Illustration shows how moisture wicking fabrics pull sweat away from the skin so it can evaporate.


The terms wickability and breathability are thrown around a lot when it comes to sports apparel, usually to describe jerseys and compression shirts. The wicking and breathing capabilities of a garment can be even more important for cold weather workwear.

So what’s the difference between breathability and wickability and why are both factors so important when you’re choosing insulated workwear?

What’s the Difference Between Breathability and Moisture Wicking?

Often used interchangeably, these terms actually refer to two related, but different, capabilities.

A garment’s breathability is its resistance to air movement in and out of the weave or construction. Workwear with a tighter weave or solid outershell will be less breathable because it won’t let air in or out. More breathable workwear will feature tiny pores in the fabric that are larger than water vapor molecules (so these can get out) but much smaller than raindrops or snowflakes, so outside moisture doesn’t get in easily.

Basically, breathability is the ability for moisture to escape from under the garment, while keeping wind and water from getting in – meaning sweat evaporates, and you stay dry.

Wicking, on the other hand, can be seriously scientific.

Typically made from high-tech polyester, moisture wicking workwear will feature a cross-section design in the fabric and a large surface area (instead of porous fibers like cotton with less surface area). These two elements combine to help moisture wicking workwear pick up, or wick, moisture away from the surface of your skin then carry it away from your body to spread on the outer surface of the garment so it evaporates quickly.

Why is Cotton a Poor Choice for Breathability and Moisture Wicking?

In colder weather, staying warm depends as much on staying dry as it does on wrapping up in multiple layers.

This is especially true of the garments that are next to your skin. When you sweat, if the perspiration stays trapped on or next to your skin, it becomes nearly impossible to stay warm, even if you have on an extremely warm jacket. Moisture is the enemy of warmth – if your skin is wet, it’ll be more difficult to get warm and stay warm.

You’ll want to choose a breathable or wicking base layer to go next to your skin (and in mid layers, if you’re wearing them). You never want to wear a naturally absorbent material, like cotton.

In fact, cotton will absorb 7% of its weight in water and will stay wet longer, while polyester will only absorb 0.4%, naturally drying faster and even extremely fast if it is a wicking polyester. That’s why performance base layers will be made mostly – if not entirely – with polyester.

Choose Cold Weather Workwear Based on Your Activity Level

If you are engaging in more rigorous activities, having a wicking base layer and breathable mid and outer layers will be important.

For example, if you are going on a long hike in the fall, you may need a lighter weight jacket that is breathable, so you can regulate your temperature. But you can also wear a lighter-weight base layer that helps wick away the sweat next to your skin. The combination of the two will help retain warmth and maintain dryness, so you’ll feel less of the chill.

For an activity in much colder weather, like skiing, you may want to combine a wicking base layer that’s thicker, as well as a breathable mid layer so that when perspiration is wicked way, it is allowed to evaporate through both layers. For such a cold activity, it’s likely you will have a water-repellent or waterproof outer layer, which will be less breathable. That’s why the wicking and breathability of base and mid layer are vitally important.

Shop Base Layers and Cold Weather Workwear

You work in tough, cold conditions. RefrigiWear® gives your tougher, warmer breathable workwear to get the job done right. If you need help selecting cold weather gear or insulated workwear, try the Gear Finder!