Harvard and MIT researchers did recently publish a study that found exposure to silver nanoparticles, found in clothing, toothpaste, toys and other products, can cause substantial DNA damage. But before I get to your main question, let’s look at why that news might’ve frightened you.
A nanoparticle is a microscopic particle comparable in size to viruses. “Like viruses,” Canadian researchers wrote in a paper on nanoparticle toxicity, “some nanoparticles can penetrate lung or dermal (skin) barriers and enter the circulatory and lymphatic systems of humans and animals, reaching most bodily tissues and organs, and potentially disrupting cellular processes and causing disease.”
The finding that the nananoparticles cause DNA damage is of particular concern because if damaged DNA is not repaired properly, Cancer Research UK explains, “then the cell may get the wrong instructions and start to multiply out of control,” which can lead to cancer.
Silver nanoparticles are added to all sorts of products from toys to textiles for their antimicrobial properties. (Bacteria cause the stink in your clothes; antimicrobial agents kill it.) While fixed nanostructured materials, like those found in microchip electronics, are believed to be benign, detachable nanoparticles like those found in some cosmetics and textiles are linked to adverse health effects. Sweat can dislodge nanoparticles in your workout clothes, so they fall into the potentially toxic category, which leads to your question: Can you get a harmful dose of silver nanoparticles from your workout clothes?
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to give you a straightforward answer, as researchers are still figuring out what constitutes a harmful dose. How you’re exposed to the nanoparticles also matters, however. In that case, a Swiss study suggests that exposure to silver nanoparticles through workout clothes may warrant less concern than exposure through other products applied directly to the skin, like hand creams, or products that are taken orally, as oral absorption of silver nanoparticles is believed to be much more efficient than absorption through the skin.
Also, the Swiss researchers assumed in their study that all of the silver nanoparticles released into sweat would be deposited on the skin. In real-life conditions, that’s probably not true. Some loose particles will get stuck on your clothes. And sweat mobilizes the nanoparticles, so if you’re not sweating much, it’s likely more nanoparticles will stay in your clothes rather than finding their way onto your skin. Finally, it’s also possible that the entire surface of your clothes isn’t always in contact with your body if they scrunch up a bit, thereby reducing your overall exposure.
On the other hand, it’s possible that the particular brand of workout clothes you wear releases more silver nanoparticles than the clothes tested in the Swiss study. Currently, there’s no way to know if the particular material you’re wearing poses a health risk.
The bottom line: The Swiss researchers suggest that showering immediately after your workout will wash silver nanoparticles from your skin, which may significantly reduce exposure. But if you’re still worried about it, we have four words for you: go with the stink. The easiest way to limit your exposure to silver is to stop wearing clothes without a clear explanation of where their anti-funk factor comes from.