WHEN I TOLD a friend that I sweat more than anyone I know, she said: that’s what everyone thinks. But of the next four friends I asked, all said, “Funny, I don’t sweat much at all.” One has and one thinks she might have an autoimmune disease that impairs the body’s fluid production; the other two have no explanation besides that they just don’t sweat much.
What I yearn for is a shirt I can wear on a walk or bike ride, and afterwards go indoors for coffee or lunch without dripping sweat either chilling me or making me look like I’m auditioning for a wet T-shirt contest. I’m talking not about underarm sweat, which can be allayed by antiperspirants, but about sweat that emerges from everywhere. In fact, the average human body is covered with more than 2.5 million sweat glands.
After much effort at self-education — reading whatever I could find, particularly on different fabrics, including those that wick, dry and “dri”; and purchasing an array of candidates when I could find good deals, albeit often in the worst colors — my research was obviated by the advice that rang most true: “When it comes to choosing a wicking fabric, you’ll have to trust the opinions of others.”
I did learn that “wicking” and “dri” are not necessarily what I’m looking for, because while these fabrics can transfer sweat away from the skin, they often move it visibly onto the shirt. After my regular 45-minute stationary bike ride, the Merrell “Adeeline,” which garnered the top recommendation in a GearFinder review, looked positively sopping and felt very cold — so much that I wondered if there was something terribly idiosyncratic about my body. Also sopping was the “More Ultra” from Modell’s, suspiciously inexpensive but bearing the irresistible “Speed-Dri” label. (Another factor in looking dry that doesn’t benefit from research is color, the best being white and black.)
Sweat is designed to cool the body when air hits moist skin, which brings up the question of fit. The warmer the conditions, the looser a shirt should be to allow air to circulate. When it’s cold, the “athletic” or close fit helps contain body-generated warmth, and “wicking” fibers should be close to the skin to remove chilling sweat; looser outer layers can create air pockets for added insulation. A tighter fit also works better for stop-and-start exercising, while long-distance runners do well with looser fits that leave some sweat on the skin for cooling.
Other variables are material and weave. While natural fabrics — cotton, linen and wool — breathe better, they retain all the excess moisture that doesn’t evaporate from the skin. “Synthetic fibers are, essentially, plastic — and virtually nonabsorbent,” according to REI. The theory is that moisture will travel along the surface of the fibers and drain to the outside of the clothing to evaporate when it makes contact with air.
Polyester is recommended for heat and high humidity because it holds only about 0.4 percent of moisture, and certain polyester weaves force moisture through gaps in the weave to improve wicking. Polyester, however, retains odor. Of the polyester shirts I tried, one was the terrible “Adeline,” at 97% polyester, while another was the great Athleta “Running Wild” at 93%. At 100%, both Hot Chillys “Geo Pro” and Mountain HardWear’s “Wicked Lite” looked pretty dry, though my version of the latter was white and thus hard to judge.
Where polyester is deemed “hydrophobic” because it doesn’t absorb water, nylon is “hydrophilic,” so that it absorbs some water and takes longer to dry, and its colors fade over time. On the other hand, nylon is stronger and has greater “stretchability,” according to the Luluaddict blog. Of all the shirts I tried, the Lululemon was the only one with a high nylon content, at 58%.
Blog bias notwithstanding, however, that Lululemon shirt, a dark blue “Swifty Tech” long-sleeve crew, made of the brand’s time-tested fabric with hundreds of tiny perforations worked best of all. Besides nylon, the shirt is 38% polyester and 4% “static silver nylon,” supposed to reduce the smell.
The rest of my trial shirts I divide into three categories: great and pretty great — which I continue to wear; and horrible — which I should give away. Besides the Lululemon shirt, great includes Athleta’s “Running Wild,” with alternating panels of black and salt-and-pepper gray; and Hot Chillys “Geo Pro,” which feels soft and drapes well. Both look quite dry but are a little heavy for warm weather.
Among pretty great, I put “Better than Naked” by North Face—which got top rating from OutdoorGearLab’s “Best Running Shirt For Women” five-shirt comparison, where it was evaluated as “quick to dry”—along with the Arc’teryx “Motus,” the REI “Northway” and “Dri-FIT” by Nike. Horrible includes the Merrell “Adeeline,” the Arc’teryx “24” waffle knit and the “More” from Modell’s.
My experiment was hit-or-miss, mostly due to budget constraints, as evidenced by my failure to include any of the other shirts in OutdoorGearLab’s review, according to rank best to worst: New Balance, Adidas, Salomon and Patagonia.
However, I am still taking recommendations and recently ordered an Under Armour “HeatGear” top, 97% polyester, with “pinhole mesh” fabric that may be similar to Lululemon’s perforations. Writing for Slate, Nick Schulz — “I’m the sweatiest guy I know” — found this model “stayed light and dry as sweat cascaded down my face during an hour-long run.” So I keep hoping.
— Mary Carpenter