Cotton Socks Fail the Blister Test

Cotton vs. Polyester and Synthetic Socks

White Cotton Socks
Cotton vs. Polyester Socks - Cotton Fails. casenbina/E+/Getty

A sweaty sock is a set-up for creating foot blisters from friction while you walk or run.
Which is a better choice - cotton or polyester/synthetic socks? Cotton socks are the worst choice for walkers and runners as they are poor at wicking sweat away from the foot.

This was confirmed by a study of athletic socks at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "We found that 100 percent cotton socks were usually the worst especially when a person started to sweat," said Robert Mooney, MU biological engineering student in a press release.

Cotton and Synthetic Socks Tested for Producing Blisters

A team of University of Missouri-Columbia biological engineering students tested 10 popular brands of athletic socks. The testing device held the sock against a form at a set pressure and calculated when it began to slip - just as socks rub against your skin. The test was done in a humidity chamber to simulate sweating. This revealed the coefficient of friction (COF) for each sock - a higher COF means a blister is more likely to develop.

Synthetic Socks Mean Less Blister-Causing Friction

All of the cotton socks tested did poorly. Nylon socks were much better. Spending more for a higher quality cotton sock didn't help - cheaper brands of synthetic socks beat cotton socks at any price.

It also mattered where exactly on the sock the synthetic material was located. It needs to be in the spots where friction is most likely to occur. Researcher Lisa Huhman advised both athletes and people with diabetes to look for socks that had materials such as nylon or polyester in the areas where they commonly have bllisters.

She advised steering clear of all-cotton socks.

What's Wrong With Cotton Socks?

Cotton soaks up sweat swiftly but it releases it very slowly to evaporation. A sweaty cotton sock is basically a sponge holding sweat next to the skin rather than wicking it away. The skin remain softer when moist and this makes it less resistant to trauma from friction.

This is a set-up for hot spots and blisters on your heels, toes and other areas of your foot.

Synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester, polypropylene and acrylic draw the moisture away from the skin so it can be evaporated in the shoe. Wool socks also have moisture-management properties, they are able to absorb up to 30% of their weight in water. Wool also is temperature-regulating, which can help the foot stay cool and prevent sweating.

Previous studies of socks found that acrylic socks and wearing a thin polyester sock under wool or polypropylene socks reduced blister incidence in Marine recruits.

Sock Research Should Help Those With Diabetes

The research is also aimed at finding ways to design socks for people with diabetes who have circulation problems. They need to prevent blisters and sores, which can heal poorly and lead to infection. Diabetic socks are designed to wick away moisture and reduce friction from seams or bunching.

Next: Top Picks for Walking Socks


Press Release, "Research Finds Some Sweaty Socks Better Than Others," University of Missouri-Columbia, Feb. 20, 2006.

Knapik JJ, Reynolds KL, Duplantis KL, Jones BH. "Friction blisters. Pathophysiology, prevention and treatment." Sports Medicine 1995 Sep;20(3):136-47.

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