Absorbing or Wicking Undershirts? Which Is Better?

April 30, 2012 | By | 14 Replies More

A brilliant question from a newer reader wondering about the difference between Absorbing undershirts and Wicking undershirts.

His question probably came as a result of him signing up for my email list and downloading the Undershirt Resource Workbook/Spreadsheet I’ve created that has information and measurements of nearly 160 undershirts. In the “Performance Type” column (col. “H”), I show a few different vales to describe the fabric performance type, two of which are Absorbing and Wicking.

Here’s his question:

Hey Tug!

I need help with the following:

I’m brand new to your site and grateful that I have found you (through Antonio Centeno’s eBook). I am in the process of upgrading my wardrobe as I get ready to begin my first business/ business casual job (I have previously worked with students). I sweat a lot and have struggled with dressing nice because of that fact.

Like I said I am a beginner, so I have a basic question: what is the difference between wicking and absorbing in undershirt performance?

Thank you. Matt

My Response – Absorbing Vs. Wicking

hey matt,

good question buddy.

wicking undershirts:

what they are: undershirts designed with synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, etc.) or treated with a solution that results in the fabric becoming less absorbent.

meaning, wicking undershirts/t-shirts will absorb less moisture, thus they will feel lighter and dry faster in heavy sweating conditions.

my philosophy is that wicking undershirts are not good for guys who sweat a lot because, by design, the undershirt will not absorb the sweat, it will travel from the inner to the outer side of the undershirt and come into contact with your outer shirts quicker.  I believe that if you’re a heavy sweater, you are trying to prevent sweat from reaching and showing on your outer shirt, so you don’t want a product that makes that situation worse.

that said, if you don’t have a heavy sweating situation, then wicking undershirts are probably just as good to wear as non-wicking. but if you don’t need a wicking undershirt for any particular reason, why buy one, especially if it’s more expensive? granted, you might find a wicking undershirt that you like better than a non-wicking/absorbent one, and in that case, you should go ahead and buy the wicking undershirt.

absorbing undershirts:

what they are: undershirts made from fabric that have  fibers designed to capture/absorb sweat.

the most common absorbent fiber known is cotton, but there are others now that are more absorbent like modal/micromodal, tencel, and other viscose-based fibers.

while undershirts made with absorbent fibers are pretty universal in their application, these types of undershirts are especially beneficial for those people who sweat more, since absorbing fabrics will minimize sweat-through (the problem heavy sweaters are trying to solve for). there are a number of undershirts specially designed for heavier sweaters, and most of these are designed with absorbing fibers.

so simply put, my opinion is:

1. absorbing undershirts are pretty much the defacto choice in undershirt selection

2. stay away from moisture wicking undershirts if you sweat a lot

3. feel free to buy wicking undershirts if you don’t sweat too much and if you find them more comfortable than absorbing undershirts

one last thought:

i have heard from a very select few that when they wear certain wicking undershirts, they wear cooler than many absorbing undershirts, and as a result, they sweat less. so their argument is that wicking undershirts are better to wear in a sweating situation than absorbing undershirts.

while i do not doubt that they have personally experienced that, i think this is more of an exception than the rule. this is why i always say that in heavy sweating situations you shouldn’t wear wicking undershirts. if you’re a light sweater, than it’s possible you might feel more comfortable in certain wicking undershirts.

that said, there’s a huge number of very light weight absorbing undershirts available nowadays to choose from and I feel the selection of these types of undershirts is vastly greater than equivalent wicking undershirts.

hope the above information answers your question!

Keep in mind the information I provided Matt is in direct context to his particular question about what kind of undershirt would be good for his daily wear needs and considering he sweats a lot. I love wicking shirts/undershirts and wear them a whole bunch – but for the most part, I primarily wear them to the gym or similar athletic activities.

Do You Have Any Additional Thoughts to Share on this Topic?

Do you think my advice to Matt make sense, or do you think I’m way off??  Like I always say, this is my opinion only, so if you’ve got something to share, please post your thoughts in my comments section below.

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Tug is the world's undershirt expert. Looking for undershirt or men's shapewear information? You'll find it here on my site - guaranteed! You can also find me on

Comments (14)

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  1. Jon Spangler says:

    Additional outer layers over a wicking base layer can greatly affect your comfort level, depending on the conditions, as Timothy discovered. Wearing a cotton, polyester, or wool outer layer over a “wicking” base layer will slow down the evaporation of sweat, but this may or may not help, depending on the exertion level, sweat rate(s), and the ambient conditions during and after the exertion.

