Polyester, nylon, wool and more: The fabrics to look for in your workout clothes

The best workout clothes use special fabrics to keep you cool and dry -- here's what to look for when you shop.

Amanda Capritto
6 min read

The right fabric can make or break your workout.

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A plan for a good workout can quickly turn sour if you find yourself picking soaked clothes off of your skin, constantly shimmying into leggings that have lost their stretch, or battling the cumulative smell of workouts past. 

Truth be told, there's much more to choosing activewear than what it feels like when you're in the dressing room. Sure, that T-shirt might feel nice right now, but halfway through your HIIT session you'll be cursing cotton fields far and wide. 

Workout clothes should perform as great as they look -- to ensure you choose apparel that supports your favorite type of workout, it's worth knowing a bit about the common fabrics found in activewear.

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What kind of clothes are best for working out? 

When looking for workout clothes, you generally want to consider two main factors: Moisture management and breathability. Feel and fit are important, too, but when it comes to the actual fabric of exercise apparel, it's good to know how sweat and hot air affect the clothes. 

Moisture management refers to what the fabric does when it becomes damp or wet. For example, if the fabric resists absorption, it's considered moisture-wicking. If it becomes heavy and wet, it's absorptive (not what you want). 

Breathability refers to how easily air moves through the fabric. Breathable fabrics allow hot air to escape, while tighter-knit fabrics keep warm air close to your body. The former is ideal for warm weather, while the latter is ideal for cooler temperatures. 

Below, find a description of the most common fabrics in workout clothes, what they're best for and when to wear them. 

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Generally, moisture-wicking and breathable is the way to go.

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When to wear it: pretty much for any type of workout and in any type of weather.

Polyester is the workhorse of fitness fabrics. You'll find it in almost everything you pick up at an athletic wear store, and logically so. Polyester is incredibly durable, wrinkle-resistant and moisture-wicking. It's also breathable and lightweight, so your sweat evaporates through the fabric and you'll stay relatively dry. 

Despite its lightness, polyester is actually a pretty great insulator, which is why many brands use it in cold-weather workout clothes in addition to tanks, tees and shorts. 

Polyester's one big drawback: Synthetic fabrics like polyester can foster bacteria and fungi growth, and they hold onto odors. So be sure to wash polyester workout clothes soon after breaking a sweat in them -- don't let a sweaty T-shirt sit crumpled in your hamper for long. 

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When to wear it: when you're exercising outside in sleet, rain, snow or high humidity.

Polypropylene is a type of plastic, and polypropylene fabric is basically a thin, flexible form of that plastic. It's almost entirely waterproof, so it makes for a great base or outer layer. It's used in rain jackets, sports undergarments, skin-tight base layers and socks. 

Like polyester, polypropylene is very durable and wrinkle-resistant. It'll keep you dry when exercising in humid, misty conditions and it'll help keep you warm when exercising outdoors in the cold. 

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When to wear it: generally all workouts and weather conditions.

Another very common fabric -- perhaps most known for its use in pantyhose -- nylon is soft, mold- and mildew-resistant and stretchy. It flexes with you as you move and has great recovery, meaning it returns to pre-stretched shape and size. 

Nylon also has a fantastic tendency to wick sweat from your skin and through the fabric to the outer layer where it can evaporate. You'll find nylon in nearly everything, including sports bras, performance underwear, tank tops, T-shirts, shorts, leggings and cold-weather sportswear. 

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When to wear it: during workouts with a high range of motion, such as yoga and weightlifting.

You may know spandex by the brand name Lycra. It's extremely flexible and stretchy, making it great for people who do workouts that require a large range of motion, such as yoga and weightlifting. This synthetic fabric is found primarily in skin-tight clothing, such as track shorts, leggings and sports bras. You'll also find spandex in socks, boxer briefs and looser garments in smaller amounts. 

Spandex isn't the best at wicking moisture and it isn't the most breathable (although it's decent at both), but those aren't meant to be the key benefits of this fabric: Spandex stretches up to eight times its usual size, offering unrestricted, comfortable motion in all movement patterns. Note that spandex can lose its stretch if you toss it in the dryer or iron it too often -- wash on cold and air dry to give your spandex garments a long life. 

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Cold weather or warm, you want a fabric that won't keep sweat stuck to your skin.

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Merino wool

When to wear it: as a cool-weather fabric for outdoor workouts.

People generally think of wool as a cold-weather fabric that keeps you warm. This is true, but wool is surprisingly a great warm-weather fabric as well. Merino wool in particular is a great sweat-wicker that's thinner and softer than regular wool. 

The fibers have a double function: When it's cold out, the crimps in the fibers trap the warm air coming off of your body; when it's warm out and you start sweating, the fiber wicks sweat away from your body and through the fabric. It almost sounds too good to be true, but sheep do hang out in both harshly cold and blisteringly hot environments, so it's not all that surprising.

You probably won't find too much activewear made of purely Merino wool -- many athletic wear brands blend Merino wool with polyester and other fabrics for softness and breathability (and price -- Merino wool is expensive). 

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When to wear it: as a luxury alternative to polyester or nylon.

Bamboo has emerged as an environmentally friendly substance used in paper, toilet tissue, single-use cutlery, furniture, decor and more. Now it's also made its way into activewear, because bamboo pulp yields a lightweight natural fabric. Like Merino wool, bamboo is usually blended with several other fabrics.

It's definitely a premium fabric, so expect a higher price tag for bamboo clothes than for other popular options. If you're willing to pay the price, however, bamboo offers several features that all fitness aficionados adore: It's moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, temperature-regulating and insanely soft.

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When to wear it: literally never. 

Slightly kidding about the above, as cotton is great daily wear for warm weather because it's light and breathable -- as long as you're not sweating.

Do yourself a big favor and stay away from cotton when you're planning to work up a sweat. Cotton is extremely absorbent, so once you start to sweat, your clothes will start to get heavy and damp. If you sweat a lot or workout in a humid environment, you might end up feeling like you're wearing a wet towel.

If you generally don't get very sweaty or don't plan to do an intense workout, cotton may work fine for you. And it does have some redeeming qualities: Cotton washes very well and doesn't hold onto odors like some other fabrics. 

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When to wear it: in cold, wet, and/or windy weather.

This unique "fabric" is primarily used in outerwear, shoes and cold-weather accessories like gloves and hats -- fabric in quotes because Gore-Tex is actually a fabric membrane, rather than a fabric on its own. Waterproof and windproof, yet still breathable, Gore-Tex coats fabrics and can repel liquid while allowing vapor to seep through and evaporate. 

You may have purchased clothes with Gore-Tex without even knowing it -- The North Face, Merrell, Adidas, Under Armour, Brooks, Timberland and other brands use Gore-Tex for waterproof and windproof activewear. 

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When to wear it: in warm weather and whenever you need extra air flow.

You probably won't find a garment made entirely of mesh, but it adds a fantastic element of breathability and coolness to summertime garments. In workout clothes, mesh is usually made from polyester or nylon. If you live in a particularly warm, humid environment or tend to sweat a lot, choosing workout clothes with mesh cutouts can help more moisture evaporate from your skin. 

Now that you know how to choose the right fabric for better workouts, learn how to create the perfect workout playlist to go along with your perfect workout outfit.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.