic materials, but it depends on the structure of the cloth.
Lastly, viscose is another new fabric that has excellent breathability. Made from processed wood pulp, this material looks and feels a lot like rayon. Viscose can wick water away and also allows good breezy airflow through its fibers while you exercise. Its only real downside is that it isn’t machine washable due to its fragile fibers.
Here’s a quick comparison chart for you:
|Type of Fabric
|High because of its loose weave and porous fibers
|Low because it absorbs liquid
|Depends on the structure of the cloth
|Usually very high, though this depends on the structure of the cloth
|Very high because of linens’ airy weave
|Low; linen absorbs liquid instead of dissipating it into the air
|Good; wool has naturally breathable fibers
|Very high; wool actually works almost like a synthetic fabric in the way it wicks water!
|High; this interesting material combines synthetic and natural components and has great airflow
|Good; viscose absorbs water, but can also quickly dry as the water evaporates
|Depends on the structure of the fabric
|Depends on the structure of the fabric, but most nylon material wicks water very well
|Fair; rayon’s very light structure makes it airy and comfortable
|Low; rayon does not have wicking abilities like many synthetic fabrics
To sum up, polyester can have excellent breathability, but this depends on how its yarns are knitted or woven into cloth. Many knits provide good airflow because of their looser structure. Poly blends such as 50/50 and many tri-blends also feature good breathability.
Chances are pretty good that you own at least a few pieces of poly-blend or tri-blend clothing. Try wearing them outside in the sun and see what you think about the airflow and moisture-wicking of these garments!
Let us know how your experiment turns out in the comments below!