A clothing puzzle – Looking for advice for sensitive skin

I am new to prepping and am trying to work out what clothing I would want for a good go bag. I have an unusual constraint: I have sensitive skin and can’t wear wool (even merino) or most synthetics against my skin. They aggravate my serious eczema. I rely heavily on cotton clothing in daily life but linen, hemp, silk, and (I think) rayon/bamboo are also okay against my skin.

Obviously cotton is not recommended as a base layer for emergency scenarios. Given my constraints, is silk my best option? Is there a meaningful difference between cotton and linen or hemp here? I normally think of them as similar since they’re all cellulose-based fibres.

A bit of context: I live in an urban area in the Pacific Northwest.


  • Comments (14)

    • 4

      Hi Estel, thank you for the great post, and welcome!

      I don’t have issues with sensitive skin, nor do I have any base layers made of cotton, bamboo, or hemp. I do, however, have silk base layers that I really like. FWIW they’re these ones:


      I like that they are very thin and I can wear the long-johns even under tights jeans and they won’t bulk up, but they’re still warm – although not as warm as my other woolen johns.

      But to answer your question, we have published a guide to clothing, but the only natural-made fiber discussed is cotton, which, as you correctly identified, is not the best recommendation because it keeps moisture close to your skin. However, it seems that it also depends on the type of weave, and apparently, either Gabardine or duck canvas is better! (edited to add: I would assume that both hemp and linen would work similarly.) I also wonder what type of synthetic material have you tried and if by any chance there might be some (even blended) that might actually work (e.g. nylon vs polyester).

      Anyway, here’s the link to our Survival clothing beginner’s guide, in case it’s helpful: https://theprepared.com/gear/guides/clothing-101/

      P.S. I modified the title to make the topic clearer – hope that’s ok!

      • 2

        Thanks, I was trying to think of a good clear title but wasn’t sure how to improve it.

        I have read the Survival clothing beginner’s guide, and that was actually what prompted this question, since the main fibre recommendations were for things that don’t work for me.

        You have a good point that I should probably experiment a bit more with different kinds of synthetics – I know polyester is bad (even cotton/polyester blends don’t work for me) but I may have written off nylon prematurely. I’ll have to try picking some things up at the thrift store to check them out.

        And thanks for the REI silk base layer recommendation. Their products were an option I’ve looked at, and it’s good to have a definite recommendation.

      • 1

        You’re welcome! I’m going to be very curious to see what you end up settling for. Hopefully someone else will have some better answers, but if I come across a non-polyester option I’ll definitely let you know 🙂

      • 1

        Can cotton be waterproofed?  If so that might help with the problem….. 

      • 3

        It can, but wouldn’t that prevent moisture from escaping, thus creating the opposite effect you want from a base layer i.e. wicking away moisture?

    • 4

      Hi Estel,


      I personally love linen as a fabric and I believe it doesn’t have the same cold-inducing issues of cotton. It’s quite pricey though. I feel that cotton/linen blends aren’t worth it if the cotton content is too high.

      You said that bamboo might be ok. How are you with spandex? There’s a supplier here in Australia selling basics that are bamboo/cotton/spandex blends. They also sell fabric samples. There might be a similar supplier in the US from which you could get some fabric samples to test against your skin before you commit to an entire garment if you’d rather buy local. I don’t know how bamboo will function in cold weather though, if it would keep you warm and dry.

      Have you tried alpaca? As a knitted fibre, I adore it – all the cool stuff of sheep’s wool, without the scratchy-ness and weight. After a quick search online, I found this vendor and another one that sell base layers in alpaca.

      Please let us know how you get on. I’d love to hear about what works.

      • 2

        Thanks, GB!

        Most of my experience with linen comes from medieval clothing – I’m involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism. I do have a modern linen button-up shirt that I picked up from a thrift store, though. It maybe wouldn’t be amiss to put that or something similar in my go bag.

        I did find, during the heat wave this summer, that that linen shirt soaked in water seemed similarly effective to a lightweight cotton shirt soaked in water for cooling me off with evaporative cooling. And without reason to think otherwise, I’d guess that the cooling properties that were desirable in that context would be closely related to cooling properties that would be undesirable in any context where you had to keep warm. (But maybe there is reason to think otherwise that I just don’t know about yet.)

        Spandex is iffy. I do wear some things with spandex that are okay. Other times it causes problems, and I’m not entirely sure what the differences are. Test swatches are tricky because I often need to wear something for several hours before I know that it won’t work for me. Fine wool, for instance, often feels okay when I put it on but becomes irritating after a few hours.

