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What are the Best Fabrics to Wear in Tropical Climates?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Daily life in tropical areas can be intolerable for visitors who are wearing less than ideal clothing. Fabrics for tropical climates have a number of properties which make them highly suitable to wear and use in regions which get warm and humid. In addition to seeking out better fabric choices, it is best to try garments on for fit and comfort, as clothing that is tight or fits oddly can be maddening in hot weather. It may be easier to purchase tropics-friendly clothing locally, and it might be a good idea to check what local people are wearing.

Keeping Cool

High temperatures combined with high humidity can make life uncomfortable, especially for people not used to these conditions. Humans keep cool mainly by sweating: the evaporation of liquid takes heat away from the body. Sweat evaporates less quickly when humidity is high, and so has less of a cooling effect. For this reason, fabrics for tropical climates should maximize the flow of air through the clothing, allowing heat and moist air to escape. It also helps if clothing is loose fitting.

Fabric Choices

Some fabrics tend to trap heat by providing an insulating layer over the skin. Others tend to reflect heat back to the body and inhibit the outward flow of warm, moist air; this is often true of synthetic fibers, such as polyester. Another important factor is the ability of a material to absorb water. Synthetic fibers tend to be water-repellent; they allow sweat to build up, reducing evaporation, and causing discomfort and irritation. Natural fibers are generally better at soaking up moisture from the skin and allowing it to evaporate from the outer surface.

As a general rule, the best fabrics for tropical climates are those made from natural materials such as cotton, linen and rayon. Strictly speaking, rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber, but it is made from natural raw materials and resembles natural fibers in its properties. These materials tend to “breathe” more than synthetics such as polyester. Wool and silk are not good choices, as they tend to retain heat, and silk can lose some of its strength through exposure to strong sunlight and perspiration.

Cotton

Cotton is an excellent material for a tropical climate because it permits movement of air from the skin through the fabric, allowing heat to dissipate and reducing humidity. It also absorbs moisture well, keeping the skin dry and increasing evaporation. This tendency to soak up water could potentially also be a problem: it can become damp and stay damp for some time. Anyone who has worn denim cotton jeans in wet weather will know that they absorb a lot of water and take a long time to dry out. These, however, are made of relatively coarse, thick material; cotton clothing for hot, humid parts of the world should be made of thinner, lighter fabric.

Another useful property of cotton is that it can be machine washed and dried. As sweat accumulates in a hot climate, the ability to wash clothing quickly and easily is a definite advantage. Cotton is also easily ironed and reasonably durable.

Linen

Like cotton, linen is cool and absorbent, and very comfortable to wear. It loses water quickly when it gets wet or damp, which is a useful feature in humid conditions. The material is relatively stain-resistant and can be machine-washed; however, it tends to become wrinkled and creased easily, especially when tumble-dried, and ironing it can be hard work. It is also susceptible to mildew, which can be a problem in areas with high humidity.

Rayon

This fabric is made from natural cellulose, which is subjected to various chemical treatments to create a fibrous material suitable for clothing. Like cotton and linen, it is cool and comfortable to wear: it does not trap body heat, and absorbs water easily, making it well suited to tropical conditions. Normal rayon, however, has limited durability, and should be dry-cleaned rather than washed. Another form of this fabric, called high-wet modulus (HWM) rayon, is much stronger and can be machine-washed.

Other Things to Consider

Generally, light colored fabrics are better for a tropical climate, because they reflect light and heat. White, beige, and pastels are common choices, and they can be embroidered with thread to create colorful designs. Tropics-themed textiles do not have to be dull white or shockingly patterned; options are varied when it comes to decoration.

Clothing for tropical climates should also be loose and comfortable. Many cultures have traditions of flowing garments which allow air circulation close to the body. In addition to being cooling, this also helps to keep the body dry, preventing irritation, rashes and skin infections. People who are overweight may also want to consider the use of a cream or powder on areas of the skin which are subject to chafing, to prevent painful sores at the end of a day of activity in hot, humid conditions.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1005325 — On Aug 04, 2021

Do not wear polyester, period! It is basically a plastic - terrible for your skin and terrible for the environment. Choose natural fibers!

By anon1005324 — On Aug 04, 2021

The comment about wool retaining heat is incorrect.

