The bacterial life cycle in textiles is governed by fiber hydrophobicity

Andreas Møllebjerg, Lorena Gonzales Palmén, Klaus Gori, Rikke Louise Meyer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Colonization of textiles and subsequent metabolic degradation of sweat and sebum components by axillary skin bacteria cause the characteristic sweat malodor and discoloring of dirty clothes. Once inside the textile, the bacteria can form biofilms that are hard to remove by conventional washing. When the biofilm persists after washing, the textiles retain the sweat odor. To design biofilm removal and prevention strategies, the bacterial behavior needs to be understood in depth. Here, we aim to study the bacterial behavior in each of the four stages of the bacterial life cycle in textiles: Adhesion, growth, drying, and washing. To accomplish this, we designed a novel in vitro model to mimic physiological sweating in cotton and polyester textiles, in which many of the parameters that influence bacterial behavior could be controlled. Due to the higher hydrophobicity, polyester adhered more bacteria and absorbed more sebum, the bacteria's primary nutrient source. Bacteria were therefore also more active in polyester textiles. However, polyester did not bind water as well as cotton. The increased water content of cotton allowed some species to retain a higher activity after the textile had dried. However, none of the textiles retained enough water upon drying to prevent the bacteria from adhering irreversibly to the textile fibers. This work demonstrates that bacterial colonization of textiles depends partially on the hydrophobic and hygroscopic properties of the textile material, indicating that it might be possible to direct bacterial behavior in a more favorable direction by modifying these surface properties.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01185-21
JournalMicrobiology Spectrum
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


  • Biofilms
  • Hydrophobicity
  • Microbiology
  • Skin
  • Textile


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