8 Tips For Avoiding Itchy Sweaters For Good

Update: This post was originally published on November 9, 2015.

We've all experienced the torture of buying a sweater we're obsessed with, only to have it be a nightmare to actually wear. As good as it may look on the rack, a bad sweater isn't ever worth it when the only thing we can think about is how itchy we are when we wear it. Even more annoying than that is the idea of all the pieces we have that we'll never wear again — which isn't just sartorially unfortunate, but a total waste of money.

Unfortunately, trying on a sweater for about 45 seconds in a dressing room doesn't offer the full picture of how it'll really feel after a little bit of wear. Something that feels amazing after a fleeting touch on the rack can actually turn into a hot, itchy nightmare you simply can't wear. Needless to say, there are tons of factors (beyond appearance) that go into making a sweater cozy and dreamy — and not scratchy and annoying.

To save you from one more uncomfortable sweater situation this season, we called on the experts — a dermatologist, a textile expert, and our friends at Woolmark and Everlane — to give us the 411 on how to shop for a piece you'll actually wear (and enjoy doing so). Read on for pro tips to keep in mind next time you find yourself looking to add some new pieces to your winter wardrobe.
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Wool is like the Kardashian of the fiber world — opinions on it vary depending who you ask: Some will rave that that they'll only wear wool sweaters in the winter because they're the warmest; others cringe at the thought of being stuck all day in something that could potentially be life-threateningly itchy.

When it comes down to it, though, wool is actually great for regulating body temperature. "Certain spinning techniques and fabric engineering can create wool garments with loft and bulk that increases insulation, and therefore warmth," says Michelle A. Lee, director of the Americas for The Woolmark Company. Bonus: It's also water-resistant.

Despite these qualities, it's important to keep in mind that not all wools are created — or grown — equal. According to Deborah Young, a textile expert, there are over 40 breeds of sheep that all produce different qualities wool fibers — some scratchy, some soft — just like human hair. The "prickle factor" of wool refers to the fibers' fineness: "Some wool brands market their wool fineness by speaking in terms of the fiber diameter measurement — microns (one millionth of a meter)," Lee says. "The smaller the micron, the finer the wool."

So if you want the coziest texture possible, cashmere is king — common usage defines cashmere as a wool, but it's actually hair, which give it the characteristics that differentiate it from sheep's wool. Lee adds, "The finest sheep wool is made by the Merino breed, and 'Merino Wool' is often noted on the content label or on the swing ticket. Merino wool is commonly less than 22 microns, and can run as fine as 14 microns in luxury apparel. If you’re looking for softness, choose Merino wool." And if you're still itchy? A cotton undershirt can act as a barrier between you and the wool.

Shop our pick:

J.Crew Rainbow Stripe Sweater in Merino Wool, $69.99, available at J.Crew.
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If you're a wool devotee, make sure you know what to look for when shopping — one safe bet is to keep your eye out for the Woolmark mark. "The best way to determine if a wool product will meet consumers’ expectations is to look for the logo," Lee explains. "It's a certification trademark and products that carry it must be tested at independent, authorized laboratories and approved by The Woolmark Company. The mark provides consumers with guaranteed fiber content and an assurance of quality."

Shop our pick:

Wool & The Gang Sonic Sweater, $175, available at Wool & The Gang.
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Some claim they're allergic to wool and can't wear sweaters made of that fiber. But an actual wool allergy is not currently known. "Wool is made of the same protein that human hair is made of: keratin," Lee says. "An allergy to keratin is unknown. However, a sensitivity to prickle caused by coarse wool may be the reason for a wearer’s discomfort. Alternatively, traces of some processing agents used in manufacturing may be the culprit. Wash the garment per the care instructions as this should remove traces of those agents." Basically, you always want to give your sweaters a cleaning before you assume you can't wear them.

Also, if you have an existing skin condition, wool may not be your best bet. "Wool is a great material for staying warm and dry in the winter, but the rough surface texture of its fibers can be very itchy, especially for those with dry, irritated and eczema-prone skin," says Dr. Kelly Stankiewicz, a dermatologist at DuPage Medical Group. "The itchiness of the fiber can even penetrate underclothing to aggravate the skin. Finer wool fibers — in particular, Merino wool or cashmere — are smoother and feel softer and less itchy. I routinely recommend Merino wool socks, like Smartwool, or Merino wool base layers, like Icebreaker, for the cold winter months, especially for people with cold- or moisture-related skin conditions. Soft cotton and fleece material may be more appropriate for people with irritated skin."

If you have normal skin, though, and just want to know whether or not your sweater will be itchy, your best bet is to try it on — be sure to move around in it and rub it a bit against your skin to get a good idea of the fibers' characteristics. If it feels fine when you're still, but itchy when you move, you probably want to steer clear.

Don't have time to try on? You can easily swatch a sweater, almost like you would a beauty product at Sephora. "To check your skin’s tolerability for a fabric, rub it on the inside of your elbow and simply avoid anything that triggers itch," says Stankiewicz. Young echoes her sentiment: "Let your fingers make your decisions, [because] on the rack is the softest [a sweater] is ever going to feel."