        Alpaca’s an interesting thought. I haven’t really seriously explored animal-hair fibres besides sheep wool.

      • 2

        Hi Estel,

        My main prior experience with linen is also from the SCA. I never suffered the cold at camping events with linen as my base layer, linen as my mid layer and wool as the outer and accessories (partlets, gloves, beanies, hose, etc.). However, I know that it never got as cold during those events as it can get elsewhere – -3°C/26°F was the worst I ever experienced and by the time temps hit those lows, I was snug as a bug in my tent, under a feather and down warmy.

        Now, I live in another state where heat is an issue. I try to incorporate linen or linen blends in my wardrobe as I can afford it. 

        Do you have issues when you have a barrier between you and wool? I had a friend who had a contact allergy to wool, she was fine wearing it as long as her base layer was a close weave (linen) and extended beyond the edges of the wool.

      • 1

        Thanks for the input! That’s definitely more experience with linen than I have.

        It’s really only fabrics against my skin that I have to be careful with. Wool and synthetics are fine as outer layers as long as I have a comfortable-fabric layer in between.

      • 2

        I can identify with the long contact exposure needs. I am similar with Latex sensitivity which has turned into a lot of trial and error (and wasted $$). Here’s a site that compares the different fibers for base layers and silk scored well. In my experience rayon tends to hold water (takes longer than its cotton companions to dry in the load) and this site agrees with that.  Something to consider.  I think much of my experience is on the knit style and weight.  I’ve not seen linen in a thin knit (like a baselayer)  – it’s always a lightweight weave.  I have seen linen blend tee shirts which may suffice – but no leg

        As far as wool, I can handle the ultra fine merino, but many aren’t fine enough and still triggered irritation.  Cashmere has itched for me as well.  Alpaca – I’d suggest getting some socks to try out before committing to baselayers.  And I think the softest wool is Musk Ox called Qiviut which is incredibly expensive.  Buffalo is also quite soft.  Here’s a site where I got the trekker socks. You could call to verify that the nylon is on the outer knit and not the internal loops which is what I recall about them.  They have different weights of socks, but some have merino in them.  

        My first REI base layer set that I still have decades later is made of polypropylene.  It breathes more than polyester for me, but has pretty much disappeared as a performance fabric. I can still find sock liners in it.   

      • 2

        Thanks for the links Alicia. I like learning about fibre properties, especially novel (to me) fibres like buffalo.

        Another fibre that I find novel is possum (from New Zealand, where possums are a pest species). I didn’t suggest it previously because it is commonly blended with sheep wool, so no use for Estel unfortunately.

        It blows my mind that clothing made from dead dinosaur can be so useful. When I was younger, polyester or any other synthetic was the fabric to wear if you didn’t mind being stinky and sticky by the end of the day! I still try to avoid it where possible (like just about any other plastic), but I cannot deny that my work shirt (uniform) is surprisingly comfortable and breathable for all that it’s polyester.

      • 2

        I’ve got some of the NZ possom/merino blend as well and totally forgot about that.   Quite soft, but I didn’t see it as 100% possom as I think it needs another fiber for strength – like angora.  And I have similar experiences with polyester in my youth – if you wanted to be hot and sweaty.  It didn’t breath at all.  And apparently Polypropylene is still used in base layers – just not at REI.  It’s apparently the choice of the military.

      • 3

        Thanks, Alicia. I think this thread is more or less confirming my initial impression that silk is what I should aim for – it’s reasonably effective and I know it works for my skin. Some of the other animal fibres might work, and I’d be curious to explore them, but yeah, I’d want to start with something small and not too expensive like socks rather than spending lots of money for something big that I might turn out not to be able to wear at all.

        Like you, I’ve (almost?) only seen linen in woven fabrics, not knit. But that brings me to another thing that crossed my mind to wonder about. Is there any particular reason base layer garments *should* be knit, or is it just that they normally are? If I wear a button-up woven linen shirt between an insulation layer and a windproof shell, isn’t the button-up shirt effectively acting as a base layer?

      • 1

        I think it’s for fit.  Effective base layers wick perspiration to their surface and need to be next to the skin to do that.  Knits will do that and still permit movement.  Woven not so much.  The pants are the problem here (split seat, knees).  I tend to not wear base layers shirts as snugly  and as such their performance isn’t as good.  There are linen tee shirts out there.  Here’s the GAP version.  It’s the bottoms that will be the challenge and possibly getting a top with long sleeves since linen is considered a ‘cool’ fabric for summer wear.  Here’s one I found on etsy  so maybe not impossible, but pricey.