The safe use of silver ions in antibacterial textiles has been a matter of debate worldwide, with consumers increasingly seeking a proven alternative. Sweden’s national agency for chemical inspection has ruled silver a health risk, citing possible damage to human genetic material, reproduction, and embryonic development.

Mikael Hedenqvist, a professor of polymer materials at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, says he and his colleagues have produced new antibacterial fibers that combine bio-compatible plastics with the antimicrobial compound, lanosol, commonly found in seaweeds of the family Rhodophyta, or red algae.

“The substance is a good alternative to particle-based antibacterials for clothing, as well as compresses or bandages,” Hedenqvist says.

Using electrospinning, they have created ultra-thin threads, which means that fabrics can have more contact between the antibacterial fiber and the surrounding area.

“Electrospinning produces quite thin thread, with a thickness on the order of one-hundredth of a human hair,” Hedenqvist says. The result is more effective clean-up of bacteria.

The thread with the integrated antimicrobial compound (lanasol) does not clump up like fibers using silver or other antibacterial particles. It can be used in random network structures, such as in non-woven materials, or in a standardized fashion, where all the strands run in the same direction.

He says that the material could one day be used in air filters or to dress fittings in hospitals, since the active antiseptic substance of red algae has been shown to kill 99.99 percent of bacteria type Staphylococcus aureus, the most common cause of skin and wound infections in hospital environments.