Shop our pick:

Bella Freud Lion Intarsia Wool Sweater, $415, available at Net-A-Porter.
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Think about your itchiest sweaters and try to remember where they're from — chances are, you bought them at a cheap, fast-fashion retailer that uses synthetic fibers. "Avoid too much synthetic fiber content in your sweater, since they don’t breathe or regulate temperature the way wool does," Lee says. "Wool blends with synthetics may be a good option if you seek a lower price point, but look for blends with at least 30% wool content to maintain some of wool’s natural benefits." So remember: That magic 30% is what you should keep your eye out for.

When you do look at that label, you'll most likely see a lot of acrylic and rayon listed. "Acrylic is a synthetic alternative to wool, but does not provide any of the performance benefits, like temperature regulation, water resistance, and odor management," she continues. Though it may not be as warm or comfortable as higher quality fabrics, Young confirms that it does have some benefits: "Acrylic can be tossed in the washing machine and can [therefore] be an excellent wool substitute. And it is significantly less expensive." She also notes that while acrylics today can actually be pretty nice, there's always the risk that cheaper variations will feel cheap.

Another instance where synthetics may be okay is in sweater blends meant for milder weather, like California winters. "Rayon makes everything softer, but is cool to wear, not warm, which is why it's often blended," Young says. "In California, we like sweaters made of or blended with rayon or even cotton. The knitted fabric structure traps air and is warm to wear, but the cellulosic fibers (cotton, rayon, modal, bamboo) keep the sweater from being overly hot." So, decide your stance on synthetics depending on what kind of weather you're gearing up for.

Shop our pick:

Tome Wrap-effect ribbed wool sweater, $575, available at Net-A-Porter.
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Everyone loves giving and receiving cashmere at the holidays, because it's soft, often expensive, and feels luxurious, too. But it can have some downsides worth acknowledging. "What you may gain in softness from cashmere, you lose in durability," Lee says in defense of wool's reliable and warm properties.

Cashmere, too, is a bit more difficult to care for than other fibers because it stretches out easily, felts, and should be dry-cleaned (though some people suggest hand-washing, despite the tag's instructions). It tends to be more fragile and pull, snag, and pill more easily than something more durable, like a wool blend. But if you want to stick with cashmere because of its buttery softness, make sure you're making a wise investment and purchasing your sweaters from a trusted, quality retailer.

Shop our pick:

Brora Cashmere Fair Isle Cardigan, $595, available at Brora.
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As previously mentioned, opt for Merino wool if softness is your main goal in a sweater. But keep in mind that this doesn't always equal comfort — just because a sweater feels like butter doesn't mean that its fit or fiber content can't make it uncomfortable to wear for any length of time. "Softness isn’t the only factor associated with comfort," Lee explains. "Look for extensibility and recovery so you can ensure freedom of motion, but also that the sweater returns to its original shape after stretching."

Another common soft fabric is cotton — and while it may feel good, cotton won't keep you warm all winter long. "Cotton is usually not irritating to the skin, but it is typically not known for warmth, [it's] more of a spring and summer or layering piece," says Everlane's lead product developer Caitlin Grenon. So before you buy a sweater just because it's really soft, ask yourself if it will hold its shape and keep you warm this season.

Shop our pick:

Uniqlo Cashmere Crew Neck, $39.90, available at Uniqlo.
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Fiber content isn't the only factor that can make a sweater feel comfortable or not. It's equally as important to examine the make and fit before you buy something. The best way to do so is to look at the piece closely and to try it on.

You also want to keep in mind if you prefer your sweater to be on the warmer side or more on the light and breathable side, because this affects the type of knit that will work best. For warmth, Young explains, "Choose a sweater that is fairly densely knitted, so that the wind does not blow through it and to prevent it from stretching out. A looser knit, a.k.a. gauge, can be more breathable — synthetics are often accused of being less breathable, but this is not so much the case in a knit structure."

But all technicalities aside, what feels comfortable on someone else might not feel comfortable on you. An ill-fitting sweater can be just as troublesome as something that's irritating to your skin. Trust your eye, tastes, and preferences when sweater shopping and, as Grenon says: "Look for a sweater that is comfortable on your own skin, one that retains it shape and form and is flattering to your own body type. You want a sweater that moves with the body."

Shop our pick:

Everlane Chunky Knit Cotton Crew Neck, $85, available at Everlane.
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While we hope the information in this slideshow will stop you from buying any more itchy sweaters, you still have to make the ones you already own work. First, make sure you give your sweaters a washing to rid them of any agents or detergents that could be making them more irritating than they really are.

"Try washing it per the care label instructions," Lee explains. "If that doesn’t help decrease the prickle factor, but you want to maintain the warmth and breathability wool content provides, then shop around for a Merino wool base layer tee. There are plenty on the market to choose from, as more and more brands are adding Merino wool basics into their assortments given the eco credentials of wool — and all of the natural performance properties it provides, like odor control, moisture management, breathability, and temperature regulation." The good news is that "wool prickle doesn’t increase over time. In fact, it may decrease after a few washes and wears," she continues.

If you're going to remember one thing, it's this: Coarse wool is fine for outerwear, but when it comes to pieces that will have direct contact with your skin, fine wool, like Merino, is best. Now it's time to get out there, stock up, and have the coziest, itch-free winter yet.
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