Merino wool is one of the best fabrics to wear in the heat because it breathes and also wicks moisture so you won't show sweat as much.

Wool is one of the best things to wear in the cold and the heat. Look for 100% merino wool in a loose and lightweight knit.

Also 100% merino wool does not "itch" the skin. If it does, then the fabric has been blended with something else and you're not wearing pure wool.

An amazing fabric whose properties are often misreported.

By anon999382 — On Dec 23, 2017

I have lived in a tropical rainforest climate all my life (Manaus and Belém, Brazilian Amazonia), and have some quick tips:

1) Nowadays, almost every place has air conditioning (hotels, restaurants, etc), but you will need to cope with the heat when in transit from one local to another, streets, so:

2) You will sweat a lot. Deal with it, you can't avoid it, everybody sweats a lot all the time here, and nobody really cares about.

3) Cotton is the way, for man and woman. Forget the synthetics.

4) Drink lots of water (seriously).

5) People avoid the streets and activities during the hotter hours of the day (10 to 16h). Social events are scheduled at nights.

5) Temperatures do not drop much at night, so you don't need to carry any coats or extra garments. Your cotton shirt will be ever sufficient.

6) Take a quick shower to refresh whenever you can; do as the locals do.

By anon993639 — On Nov 30, 2015

I don't care how fresh or cool I can feel, I want to not show my sweat. I rather be soaking wet on the inside but look as dry as ash on the outside of my clothes and so far I cannot find an article that touches this topic.

By anon988610 — On Feb 12, 2015

What about polypropylene for underpants in hot weather? The vendor told me that it was much better than cotton for less sweating.

By anon965877 — On Aug 15, 2014

I live in the subtropics and I always have trouble finding clothes that suit the climate. To my knowledge no major clothing maker designs fabrics and clothing specifically for wear in the tropics.

Where I live, in summer it's too humid and hot to even think of wearing things like jeans or long pants and jackets. In summer, I wear mostly loose fitting cotton shorts and light cotton polos which have a weave that allows air to circulate. I think the weave of the fabric is the key.

Years ago I used to wear light 100 percent cotton tennis polos which were made in the USA and they were fantastic. Can't get them now, alas. Unfortunately, most cotton polos and tees I see in shops are way too thick and heavy to wear in the tropics. They're made for summer wear in temperate climates. I have a few pairs of canvas shorts which to my surprise I've found are quite good in summer. Although they're relatively heavy, the slightly coarse weave allows air to circulate.

I've never managed to find any linen clothes I like, but linen might be OK for pants as well. Not sure whether it would work for tops though. Wearing a shirt the weight of a linen t-towel would be way too hot in summer. As for cotton holding moisture, well where I live, if you spend time outside in summer, you need to shower and change clothes a few times a day anyway (if you're civilized).

In my humble opinion, wearing synthetics in the tropics is akin to wearing a plastic raincoat around. The only synthetics I wear are my swimming trunks. Sweat wicking miracle garments don't work for me in the tropics.

By anon338073 — On Jun 10, 2013

I don't live in a tropic climate, but a warm one (Oklahoma) and I won't touch cotton with a 10 foot pole. It is thick, heavy, and extremely hot. The shirts I wear to keep my cool while I'm working are 95 percent rayon and 5 percent spandex. They are light, thin, and keep me cool. Little tip: If you need a material that is absorbent for sweat, then it isn't doing a very good job of keeping you cool! I almost never sweat in these shirts. Now, if I could just find a cooler pant alternative I'd be set!

By anon337110 — On Jun 03, 2013

I wear a lot of rayon in the summer. It's cool, light and keeps you crisp. I also wear cotton.

By turquoise — On Jan 19, 2013

@anon69081-- Just wear what the locals wear. Go to the local shops and bazaars and shop! For example, when in India, wear what the Indians wear! They only wear cotton, silk and linen fabrics.

By fify — On Jan 18, 2013

@anon269636-- Silk is very durable and will keep cool but it's expensive and not very practical or fashionable nowadays.

Thicker cotton fabrics and linens are not that bad in terms of durability. I also recommend you to wash your cotton fabrics by hand in tropical climates. This will extend their life.

