Just like everything else for sale in the 21st century, your options for sock buying are vast. There’s no single pick for the perfect sock. The sock you need depends upon the activity you’re about to do, the weather and your health.
To understand the difference in sock fabrics, you first need to know about wicking.
For socks, you want a fabric that absorbs sweat but that doesn’t hold onto it and keep your feet wet. (Fun fact: When you exercise, each foot can sweat more than one pint!)
That’s where wicking comes in. When you wear a sock that wicks well, moisture moves along the sock’s fibers and away from your skin. Once the moisture is on your skin’s surface, it can evaporate and keep your foot dry.
You want dry feet because they’re less likely to blister or get fungal infections like athlete’s foot. Wet feet also hold on to bacteria, which can lead to bacterial infections, not to mention odor.
The Big 3 Sock Fabrics
• Best use: Casual wear and excellent all-around fiber for sports, especially for golf, hiking and tennis
• Wicking level: Very good
• Shopping tip: Acrylic alone doesn’t absorb sweat as well as some materials like cotton. So when you buy acrylic socks for exercise, choose ones that are densely padded because they will absorb more sweat for the acrylic to wick away.
• Especially good for: People at risk for ulcers (wounds or open sores that won’t heal) on their feet due to decreased sensitivity. Padded acrylic socks may also have nylon and spandex for reinforcement and so they can stretch easily. Acrylic socks are also good for marathon runners because they cause significantly fewer blisters than cotton socks.
• Natural fiber
• Best use: Good for short walks while wearing breathable shoes, such as those made with nylon mesh uppers. Not ideal for sports. Best worn indoors during cold weather.
• Wicking level: Compared to acrylic socks, 100% cotton socks absorb 3 times more moisture, but they retain 10 times more moisture. So while they are very absorbent, they don’t wick moisture away from the skin, which increases the chance of blisters. (Wearing nylon socks gives you the lowest chance for blisters.)
• Shopping tip: Buy cotton socks that include some acrylic or another synthetic, like polyester, with good wicking action. These are less likely to lead to blisters.
• Especially good for: People who are not on their feet all day who like a soft sock.
• Natural fiber
• Best use: Wool helps you maintain a comfortable body temperature regardless of the temperature outside. Here’s how: wool fibers create a zone of still air between the sock and your foot, which works like insulation. When it’s cold, that lining of air keeps heat in. So wool is great as winter work-socks and for outdoor activities, such as hiking and climbing. Good for warmth as long as the wool socks don’t become saturated because then they will feel cold on the skin. When it’s hot, wool fibers’ zone of air keeps the heat out. So Merino wool can keep you cool when you’re hot. (Fun Fact: Bedouin tribes of the Sinai desert have been wearing merino wool for many years.)
• Wicking level: Wool absorbs moisture very well. It can absorb a lot of moisture before it feels wet. It is also water repellent. A drop of water on the surface will bead and roll off. Wool socks are also a great insulator. They keep feet warm until the sock becomes saturated. And wool fibers keeps feet cool by wicking moisture away from your foot to the sock’s surface, where it evaporates—the mechanism for natural air conditioning.
• Shopping Tip: Merino wool is soft and doesn’t itch. Modern wool production methods allow it to be washed by machine—check the tag to be sure. A sock with a blend of acrylic and wool is good for wearing outside in the cold.
• Especially good for: People with foot odor issues. Wool socks don’t tend to retain odors and can be refreshed by airing out.
Ready to Shop?
American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine: “Sock Guidelines”
American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine: “How Socks Make the Feet”
American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine: “Socks: Hosiery–Essential Equipment for the Athlete”
American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine: “The Hiking and Climbing Foot–Part 2: Beyond the Boots”
American Podiatric Medical Association: “Sweaty Feet”
NBCNews: “Want to Avoid Blisters? Try Some New Socks.”
The Ohio State University Extension FactSheet Textiles and Clothing: “Selecting Socks.” http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=C31349AE62730C56B7475F6351D18DFE?doi=10.1.1.168.5602&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Organic.org: “Sleeping With Wool—Nature’s Natural Air Conditioning.”