Spandex is a synthetic fabric with a polymer base, like nylon or polyester; spandex, however, has unique properties that make it well suited to certain applications, such as sports apparel. The fabric is able to expand up to 600% and spring back without losing its integrity, although over time, the fibers may become exhausted. Unlike many other synthetic fabrics, spandex is a polyurethane, and it is this fact that is responsible for the fabric's peculiarly elastic qualities.
Spandex was developed by Dupont® in 1959, long after many other synthetic fibers were developed by the same company. Formerly, foundation garments and compression garments were made with rubber, which was expensive, difficult to manipulate, and often irritating to the skin. Spandex replaced rubber in most of these applications, allowing people to wear garments that would adjust to their shapes but still breathe, so that sweat and dirt didn't accumulate next to the skin. The sporting goods industry quickly picked up on the new fabric as well, seeing a potential for a flexible, breathing fabric. One company who has become one of the most well-known brands of spandex is Lycra®, which is very popular with athletes.
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Spandex is most commonly used in sports apparel such as cycling shorts and wet suits, but is also commonly found in bathing suits, surgical compression garments, and brassieres, just to name a few. In all of these applications, the ability to wick moisture and stretch is vital and makes a big difference to the wearer. For active individuals, it is a great alternative to natural fibers, which, while more comfortable, are also bulkier and less able to give with movement.
Spandex is relatively easy to care for. It can usually be washed by machine in cool to lukewarm water and drip dried or machine dried at very low temperature if removed promptly. Most items containing the fabric have care instructions included on the label; besides water temperature and drying instructions, many garment labels will also advise against using fabric softener, as it can break down the elasticity of the fabric. If an iron is needed, it should remain on a very low heat setting.
For some people, spandex can cause allergic reactions and irritate sensitive skin due to the presence of some harmful chemicals. If skin irritation occurs, wear should be discontinued. Verifying that the garment does not also contain rubber or latex, which are even more likely to irritate skin, can help prevent negative reactions to the fabric.