Investigating The Skin Microbiome: Bacteria That Grow on Synthetic Shirts and Make us Smell Bad.

Synthetic T-shirts make us smell bad. Here’s why.

It seems like we start to smell bad just moments after putting on a polyester shirt. This does not happen with a cotton T-shirt so what’s going on? More importantly, is the odor something we should be worried about as health conscious people?

It turns out, polyester actually promotes growth of one type of bacteria that causes the smell! Whoah! It’s not US that smells bad, it’s the bacteria!

“The bacteria that flourish on a … polyester T-shirt are different from those that grow on cotton, researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium found.” Specifically, “Polyester makes a happy home for Micrococcus bacteria” which are the ones that create the bad odor. NPR Stinky Shirt Bacteria

Also based on the research by Chris Callewaert of Ghent University (2014), in Belgium, Science Daily reports that,

On the clothes, the main culprit bacteria are micrococci, says Callewaert [the lead researcher]. “They are known for their enzymatic potential to transform long-chain fatty acids, hormones, and amino acids into smaller — volatile — compounds, which have a typical malodor.”

Staphylococci, which inhabit both axillary skin and adjacent textiles … create a normal, non-malodorous body odor, he says.

“The micrococci are able to grow better on polyester,” says Callewaert.  



Skin Microbiome

The skin microbiome is a diverse ecosystem similar to the ecosystem in our digestive tract. The bugs that live on us, and inside of us, have an important impact on our health. The full extent of that impact is still being discovered.

“The skin is the largest human organ. As the skin is in direct contact with the environment, it is inhabited by and constantly exposed to microorganisms in the environment. The resident skin microbiota interacts with other microbes, with human cells, and with the human immune system in multiple ways that mediate risk of disease (Wilson, 205Wilson, 2008).” Skin microbiota: Microbial community structure and its potential association with health and disease

The scientific community is still figuring out complexities around what the role of the skin microbiota is and how different species relate to different incidences of disease. It seems clear though that the skin in a physical, chemical and biological barrier to protect our bodies from pathogens, chemical invasions, and skin and systemic disease.

Is Stinky Micrococcus Harmful to Our Health?

By wearing artificial fabrics, we seem to be creating an environment to cultivate the Micrococcus species more abundantly that the other strains of bacteria that also populate our skin ecosystem.

When we start cultivating one species over another, we have to ask ourselves whether it’s a good idea or whether it will harm our health.

Wearing polyester fabrics, interacts with our skin microbiome in such a way that it  causes Micrococcus to initiate a chemical reaction that makes us smell bad. That means it’s changing something about the balance of our skin ecosystem. What exactly changes and how does that impact our health?

I wonder, is this yet another bit of evidence that our bodies prefer and thrive better in an ecosystem that is wholesome and natural and not artificial and chemical? We know we do better with wholesome and natural real foods, rather than processed foods infused an array of nonnatural chemicals. We know we do better with natural essential oils than artificial perfumes, and that natural oils can even be healing, while artificial scents disrupt chemical signaling and impair many systems within our bodies.

Does the fabric of our clothes, have a comparable impact on the way our bodies and our microbiota function and interact to keep us alive and well? In other words, do synthetic clothes make us sicker and natural fiber clothes keep us healthier?

I think these are incredibly fascinating questions on the issue of how the natural and created environment we expose ourselves to impacts our health.

We are not separate from our environment. We are porous. We take it in by breathe, skin and digestion. We take in the chemicals around us, be they natural or fake, health promoting or toxic.

Are we Naturally Stinky?

Healthy humans are not naturally malodorous. Smelling bad is generally seen, in the functional nutrition paradigm, as a sign that something is wrong inside. We often see that when people improve their health, their chronic stink subsides.


We have learned that synthetic clothes cause bad odor. This often results in people using toxic chemical deodorant and antiperspirants to cover up that smell. This further disrupts the skin’s microbiome while pushing toxic chemicals into the body. This is not a solution!

The real solution, at this point seems to be to opt for natural fibers like cotton and wool rather than synthetics. Then, you won’t smell and you won’t feel compelled to manage it with toxic deodorants.



  1. C. Callewaert, E. De Maeseneire, F.-M. Kerckhof, A. Verliefde, T. V. de Wiele, N. Boon. MICROBIAL ODOR PROFILE OF POLYESTER AND COTTON CLOTHES AFTER A FITNESS SESSIONApplied and Environmental Microbiology, 2014; DOI: 10.1128/AEM.01422-14
  2. American Society for Microbiology. “Polyester clothes stink after exercise; cotton, not so much.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 September 2014. <>.

Photo Credits:

Lady on Boat Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
T-shirt hanging Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash
Man with Sunglasses and White T Shirt Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash


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