Are Handkerchiefs Sanitary? - How Linen Is Naturally Antimicrobial
Handkerchiefs are the unsung heroes of hygiene.
You may be surprised to know that using handkerchiefs will actually improve your hygiene.
Let's look at what makes them so unique: handkerchiefs are reusable and small enough to fit in any pocket or purse, so they will always be there when you need them most—like when there's no tissue box around!
So no, handkerchiefs are not gross. They help you stay sanitary by being:
- A hand & sleeve-free way of covering coughs and squeezes
- What stops you from touching your face with dirty hands
- A cleanly way to blot sweat or spills
- Your reusable and always on-hand napkin
- The best way to deal with all life's other messes
And when they do get dirty, they can be thrown in with the rest of your wash and be used again and again.
That said, due to the functional nature of handkerchiefs, they are likely to come into contact with various microorganisms throughout the day – so the ideal everyday handkerchief would be effective at minimizing their presence.
In this article, we will discuss why linen is the most antimicrobial handkerchief fabric and, more specifically, why we have chosen to make our handkerchiefs of Irish linen woven from 100% European-origin flax fibers.
"Are linen handkerchiefs more hygienic?"
The flax plant in all its forms, from its seeds to its woven linen fabric, has been used by humans for thousands of years for its medicinal properties. This is because flax fibers have been shown to be hypoallergenic, thermo-regulating, antifungal, and even antimicrobial.
While not 100% antibacterial, linen has been clinically shown to slow the growth of bacteria.
Linen's ability to naturally inhibit bacteria growth comes from its:
- Lignin Content
- Moisture Management
Lignin is the compound that makes plants and trees "woody". Its name comes from the Latin word "lignum" meaning "wood." It's the second most common organic compound found in nature after cellulose and serves many functions in the life of a plant, such as aiding in the transportation of water, providing structural support to the cell wall, protecting cells from oxidative and UV damage, and acting as a natural defense against pests, pathogens, and other harmful bacteria.
Lignin's complex structure and water-repelling nature makes it difficult for most microorganisms to break it down. Further, lignin is made up of phenolic acids which denature bacterial proteins and limits their ability to reproduce.
Most plants are made of differing percentages of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. In general, the larger and more complex the plant, the higher its lignin content.
Lignin content by plant type
|Cellulose Content||Hemicellulose Content||Lignin Content|
|Flax Fiber (water-retted)||72%||15%||3%|
|Flax Fiber (dew-retted)||65%||20%||7%|
Large-scale implications from this chart
- Lignin is nearly absent in cotton because its fibers come from the plant's seed hair rather than the plant itself – providing little in the way of natural protection, which is why there is a significant amount of pesticide use in the cotton industry (more than any other crop in the world). Whereas, flax is a free standing plant and brings with it its own natural protection by way of an increased lignin content – resulting in five times less agrochemical usage.
- Lignin must be removed prior to making high-quality paper, as it is colored and weakens the fibers. Therefore, roughly one-third of a tree's mass (its total lignin content) must be separated from its cellulose fibers during pulping. The lignin is then captured and burned as a renewable source of fuel for the plant which is great, but these delignification processes are often chemically intensive and the source of high levels of environmental pollutants. This energy, chemical, and waste-intensive process is a big reason why we believe tissues, paper towels, and other short-lived paper products are best sourced from recycled paper.
Water vs Dew Retting
How the flax is grown also plays a large role in its lignin content. Specifically, how the flax is retted (the process of breaking down the outer layers of the plant to extract its individual fibers) has a considerable effect on how much lignin remains in the fiber. The two ways of retting flax include dew-retting (what we source) and water-retting. In short, dew-retting occurs in the field, fibers are released by the natural decomposition of their binding compounds, and water-retting, the quickest and most common form of retting, involves submerging the harvested flax under water for several days to the same end.
An analysis of the chemical composition of flax fibers in multiple studies showed that dew-retted fibers contained a higher amount of lignin, enhancing their antimicrobial benefits, while water-retted fibers had lower levels of lignin, but showed more consistency.
Microorganisms are found almost everywhere in the environment and can multiply quickly when basic moisture, nutrient and temperature conditions are met. That is why flax's moisture wicking, antistatic, and thermo-regulating characteristics are critical in its prevention of bacteria growth.
The largest factor in linen's superior moisture management is its fiber structure. Linen is known for its looser weave pattern which creates large pores spaces and allows for moisture, particles, and air to easily come and go.
So much so, that air can travel through linen at four times the speed of a cotton equivalent. In this way, linen prevents the type of moisture-rich environment bacteria thrive in. Whereas, cotton's complex fiber structure holds on to moisture and particles like soil, dust, and sweat that can be nutrient sources for microorganisms.
Additionally, linen is antistatic (also a feature of increased lignin content), meaning particles do not cling to the fabric – keeping it cleaner longer and giving bacteria no food for growth.
And lastly, linen is thermo-regulating. Flax is a hollow fiber and does not readily retain heat – making it a great choice for clothing in hot climates.
According to the research, flax has been shown to reduce bacteria counts by 29% and European dew-retted flax fibers (what we source) has been shown to reduce bacterial counts of staphylococcus between 43% to 55% – in most cases, exhibiting bacteriostatic behavior, meaning it prevented the organism from multiplying rather than killing the bacteria on contact.
Ultimately, for other types of fabric to exhibit similar antibacterial characteristics they must be treated with chemical additives, which are environmentally harmful to produce and wash off over time.
We like to keep things natural.
Linen has been a symbol of cleanliness for thousands of years, and today we can understand why. The chemical composition of flax fibers and the material properties of linen, together, inhibit the growth of bacteria.
Flax's lignin content fights bacteria growth from plant to handkerchief and linen's rapid drying ability does not allow for the kind of moisture-rich environment bacteria thrive in.
For us, this is important because our handkerchiefs are designed for all-day use. So no matter how you choose to use your handkerchiefs, you can rest knowing they're naturally working to keep themselves clean.