    The extra layer slows down the moisture transmission rate (a poly outer layer is fastest, wool or silk the next fastest, and cotton is the slowest since it absorbs the most moisture within its fibers, thus feeling “cold and clammy” when it gets saturated and wet, which happens far faster than with poly, silk, or wool).

    To maintain comfort in cooler temperatures, wearing an outer layer of polyester over the poly base will most rapidly move moisture (sweat) into the air. Any “chilling” effect once exertion stops may be more sudden but will also end sooner.

    An outer layer of silk or wool over the poly base layer will slow vapor (moisture) transmission a bit and add a bit more insulation value per thickness, easing the transition during cool-down but also slowing the time to complete dryness. (Climbers and cyclists often wear wool over a base layer to add insulation and prevent sudden chills after climbing to the tops of windy ridges or hills, for instance). The moisture remains in the wool s a bit longer but the slower dissipation rate also reduces the suddenness of chilling if layers are not added.)

    A cotton outer layer will also moderate the chilling effect as long as it stays dry, but once it gets wet the chilling effect of water-filled cotton fibers will kick in and last the longest. (Remember how long wet cotton jeans take to dry out from body heat alone after running through the water at the beach?)

    Changing to a dry second layer or adding an insulating jacket, sweater, or other garment will also mitigate any chilling effects. In an office environment such a jacket can even be cotton, as the third layer is dry when put on and will often be sufficient. For outdoor use. add insulative polyester (fleece) or wool layers and/or a windproof layer to conserve body heat while you “dry out from the inside” or to temporarily avoid getting chilled.

    ABOUT KEVLAR

    Public safety officers or military users of Kevlar vests may find that a 100% silk or a merino wool base layer will help with moisture management as well as odor problems. The combination of silk or wool’s natural wicking (not just water vapor transmission like the poly base layers offer) will help move moisture horizontally across the base layer and help it reach the outside air. In addition, water-laden silk or wool are far more comfortable (assuming you can tolerate wool or silk next to your skin) than water-laden cotton–or even wet poly, for that matter.

    Some polyesters are treated with silver or other compounds to retard bacterial growth, which may also help. (This will not be a feature found in many lower-priced base layers and it is usually a heavily-advertised feature in expedition-grade base layers from outdoor and high-performance sporting goods manufacturers.)

    • jon, you are from outer-space my man! that was a brilliant answer and so extremely helpful!! no doubt this will help thegooch out!

      two follow-up questions:
      1. how did you learn about all this?
      2. what’s your opinion of acrylic fabric? uniqlo uses that fiber in their heattech line.

      • Jon Spangler says:

        Undershirt guy,

        1. I learned all this from a combination of lots of outdoor activities (hiking, backpacking, cycling, cross-country skiing, snow camping, boating, living, working, and walking in the rain a lot, etc.) and 12-15 years of selling outdoor clothing and gear.

        2. I do not know much about acrylic performance fabrics or fibers. I have yet to find any acrylic fabrics that work well as base layers, but I have not seen many acrylic garments, either. For that matter, I do not have any experience with hemp, modal, or bamboo fibers, either.

  2. TheGooch says:

    My office work environment is kept extremely cool because of the eletronic equipment ( that should be in a server room, but I degress ) needs to be kept much cooler than the people sitting next to it. Because of this, I wear jacket when in the office, and take it off when I go out for a break/lunch/errand.

    Now, it may be mid-Summer outside, blazing hot. I wear wicking underwear(t-shirt/undies) because I’ll sweat like a dog in the high humidity, but freeze/catch cold if the moisture is still on me when I get back inside.

    Can you recommend any specific brands of wicking t-shirts that look almost the same (cut, texture, etc ) as their cotton counterparts?

    • hey thegooch, thanks for stopping by and posting your question!

      you know, that’s a really interesting situation you’re in, and i totally can relate to it. in the winter, when i go to the gym and workout in my wicking gear, then head outside with my wet base layer t-shirt, i get the chills and get cold really fast.

      your circumstance is pretty similar, except you’re going from hot outside to cold inside.

      the first product that comes to mind is the 100% polyester undershirt from campbellsville apparel. it looks and feels much like a cotton undershirt, but it’s made with 100% polyester. the folks from xgo tactical make some similar products, although they are much more expensive than campbellsville.

      i know jockey makes some polyester and nylon undershirts that have a soft texture (non-slick looking/feeling), so you should jump over to their website and see what they are currently offering.

      the other products that comes to mind, although the texture is not the same as a standard cotton undershirt, are the 100% polyester mesh undershirts from vdri and tridri.net.

