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What Are Moisture Wicking Socks?

Moisture wicking socks help keep feet warm and dry.
Moisture wicking socks are designed to draw water molecules away from the skin.
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  • Originally Written By: M. K. McDonald
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2014
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Moisture wicking socks are specialty footwear that are designed to keep feet dry inside of shoes during a range of outdoor and physical activities. The description “moisture wicking” says more about the sock’s purpose than its exact composition, though most are made from a combination of different synthetic materials. Coolmax®, the original moisture wicking material, was developed by DuPont™, but socks made from this material are now available from many apparel companies. Different brands tend to have different formulas, and some combine traditional ingredients with more “all natural” fibers like wool. No matter their exact composition, they typically work by helping transfer moisture from the foot to the sock's outer layers to keep feet dry.

Main Uses

People wear these socks for a variety of different activities, but they’re typically most popular for outdoor sports and physical activities in which a person is exposed to a lot of environmental moisture, prone to a lot of foot sweat, or both. Dry feet are important for a number of reasons. The first, for most people, is comfort; wet, sweaty feet can be a distraction and aren’t usually pleasant. Moist socks are also prone to slipping, which can cause blisters and other skin irritations. Odor is also sometimes a problem. Wet clothing is also faster to freeze, which can be a concern during the winter months, and as a result, these socks are often really useful when it comes to preventing freezing and frostbite on the toes and foot.

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How They’re Made

Moisture wicking socks are usually made of a blend of synthetic microfibers such as spandex, nylon, and polyester. The science of moisture wicking is rather straightforward. Sweat is 99% water, and in many cases it’s easiest to understand the process by examining the molecular composition of water. Known chemically as H2O, water molecules have one oxygen atom joined to two hydrogen atoms. On a molecule of water, the two positively charged hydrogen atoms form on one side of the much larger and negatively charged oxygen atom, creating a polar molecule that is positively charged on one end and negatively charged on the other.

Opposite charges attract, and water molecules stick to each other in a process known as cohesion. Wicking fibers are created with positive and negative charges on their surfaces to attract water molecules, creating capillary action and forcing the water molecules through the fabric to the other side. Many socks in this category are also treated with chemicals that aid in the wicking process and, as a result, they have special care instructions. Some are hand-wash only, and others can’t go in dryers, at least not on high heat. It is important for all consumers to read the label on these sorts of socks before attempting to wash and dry them.

Role in Layering

Though these socks can be worn on their own, outdoor enthusiasts, hikers, and those participating in winter sports will often layer moisture wicking socks under thick, warm wool socks to help prevent sweat-related problems. Moisture wicking material moves sweat to the outside of a person's clothing so that it can evaporate, though it’s usually most effective if it’s close to the source of the moisture from the beginning — it can be difficult for the material to work properly if placed against a soaked cotton sock rather than a sweaty foot, for instance.

Layering usually has to be done with some intentionality. It’s usually important that the top layer not be made of cotton or any another material that will trap and retain the moisture, since this can defeat the overall purpose. Even if moisture is wicked from the skin, if it gets trapped between the outside of the foot and the shoe a person is still likely to experience problems. Wool or synthetic materials are usually better choices.

Other Advantages

Moisture wicking socks can also be used to control foot odor. During physical activity or simply throughout the day, drawing moisture away from the foot can help reduce the build-up of odor-causing bacteria. Many socks are also treated with odor-reducing chemicals or have copper fibers woven into them to help eliminate bacteria and reduce odor.

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myharley
Post 15

I have found a difference in quality in moisture wicking socks. I have always had good results with Drymax and Coolmax.

They seem a little pricey the first time you buy them, but I have always been pleased with the results.

They also have many different styles to choose from. I like to wear them when I run to keep my feet dry. I also think it helps keep my feet from smelling bad from sweating all the time.

They also have some nice black over the calf socks that are great when you dress up. I hate going through the day with feet that are hot and sweaty.

The times I have purchased an off-brand that I am not familiar with, I didn't have such good results. They were warm socks, but didn't keep the moisture away as I was expecting.

SarahSon
Post 14

Some people tend to have feet that sweat more than others. I think it is this sweat that causes so many foot odor problems.

We tried everything we could think of for my son who is involved in a lot of sports. The foot odor was strong, and nothing we tried did a very good job of controlling it.

One of his coaches recommend he try moisture wicking socks to see if that would help. I was skeptical at first because nothing else we tried made any difference.

Wearing moisture wicking socks is the only thing we have found that really helps control the odor for any length of time. He still has some foot odor, but it is not nearly as bad if he wears socks that keep the moisture away.

LisaLou
Post 13

My husband loves to hunt and spends a lot of time outside in cold, wet weather during hunting season. A good pair of boots is a necessity, and a good pair of moisture wicking socks helps as well.

As much walking around as he does, he can get pretty hot and his feet will sweat inside his boots. It doesn't how many layers of socks he has on, if they don't keep the moisture away, his feet will be cold and wet.

Some people think socks like this are too bulky to wear, but they are really no different than a pair of regular socks when it comes to thickness.

If you wear them under wool socks, then you would want to compensate for two pairs of socks. Either way, making sure to keep the moisture away from your feet is the only way to go if you are going to be outside for an extended period of time.

sunshined
Post 12

I wouldn't think about spending a day on the ski slopes without wearing moisture wicking socks. Even though my feet are inside ski boots and protected from the snow, my feet will still sweat inside my boots.

There is nothing more miserable than wearing a pair of cold, wet socks when you are skiing.

