Feature Archive

Futuristic Clothing May Be Medical Lifesaver

High-tech clothing may one day monitor your health and deliver medicine through the skin.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Most of us can relate to clothing that can make you look sexy or how "skinny" jeans can make you feel slim, but in the future clothing may do a whole lot more. It may even save our lives.

But the days when you will visit your doctor for "prescription" jeans may still be pretty far off, experts tell WebMD.

Based on the same technology used for nicotine and oral contraceptive patches, the medicine in the clothing will be absorbed directly through the skin. Such medicated clothing can be hand-washed repeatedly without affecting its technology.

Besides clothing that slowly releases medicine, other smart garments will monitor vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure via computerized chips and or electrodes. This may allow some chronically ill or elderly people to live independently at home for longer periods of time.

"This is an outgrowth of the fact that some of the patches being used today are so effective and as a result, I think people are accepting the idea that the skin is a really a good way to deliver some drugs," says Stephen Webster, MD, a staff dermatologist at Gunderson Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis. Webster is also a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"Eons ago, syphilis was treated by applying mercury ointment to the skin and getting absorption, so it's not a new idea, but it's being perfected," he says.

How 'Smart' Clothing Works

Today, the technology responsible for medicated clothing is broadly known as micro-encapsulation. It involves implanting tiny pellets designed to hold the chemicals and "bond" them within the fibers of fabric. As the wearer's body heats the fabric, the chemicals are released on to the skin. The clothing may one day treat everything from eczema to depression.

Besides treating existing ailments, such medicated clothing may stave off future illness by supplying vitamins, nutrients, moisturizers and anticellulite potions. Other medicated clothing may one day be pollen resistant, making it harder for potential allergens to take hold.

There's also a technology which incorporates pleasant scents into fabrics. Say you are looking to catch more zzz's naturally. Bed sheets and duvets can be treated with fragrances such as lavender and chamomile to help promote a soothing effect that may help the restless sleep. What's more, many athletic apparel companies are also looking into fabrics that repel odor and/or include aromas to pep you up during that postwork spinning class.

Hot flashes or chills may be a thing of the past, too. Researchers from England's University of Bath's Centre for Biomimetics are now creating a new fabric that may adjust automatically to changing body temperatures. Its design is based on the mechanism used by pine cones to shed their seeds.

'Buyer Beware'

But buyer beware, cautions Linda K. Frank, MD, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine and the director of Gramercy Park Dermatology, both in New York City. Frank and other dermatologists contacted by WebMD for this story say that while this all sounds well and good, they have yet to see any studies to corroborate such claims.

"The ideas all have some credence, but it's asking a lot of a molecule to remain stable and to be smart enough to disengage from a textile and onto the skin. And then there's the washing problem," Frank says.

"Studies are necessary to prove the molecules remain stable on the clothing, can transfer effectively to the skin, penetrate the skin and stay in its active form before anyone can even think about making the claim of clothing being used as a route of medication delivery," she says.

"Like any of the cosmeceuticals, the first thing you have to prove is that the active ingredient is getting into the skin and getting into the skin in stable form," says Frank, noting that this is no easy or inexpensive task.

"If there were clothing that could deliver an anti-inflammatory to the skin of a small child with eczema in the crooks of her arms and behind the knees, that would be exciting," says Frank.

Webster, too, has concerns. "I think delivery can be irregular," he says. "On clothing, delivery depends on how tight the item is, how active an individual is, and the weather, so I think it is rather variable," he says.