As a teenager, I never took wool baselayers seriously. I was used to the old dingy wool sweaters my grandparents gave me over the holidays. Every year those ugly sweaters seemed to get itchier.
Thankfully I decided to give Merino Wool a second chance after getting a little bit older. I started off with a pair of Smartwool Hiking Socks and slowly branched out from there.
Unfortunately, there’s a huge difference from one brand to the next. Some I can wear against my skin and some need a thin synthetic layer underneath. It’s really crazy how itchy these products actually are (honestly who’s buying them).
Wool Affects People Differently
Some people can wear brand new merino wool and not feel a thing, but that’s just not me. I must have sensitive skin because a brand new wool shirt feels like torture. Others might feel an initial itch and it goes away quickly.
With others, the itch just never goes away even after 5-6 wash cycles. You just never know how a person’s skin is going to react to wool. If your body doesn’t react well to merino wool you can always wear it over synthetics.
Make Sure You Don’t Have a Wool Allergy
Before we start off you need to make sure you don’t have a wool allergy. Affecting about 1% of the population, wool allergies are fairly rare. Most skin irritation is caused by rough wool fibers. Check out the microscopic picture above; you can immediately see why wool is so itchy.
There’s no set standard for “Merino Wool”. It’s hard to tell what you’re getting without touching the product and reading reviews. There’s a huge difference between cheap wool, fine wool, alpaca wool, and cashmere.
How to Tell if You Have a Wool Allergy
Obviously, you can go to a doctor to find out if you have an allergy, but who has time for that. Put on a regular pair of cotton socks underneath wool and see if you have a reaction. If you don’t see any redness after 20-30 minutes you’re probably not allergic. You probably just have sensitive skin.
Some Brands are Itchier Than Others
Although I’m definitely not a merino wool expert, I have tried on all the major brands. Smartwool, Icebreaker, Fjallraven, Patagonia, Nau, etc and they’re all a little bit itchy at first. The instructions even tell you that you need to wash wool to remove any loose fibers.
When I first tried on my Smartwool, Icebreaker and Patagonia baselayers they were all itchy. Icebreaker (See them on Amazon) was by far the least itchy of the 3 brands. However, after a few wash cycles and washing out all those loose fibers all the itchiness went away.
My skin probably started to get used to the fibers, but I suspect most of the loose fibers were washed out at this point. You really should only be worried if your skin gets worse after taking off the wool. This could signify a wool or lanolin allergy.
How to Make Merino Wool Base Layers Less Itchy
We’ve all had to deal with a ridiculously itchy sweater at some point in our lives (it’s the worst). You shouldn’t have to break out in hives just to stay warm in the winter.
Thankfully you can usually salvage even the itchiest garment. To make your wool base layers a little less itchy you’ll need to give them a little TLC. Just follow these 5 steps and your wool should be a little less itchy.
- Turn your itchy shirt, sweater, longjohns, socks, etc inside out and let them soak in cold water. Toss in a few tablespoons of white vinegar and make sure everything gets fully soaked. Take your time and wait at least 15+ minutes.
- Just think about it for a second. Wool is just an animals hair so why do we treat it like a foreign substance. You can seriously soften the fibers with a little bit of premium hair conditioner (my favorite). Just make sure the conditioner doesn’t contain wax because that will start to buildup.
- Let the conditioner settle up for at least 30 minutes and then rinse it out with cold water. Try to press all the excess water out being careful not to stretch out the fabric.
- Dry out the sweater using a towel and let it air dry. Don’t toss it into the dryer.
- Fold the garment and place it into a gallon-sized ziplock bag and place it into the freezer. Let it sit overnight and in the morning it shouldn’t be itchy.
The vinegar and conditioner should soften up the long fibers and freezing it will keep shorter fibers from sticking out. This method should help reduce itchiness, but some fibers will be coarse and itchy no matter what you do. Your only option is to wear another layer underneath.
Alpaca Wool and Fine Wool is Less Itchy
Cheap wool is going to be itchy; there’s no getting around it. Aim for premium apparel brands like Smartwool, Icebreaker, Fjallraven, and Patagonia. They all use fine wool which is much less rough than course wool.
Alpaca wool (On Amazon) is another great option that’s surprisingly comfortable. Although it tends to be a bit pricey.
Try Wearing Wool Over Synthetics
Some people just never seem to get used to wool fabrics. The itch just never seems to go away. Don’t toss out your wool just yet! Just wear synthetic layers(NO Cotton) underneath the wool to prevent itching. I’m a huge fan of Fox River Sock Liners(On Amazon).