Before I started wearing moisture wicking socks, I would take my ski boots off at lunch and my toes would be freezing and my socks would be wet.

Wearing socks that keep the moisture away from my feet make all the difference. My whole body feels warmer when my feet are warm, and I can enjoy myself longer on the slopes.

sunnySkys
Post 11

It's interesting that cotton is the go-to fiber for cool weather clothing. However, as the article said, it actually traps and retains moisture! People always think cotton socks are going to be the best idea if you're going to sweat, but this couldn't be further from the truth!

Although I don't wear moisture wicking socks on a daily basis, I usually like to get socks that are some kind of cotton blend. I've also tried out socks that are made of bamboo, which is supposed to be a moisture wicking fiber. I like the bamboo socks, but I couldn't really tell a huge difference between those and my cotton blend socks.

Monika
Post 10

@SZapper - That's an interesting point. I tried a pair of Coolmax socks once, and I didn't find them to be superior to a regular pair of wool socks. I think those Smart Socks might be worth a try though, since they're a wool blend. Seem to be a "best of both worlds" kind of option.

That being said, I don't really do any serious sports these days where moisture wicking is a huge concern for me. But if I ever take up hiking or something, I will either use wool socks or try those Smart Socks.

SZapper
Post 9

You know what the funny thing is about these synthetic moisture wicking socks? That so many people wear wool socks over them! Because wool itself is actually a moisture wicking fiber. The fiber absorbs moisture into the inner part of the sock, while the outside remains dry. This sounds like moisture wicking to me!

So there's really no reason to invest in a pair of moisture wicking socks. Just get a pair of wool socks and call it a day! Or if you want to feel fancy, just get a pair of Smart Socks (wool blend socks specifically meant to keep feet dry.)

OeKc05
Post 8

I do a lot of gardening in the summer heat, and I have to wear socks and sneakers to keep the insects from biting my feet. Because of this, my socks usually become drenched, and when I remove them, the smell is terrible.

I got some moisture wicking socks last summer just to see if they would really work. Although my feet got pretty hot inside my shoes with the extra layer of cotton socks on top of the moisture wicking socks, they did stay dry.

What amazed me was how much the socks brought down the odor level. Before, my wet socks had smelled like a rotten potato. With the new socks, there was hardly an odor at all.

seag47
Post 7

@Perdido – I think that people who work in a cold environment, like your husband, really need moisture wicking socks. Two of my friends shovel snow off of sidewalks and driveways in the winter to make money, and they both have to wear this type of sock.

Their socks go over the knee, so they soak up moisture all along their calves, as well as from their feet. They work very hard out in the cold, and they could easily get frostbite without moisture wicking protection.

I wear moisture wicking socks when I play out in the snow, and they keep my feet from getting wet inside my rubber boots. This makes it much easier to warm my feet up when I do come indoors.

Perdido
Post 6

My husband has some seamless socks that are designed to wick away moisture. He bought them because he has to do physical labor all day long, and he sweats a lot.

He works in a refrigerated warehouse, so the contrast in temperature between his hot feet and the air around him creates even more sweat than normal. He absolutely had to have this type of sock, because his feet were soaked by the end of the day without it.

They don't seem to do much for the odor, though. He has always had problems with foot odor, and the fact that he works so hard makes it difficult for even specially designed socks to control the smell.

StarJo
Post 5

@Kat919 – That sounds like a good idea. I have always noticed that thin dress socks get soaked with sweat inside my shoes.

While this is a big drawback to wearing them, I would imagine that layering cotton socks on top of them would suck the sweat away. Of course, I wouldn't wear cotton socks with dress shoes, but if I were to primarily use the dress socks as moisture wicking socks, then I could wear them while exercising.

I have tried actual moisture wicking socks in the past, and they have remained wet and uncomfortable inside my shoes. I never knew that I should be wearing absorbent socks on top of them, so this was probably the problem.

Kat919
Post 4

@tigers88 - It sounds like you might have had a bad pair of socks. Most moisture-wicking socks are actually very lightweight. And cotton socks hold moisture against your feet. I suspect if you had been hiking in cotton socks, you actually would have gotten *worse* blisters!

Fancy double-layer hiking socks are all very well and good, but you can make your own two-layer system quite cheaply. You wear one pair of thick wool or cotton socks to provide cushioning and absorption, and underneath that, you wear a think pair of nylon dress socks to move the moisture (sweat) away from your feet and into the absorbent outer sock. You can pick up plain nylon dress socks very cheap at a discount department store.

Maybe that combination will work better for you than fancy moisture-wicking socks.

tigers88
Post 3

I went on a long back packing trip a few years ago and I only took along moisture wicking socks. Big mistake. They were big and bulky and ended up taking up a ton of room for no good reason. I wore the socks every day and I still got blisters and other moisture related irritations on my feet. I wish I would have saved the room in my pack and just brought along normal cotton socks.

chivebasil
Post 2

I wear moisture wicking socks every day because I suffer from incredibly bad foot odor. I have tried powders, creams, even pills that my doctor gave me but I finally had to accept that there was no way I could make this problem go away.

I read in a magazine that moisture wicking socks can help control odor. At that point I had nothing to loose so I went online to buy socks from a discount retailer. The kind that I got really work. The odor is not gone completely but it is much less and it largely goes away when I take my socks off. I could not be happier.

summing
Post 1

Moisture wicking socks are great if you are going to go hiking. Your feet will feel better and smell better and you can often avoid many of the most common hiking injuries to your feet. Blisters are much less frequent when your feet are not moist and rubbing.

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