When I lived in the tropics, I changed shirts several times a day because I was sweating like crazy. So whenever I changed shirts, I would wash the dirty one with soap and water and then I would hang it up. Also, never hang up fabrics in the sun, it will damage the fabric and cause it to become thinner. Hang it up in the shade.

By candyquilt — On Jan 18, 2013

@anon312259-- I completely agree with you. A couple of years ago, I went on vacation to the Bahamas. I wore a lot of polyester when I was there and I don't remember being so uncomfortable in my life before. On one day where it was particularly hot, I even developed a red rash all over my body,

Polyester is a terrible fabric for hot weather. It doesn't absorb sweat and it holds on to the heat. Cotton is excellent, especially when it's white or cream colored. It doesn't attract heat from sunlight and it absorbs sweat quickly so that the sweat doesn't linger on the skin and irritate it.

If I go on a vacation to a tropical or hot climate again, I will only take clothes made of cotton.

By anon312259 — On Jan 06, 2013

Cotton is excellent in hot weather, just not t-shirt fabric and not something too clingy. Wear something more like a cheesecloth weight if possible.

By anon269636 — On May 18, 2012

I know that cotton and rayon are really good for hot and humid climates, but both fabrics seem to have a poor rating in the durability category. is there any kind of fabric that would be cool and durable?

I'm going to be living in a tropical area for a year and a half and I don't want to have to buy a ton of extra clothes because the cotton stuff wears out too fast.

By anon263336 — On Apr 24, 2012

Cotton may feel cooler to dry skin, which is great for women and girlie men who don't sweat, but when a real man wears cotton in humidity it's like climbing into a rotting buffalo carcass and trying to work in it for 12 hours.

By anon250130 — On Feb 24, 2012

The problem with cotton isn't that it's heavy or thick; you can get lightweight cotton clothes easily. The problem with cotton is that once it gets wet, it's gong to stay that way. So if you sweat a lot, it's going to stay wet and mushy for a long time.

By anon247012 — On Feb 12, 2012

I have lived all my life in warm, humid climates. Cotton is great because of all the reasons mentioned in the article. Also, I have noticed that the more "slick" the surface of the cotton is, the cooler it feels. Thin cotton with a fuzzy texture will feel warmer than thick cotton with a slick texture. To disguise how much you are sweating, choose either very light colors or black.

By anon242659 — On Jan 24, 2012

I come from a tropical country, and live in europe, and personally I feel cotton is the best. It's not ridiculous at all. There are different textures and weight of cotton fabric.

I have a cotton tunic which is very fast drying and light -- faster drying than my nylon T-shirt. At least if you want to go climbing, you may want to use synthetic, sweat wicking clothes or special function wear. Polyester smells easily. As for nylon or polyamid, I don't know why, but in a humid and hot climate, it makes me sick. Linen and silk are not comfortable for my skin when I'm sweating. Rayon is nice, light and airy.

By wisepoet — On Oct 27, 2011

Well, reading the article and then the comments, I know not to wear cotton. Cotton is pretty heavy I have to admit. I like the fabric that Hollister uses in their shirts. They are very thin and you can literally feel the wind move through your shirt. I don't recommend wearing it on cold days. But it definitely is comfortable.

By anon204962 — On Aug 10, 2011

the suggestion that the author of the article makes that rayon, linen and cotton are good for the tropics is ridiculous.

cotton is the heaviest and easily the most uncomfortable of the three, and the only reason why hundreds of millions of asians wear it is because cotton clothing is the hand-me-downs of the world.

By anon166881 — On Apr 10, 2011

Try L.L. Bean. They have tropical wear. This article is generic and of little use.

By anon133813 — On Dec 12, 2010

why do people wear cotton in hot climates?

By anon103518 — On Aug 12, 2010

I wear natural 100 percent cotton shirts here in Hawaii and roast! I've tried linen and bamboo as well. They look nice and sound nice but when it comes down to it the only plus is that you can wash them after you sweat them out.

Isn't there something better suited for the tropics -- aside from going naked which is illegal?

I feel like the fashion/clothing industry is completely biased in their information/disinformation.

By anon77546 — On Apr 14, 2010

Thanks. helps a lot on my tropical island report! thanks!

By anon69081 — On Mar 06, 2010

There is nothing loose and flowing about ExOfficio's women's clothing. It would be nice if you had other suggestions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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