Polygiene: How does the stink-blocker work, and is it sustainable?

10. July 2019

(Warning: the following introduction may contain traces of irony)

They say that, in the mountains, some practice the so-called “primitive” custom of not immediately showering or changing their clothes after they’ve been sweating. Disgusting, right? I mean, how gross, and – most importantly – how inconsiderate towards other people! The reason for this sorry state of affairs is the mountain huts, which don’t have showers or even hot water around the clock. The aroma wafting through the cramped rooms there would be enough to trigger a hazmat alarm in a big city. When will the EU finally get around to creating a law that requires these stinky huts to be air-conditioned and outfitted with some kind of air purifier or scent dispensers?

As long as life in the mountains is so poorly regulated, we’ll just have to improvise. One option would be to reduce physical exertion to the point that sweat no longer leaves our pores. The many new cable cars and roads that are being built are a pretty good start. But what are we supposed to do when sweating is unavoidable, and all the high-alpine shower facilities are still in the planning stages?

How does the odour get into our clothes?

The answer can be found in technologies like Polygiene. Unlike perfume and deodorant, Polygiene has – and the irony stops here – more to offer than just an optional luxury. It has some very real advantages, and you’ll understand why after we take a closer look at the reason why sweat stinks so much and what effect it has. Although, to be honest, there isn’t much to misunderstand here. I’m sure anyone who has ever sweat knows how sweat comes to be and what its purpose is. When our bodies warm up, moisture is excreted from up to 2.6 million sweat glands and cools the skin by evaporating. This cooling effect is essential for our survival; our bodies need it like an engine needs coolant.

But what some people may not be aware of is that sweat itself doesn’t have any odour at all. What it does have, though, is proteins and fatty acids that provide nutrients to bacteria and other microorganisms living on the skin. The microorganisms break down these components, which – much like human digestion – produces strong-smelling waste products. In warm, humid conditions, these deposits accumulate on the skin and clothing along with ever-increasing numbers of microorganisms.

Not only does this stink, but it also begins to attack the fabric. The waste products contain acids and salts that can damage the clothing by both chemical and mechanical means.

What is Polygiene?

Long story short, Polygiene is a silver salt made using recycled industrial silver that is incorporated into the fabric. It also happens to be the name of the manufacturer, which is located in Malmö, Sweden.

With Polygiene, you can avoid odour-inducing bacteria on your clothing!

There are multiple types of silver salts. Like most outdoor clothing, Polygiene uses silver chloride, which is not water soluble and does not wash out of clothing. Wear and tear on the fibres and ion exchange with sulphur compounds might cause a minimal quantity of silver ions to be released during a wash, but in Polygiene’s case, these are not harmful to living organisms or septic systems (more on this in the section on sustainability).

Polygiene is based on silver chloride obtained from 100% recycled silver sourced from photographic and industrial applications. It is never mixed with mined silver sources. It is applied to the garment fibres much like dye. This requires only a tiny amount of silver: the amount of silver in a ring would be enough for around 5000 Polygiene garments.

According to the manufacturer, the Polygiene silver treatment lasts for the entire lifespan of the garment and won’t come out in the wash. Moreover, Polygiene is not nanosilver, which is made of silver ions that are only nanometres in size (10-9 metres). There is some suspicion that nanosilver particles could detach from the clothing and enter the body through the skin. The silver ions used in Polygiene are more than 100 times larger, making them too large to penetrate the skin.

In addition, Polygiene assures us that their silver salts will not detach from the fabric, even after extended periods of use. They are also only active on the outside of the textile base material, so they don’t have any effect on perspiration or the natural bacterial flora on the skin. Consequently, Polygiene-treated fabrics have received Medical Class 1 approval in Europe, the same class that includes bandages for direct contact with open wounds.

Polygiene is generally available in pre-treated functional base layers, but can also be applied as a spray or laundry additive.

How does it work?

The tiny silver particles work much like an antibiotic: they kill a broad spectrum of microorganisms and prevent their growth. The particles are an “indigestible clump” that brings the organisms’ metabolic processes to a screeching halt.

But the question isn’t just how it works – we also want to know how long and how well it works. Outdoor Magazin, a German publication, put it through a thorough test over the course of 14 days and came to the following conclusion.

We received a Capilene Thermal Weight base layer shirt from Patagonia and a pair of walking socks from SaferSox for our test. Polygiene recommended that we test the t-shirt for 8 days. They said we should exercise and get it really soaked in sweat, then just hang it up to dry. We were not allowed to wash the shirt between wears.

In our test, we took things a step further. Our tester wore the Patagonia t-shirt for a total of 14 days. The result: there was no odour from sweat in the base layer.

There were other odours, like those from food or deodorant, but the number of Alpine Trekkers who have a problem with that or expect their functional clothing to offer a solution should be reasonably low.

