Why Does Wool Make Your Skin Itch?

Written by Camilla Jessen

Mar.25 - 2024 4:29 PM CET

Photo: Shutterstock.com
Photo: Shutterstock.com
Wool sweaters are wonderfully warm, yet without a shirt underneath, they might make your skin itch terribly. But why is that? Surely, sheep don't feel itchy.

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A wool sweater is the perfect shield against cold weather; however, it can make your entire upper body itch. But why is that?

Interestingly, not all wool garments cause the same amount of skin irritation. This variation in irritation primarily depends on the thickness of the wool fibers.

The coarser and thicker the fibers, the more likely the garment is to cause itching. Thick fibers are less flexible than thin ones, and their rigidity creates a sandpaper-like effect when they rub against the skin, leading to irritation and itching.

Choosing the Right Types of Wool

Thin fibers are typically softer and gentler on the skin.

Wool from alpacas and certain sheep breeds, such as Merino, consists of soft and thin fibers. In contrast, breeds like Romney and Border Leicester produce coarser and thicker wool fibers.

In rare cases, irritation and itching can also be due to the wool's content of lanolin – a waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands in the skin of wool-bearing animals.

In some individuals, lanolin can trigger allergic reactions, including itching. Fortunately, manufacturers remove most of the wool's lanolin, as the substance has several undesirable effects.

Besides causing itching and other allergic reactions, lanolin is mildly odorous and makes the wool fibers slightly greasy, which disrupts the processing and dyeing of the wool.

The Most and Least Itchy Fabrics

  1. Wool with thick fibers tends to be the itchiest, as the fibers abrade the skin.

  2. Synthetic clothing can also be quite itchy, due to static electricity that creates friction and irritates the skin.

  3. Coarse cotton knits are generally comfortable to wear, but in rare cases, they can be slightly itchy.

  4. Silk is soft and smooth and seldom causes itching.

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