News

Debunking the myth that wool is an allergen

16 November 2016

A highly esteemed group of medical professionals from across the world have reviewed research papers published during the past 100 years to critically assess scientific studies claiming wool causes allergy. This new analysis found no evidence that wool is an allergen, and if a fabric does cause any sensations of itch and prickle on the skin then it is because of the large diameter of the fibres and not due to the fibre type being wool.

Wool

With support from The Woolmark Company, two papers debunking the myth of wool allergy have been prepared and recently submitted for publication in high ranking international journals

The papers are a result of The Woolmark Company’s strategy to challenge a misconception amongst some people that wool is an allergen, and demonstrate that suitably selected superfine Merino wool products are healthy for the skin, especially for those with the most sensitive skin.

The research papers were undertaken under The Woolmark Company’s ‘Fibre Advocacy’ program that aims to build and extend the scientific basis for wool’s wellness credentials, including support the establishment of high value next-to-skin product categories associated with positive health outcomes for consumers.

According to a global consumer survey commissioned by The Woolmark Company, currently 10% of all the people who won’t consider buying a wool garment believe they are allergic to wool. Similarly, although most of the medical community accept that wool is not an allergen, avoidance of wool garments is frequently recommended by medical professionals, particularly to patients with atopic dermatitis (eczema).

Until now, the “evidence” behind beliefs that wool is an allergen had not been critically appraised, nor had it been examined in the light of modern wool garment production practices.

Therefore, The Woolmark Company brought together a multidisciplinary collaboration of allergists, immunologists and dermatologists who are internationally recognised in the fields of eczema and contact dermatitis, and a leading wool textile chemist, to re-examine the issues. Their task was to review the historical literature during the past 100 years and critically assess the validity of those claiming wool is an allergen.

This high-powered group of professionals from across the world concluded that the evidence to date fails to support the notion that wool is an allergen. The historical papers that implicate wool as the cause of allergic reactions on the skin have important limitations that counter their findings. In fact, studies with fewer limitations and stronger ‘skin prick testing’ methodology demonstrate no evidence of allergy to wool.

Wool allergy diagram

Importantly, it was found that any skin irritation caused by garments is due to the incidence of coarse fibres protruding from the fabric (ie diameters greater than 30 micron) and that this cause is independent of fibre type. Skin irritation can just as readily be caused by coarse synthetic fibres as by coarse wool fibres.

Furthermore, recent studies suggest that contemporary superfine or ultrafine Merino wool with their reduced fibre diameters do not provoke itch, are well tolerated and in fact benefit eczema management.

It was also found that known allergens applied during textile processing are minimally present in wool garments today given current industry practices and are unlikely to lead to allergic reactions.

“This is the first ever review to critically examine recent and historical claims that wool can cause an allergic reaction, and to address the limitations of many of the earlier papers that have been cited as evidence for the existence of wool allergy,” said The Woolmark Company Program Manager of Fibre Advocacy and Eco Credentials, Angus Ireland.

“These limitations include incomplete and inconsistent skin prick or patch testing methodology, and allergy testing with wool garments of coarser fibre diameters and with higher levels of lanolin, additives and dyes than wool garments found today.

“By contrast, recent papers with more robust methodology challenge the earlier reports of hypersensitivity to wool. They concluded that the evidence to date fails to support the notion that wool is an allergen, or that wool fibre causes allergic reactions.”

The new appraisal introduces novel and important insights, unreferenced to date in medical literature, regarding textile related physiology and modern fibre specification and processing.

“This latest review is of high relevance to allergists, dermatologists and physicians – and of course consumers. The ultimate aim is that this research will lead to increased consumer demand for Australian Merino wool.

“Collecting the evidence that wool is not an allergen is the first step in the process of overcoming the misconception that it is an allergen. A communications and marketing plan is being prepared to promote the outcome of this study in conjunction with the positive studies showing wool to be beneficial in the treatment of eczema.”