What are the advantages of odour reduction?

The immediate advantages of not stinking should be fairly obvious. Not only does is allow you to feel more comfortable and have more pleasant social interactions in cramped quarters, but it’s also more hygienic. The absence of bacteria and fungus also means fewer potential skin irritations and other health problems.

The fact that Polygiene fabrics can be changed and washed less frequently also has other less immediate advantages. You can get away with bringing considerably fewer changes of clothes with you, which keeps the weight of your pack down. The product lifespan is also increased because the fibres are more resilient to microbes and washing, preventing the fabric showing signs of wear as quickly. Plus, less clothing is thrown out and replaced, which is a positive for both the environment and your wallet. And that brings us to the topic of sustainability.

Why Polygiene is sustainable

The beginning of this article should have already made it quite clear that Polygiene is pretty sustainable. But it isn’t just a little sustainable – it’s absolutely, totally sustainable. Why? Not only are the materials and technology themselves sustainable, but the direct and indirect effects are as well. Environmental organisations and regulatory bodies also recognise this fact. That’s why the permanent fabric treatment is bluesign certified and fulfils strict, independent environmental and product lifecycle standards such as the EU environmental and waste regulations and the ISO 14001 standard. Polygiene is also on the Oeko-Tex lists (I-IV) of independently tested and certified products.

Health

The certifications ensure a high level of consumer safety because the higher the environmental standards for the material and manufacturing processes are, the lower the impact on human health. For that reason, the purity of the silver is continuously tested to ensure that there are no traces of other metals. Potential side-effects resulting from the silver’s contact with the skin were also thoroughly researched. A study was carried out at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the USA to find out whether the antimicrobial silver could disrupt the skin’s bacterial balance. The researchers found that antibacterial clothing has no confirmed effect on the microflora of healthy skin. True, test results should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt, but in Polygiene’s case you can assume that the risk would be minimal, anyway, because of the way the clothes are constructed.

Resource consumption

This is where Polygiene really shines when it comes to sustainability. In all phases of the product lifecycle, resource consumption is kept to a minimum. As previously mentioned, the raw silver is obtained from recycled materials (electronic scraps) and used at a very low concentration. Furthermore, Polygiene can be applied in a single production step with other treatments, so it does not require the use of any additional water or energy. No adhesive agent is required to attach the Polygiene molecules to the fabric.

The greatest conservation of resource occurs when the Polygiene garment is used, because it is washed far less frequently than traditional sportswear. The latter often makes its way to the washing machine after every single use. That isn’t necessary with Polygiene because the unhygienic bacteria and odours never develop. Once the sweat evaporates and the fabric is dry, the garment is actually clean enough to be worn again. Not indefinitely, of course, but far longer than untreated synthetic fibres or cotton material. A set of Polygiene base layers can be worn for about as long as a set made of merino wool without getting gross.

Polygiene is used in many of the base layers from Patagonia, but other brands swear by it, too.

Not only can Polygiene garments be washed less frequently, they can also be washed at lower temperatures. This helps to reduce energy consumption and improve the product’s lifespan. And when it finally does give up the ghost, the garment can be recycled – along with the Polygiene treatment.

All in all, it creates a simple but effective formula for sustainability:

Less washing =less water consumption, less detergent, less energy consumption + longer product life + more free time + money saved!

The whole thing is explained on the Polygiene website with a variety of statistics. They even provide statistics about the savings in time and money – an estimated 28 minutes of work and US$ 1.34 for each load of laundry. It is estimated that, overall, approximately two-thirds of a garment’s ecological footprint (water and energy consumption; water, ground, and air pollution) is the result of washing and drying it.

Although wear and tear on the fibres and ion exchange with sulphur compounds might cause a minimal quantity of silver ions to be released at some point during washing, Patagonia says that these will quickly bind with sulphides in the environment to create a chemically stable, non-soluble silver sulphide which is not harmful to living organisms. So the silver ions are deactivated as soon as they make their way into a natural waterway. “This is also how they are deactivated in a wastewater treatment plant so that they don’t put a burden on the bacterial or biological stage of the treatment plant or contaminate the treated water or the sewage sludge.“ And at any rate, small amounts of silver chloride and silver sulphide are also naturally found in drinking water, seawater, and in the ground.

Conclusion

Polygiene is a prime example of outdoor technology that combines functionality with sustainability. The treatment helps to maintain a certain level of comfort in sportswear and outdoor clothing for a significantly longer time. And that can help to leave the urban need for cleanliness, along with its sometimes absurd expectations of comfort, down in the valley, rather than dragging them ever higher into the mountains. That being said, Polygiene might even help to stem the mania for development that sometimes runs just as rampant as those nasty little stink germs…

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