      the other type of fabric that seems to fit what you’re looking for is dri-release. this line of fabrics mix a blend of large percent hydrophobic/synthetic (“water-hating”) fabrics with a smaller percent of natural/hydrophilic (“water-loving”) fibers. the combination creates a soft-handed fabric that pushes water away from the skin to the outside where it come in contact with air and evaporate quickly. there are lots of companies making performance tees with dri-release fabric, so you might want to do a little research.

      i think you might find some interesting products at wickers and/or exofficio too.

      lastly, there is a temperature regulating technology called outlast. it’s supposed to keep you from getting too hot or too cold. jockey has a whole line of stay cool products made with outlast, including undershirts, underwear, and socks. there are other companies making outlast t-shirts/undeshirts, so you might want to search my site or google to find some current product offerings.

      hope the above information helps. let me know what you wind up trying and what you think of it! heck, i might just make an article out of this (:

  3. aLAN says:

    Can you give me a little more info regarding the wearing of a wicking shirt under Kevlar, i.e. police armour?
    Do the wicking shirts transfer the sweat in to the body armour cover and onto the kevlar plates, causing odour and untimately mould?
    In my experience officers rarely wash their body armour covers. They also state that the shirts “give them” body odour.

    • hey alan, thanks for stopping by and posting your question!

      the short answer to your question is yes. moisture wicking undershirts will transport moisture from your body, to the outer surface layer of the undershirt, where it’ll come into contact with your kevlar vest. from the reports that i’ve received from other police officers, two things happen:
      1) depending on the undershirt, it can get permanent odors pretty quickly
      2) the fabric covering the kevlar gets and stays wet and gathers odors. i have not heard of any reports of mold, but that wouldn’t surprise me

      the main reason this occurs is because there is no air-pocket or air flow between the undershirt and kevlar. air flow over the fabric helps the evaporation process to occur, so when there is no air flow, you might feel more dry wearing the moisture wicking undershirt, but the sweat has to go somewhere — and that somewhere is on your kevlar vest.

      i could see why some officers could say that moisture wicking undershirts actually cause “body odors”. while i am no scientist, if you do a quick “what causes body odor” search on google, you’ll find that odor is a result of bacteria in your sweat:

      Sweat itself is virtually odorless to humans; it is the rapid multiplication of bacteria in the presence of sweat and what they do (break sweat down into acids) that eventually causes the unpleasant smell.

      since there really is no where for the sweat to go, the odor-filled acids stay on the body and would likely make the odor condition worse, or at the very least, perceived to be worse.

      there are several other articles here on the site about wearing undershirts under kevlar, but here’s an article that sums up various discussions about what undershirts some officers wear under their kevlar.

      i’ll also ping a few folks to see if they can either refer some fabric people over, or possibly offer some first-hand advice of what they wear under their kevlar.

  4. Timothy says:

    How about a wicking under shirt beneath a performance polo that wicks as well. Theoretically the moisture should travel from the undershirt to the outside, and then to the outside of the top shirt right?

    • hey timothy, for that combination to work, the performance polo would have to be tight/form fitting as well. if the polo doesn’t come into contact with the wicking undershirt, than no moisture transfer will occur.

      that said, i think the undershirt/shirt combination you’d use is highly dependent on the activity you are performing and how much you sweat.

      if you’re a heavy sweater, i still believe (and have heard this from many readers) that you don’t want to have visible pit/sweat stains on your outer shirt. if that’s the case, you need to prevent sweat from getting to your outer shirt and a wicking undershirt won’t do that – it’ll do the opposite by design.

      if you’re a light sweater, then wearing a wicking undershirt would probably be ok and if your outer shirt is loose, you might have the right amount of ventilation that allows the sweat to dry before it reaches and goes through the outer shirt.

      as you can probably appreciate, i spend a lot of time thinking about my undershirt wearing experience during daily wear.

      as an example, this past week i wore cotton (absorbent) ribbed tank tops two times, during warmer days. as i went through my daily activity, i felt cool and comfortable in the underarm area (because i wear antiperspirant), but noticed/felt some sweat activity in my lower back area. since i’m in and out of my car, sitting at a desk, etc. the back of my undershirt gets pressed on the back of my outer shirt pretty significantly.

      so i was thinking about how well my cotton tank top was capturing the light amount of back sweat and preventing it from getting to my outer shirt. i was also wondering that if i were wearing a wicking tank top, would that sweat come into contact with my outer shirt more? my guess is yes, but i’d have to do more daily wear testing with a wicking tank top to know for sure.

      again, that’s just one example use case on a person (me) who doesn’t sweat a whole lot.

      • Timothy says:

        I recently bought some under armour O series undershirts. I wore one one day with one of my new 100% polyester performance polos. I work in an office environment, but I’m often doing lots of manual labor. On that day in particular I was incredibly hot and I assume sweating profusely. I could feel the sweat on me, but it was nowhere near as bad as with my old cotton undershirts. Shortly after I was cooling down, the feeling turned more “cool” and eventually dry, instead of the normal damp and hot feeling I’d get with a sweat dampened cotton undershirt.

        My outer shirt didn’t seem to be wet at all, but that could be because it’s 100% polyester and doesn’t have high absorpition properties.

        The next day I wore one of the same performance polos, but with a cotton undershirt… and for far lighter activity I was just enormously hot, sweaty and uncomfortable and couldn’t cool down. I don’t know if it would have been different if I was wearing a cotton polo, but I’m going to be sticking with the new under armour undershirts. I do get warm and sweaty, but it doesn’t seem to be as much and I seem to dry incredibly fast.

        It’s been my first experience with wicking undershirts.

        • hey timothy!

          awesome stuff and thanks so much for providing the details of your undershirt-wearing use case. it definitely brings up a very good point, going back to my original response, about the type of activity you’re doing.

          i provide many undershirt recommendations, like in the case of this post, based on normal daily-wear. but, there are many guys needing to wear undershirts in more physically demanding scenarios, such as doing lots of manual labor. another similar wearing condition is in law enforcement – or more specifically – police officers wearing undershirts under kevlar.

          in cases like this, a wicking/performance undershirt would be a better solution, because as you pointed out, they dry a lot faster and as a result will make the wearer feel more comfortable than wearing a damp cotton undershirt. i talk and interact with police officers all the time, and i’m absolutely convinced that wicking undershirts are better to wear than cotton undershirts in their case. there are some issues with how wicking undershirts perform under kevlar, but that’s a different discussion altogether.

          i can also see how the 100% polyester polo worked in conjunction with your under armour o series undershirt, especially if your polo was not tight fitting. if/when sweat came into contact with your outer shirt, it likely spread through the weave of the shirt, spread out some, and dried quickly. the cooling effect you experienced is pretty common, and further explained in this article about wearing thermal underwear.

          i do have some 100% polyester pull over shirts, probably like your polo, and i really like them. the only problem i have with them is that i don’t feel like they breath as well as some of my other non-polyester pull over shirts.

          that said, if i had a job where i had to do a good amount of manual labor on a regular basis, and i sweat a lot as a result, i’d probably wear a wicking (fitted/compression) undershirt too, then play with different outer shirts to see which one worked the best. i might also double up on wicking undershirts – possibly wear a compression wicking as my base layer, then possibly wear a lightweight close fitting coolmax undershirt over it. maybe something like the coolmax undershirt from coolclothingusa.com.

          this is a great dialog, so thanks so much for posting all the details of your experience!! it’s really helpful. if you try any other combinations, let me know what you think of them.

  5. Qiuyong says:

    Hi Tug,
    something you said are correct. but I would like to share my professional experients.

    normally for moisture management treatment series. it includes absorbing, wicking and quick dry.

    a. the test method for absorbing is aatcc 79.
    b. test method for wicking should be included aatcc 79 and nike wicking test (after 30 min, water climb up 15 cm from the dipping side to hanging side)
    c. [test method for] quick dry includes aatcc 79, wicking and quick dry test (after 30 min, the water regaining of the fabric should be less than 30 percent, means 70 percent evapoured).

    so the standard of quick dry is the highest.

    as you know, 1) absorbing is just absorb water, 1) wicking need fast water spreading, and 3) quick dry need absorbing + fast spread and quick evapouring performance.

    so why the materials for sporty wears are synthetic fiber not cotton fiber, because the water regaining of synthetic are much low than cotton fiber. when the synthetic fiber garment absorbs water, it just stays on the surface of the fiber not inside the fiber cell, so the garment is not so heavy as cotton garment.

    some wicking fiber is to change the cross section of the fiber to increase the total surface of fiber and capillarity of the fiber. so the water can be spreaded and evapoured fast.

    • thank you for all the details qiuyong! the information is very, very helpful. i reformatted the text you provided so it was a little more readable.

      the crux of this article is really more about which technology (absorbing or wicking) is better for casual daily-wear undershirts on those individuals who are heavy sweaters.

      in this case, i still believe absorbing ones are the best.

      that said, for special daily-wear use case conditions like law enforcement (policemen), firefighting, motorcycling, etc., i think wicking or quick dry undershirts would be much better to wear.

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