Is Alpaca wool more or less itchy than Merino?

Published Apr 06, 2020 | Updated August 13, 2020

Why Use Wool for Outdoor Clothing?

These days, most people agree that wool is one of the best fiber options for outdoor clothing: It is warm but also has thermal regulating properties, it is light, breathable, sweat wicking and is naturally odor, wrinkle, and UV resistant. But an issue for most people is that wool is itchy, which is a major problem if you are using wool next to your skin, for example as a wool base layer. Merino wool solves this problem for a lot of people, but some still find it itchy and don’t get on with merino shirts or base layers.   

Is Alpaca Better Than Merino?

Alpaca fiber, being a wool like merino, has all of the same technical properties, although it has a unique “semi-hollow” structure (technically referred to as “partial medullation”), which gives it a performance boost. Individual alpaca fibers can vary greatly depending on where they are found on the alpaca’s body, the individual animal and the environmental conditions, which you can read more about here. At Arms of Andes, we use 100% royal alpaca wool - the finest and softest of the fiber types - for our shirts, base layers, pants and accessories. There are key differences between merino and alpaca wool of the royal category, which help alpaca to be less itchy and we take a look at the details below.

What Makes Wool Itchy?

Three factors can make wool feel itchy on the skin: the scales on the fiber, lanolin content and the fineness of the fiber. Let's take a look at each in more detail:

MERINO FIBER

Merino wool fibers seen through a microscope

ALPACA FIBER

Alpaca wool fibers seen through a microscope

1)  Surface Scales on the Fiber

If you look at wool or hair under a microscope, you can see that the surface of each fiber isn’t completely smooth. Take a look at the photos of alpaca and merino fibers to the left, taken through a microscope. You can see tiny scales on the surface of each fiber, and it is these that cause a prickly or itchy feeling when the wool touches the skin. The photo of a merino fiber shows more defined scales, occurring at smaller intervals and protruding quite significantly from the surface. On the other hand, the alpaca fiber looks smoother as the scales are smaller, less defined and are flatter against the surface of the fiber.

Because alpaca wool fibers do have scales, you could potentially find it itchy. However, most people find merino wool is more itchy than alpaca, because the scales stick out more and therefore irritate the skin more.

2) Lanolin in the Wool

Lanolin is a wax found in wools, like merino. It is produced by pores in the sheep’s skin to lubricate each wool fiber as it grows and protect the animal from the elements. However, this wax causes an allergic reaction in a lot of people, provoking rashes and severe itchiness when it touches the skin. Merino wool is considered less itchy than other sheep’s wool as it has been treated to remove the lanolin: but it takes loads of chemicals and water to remove this itchy wax. Alpacas, on the other hand, produce little or no lanolin (any produced is easily washed out) so is considered a hypoallergenic wool.

Raw alpaca wool before it gets washed

3) Fineness of the Fiber

How fine a fiber is – whether it is natural or synthetic – influences how soft a garment made from it will feel. Fineness is determined by measuring the diameter of a fiber, which is done in microns (one thousandth of a millimeter). The higher the micron number, the thicker the fiber is, and the more you will feel it against your skin.

  • Merino wool fibers with diameters of 19-21 microns are usually used for outdoor apparel. 
  • Baby alpaca wool fibers used in most clothing average around 19 to 20 microns in diameter.
  • The royal alpaca wool Arms of Andes uses in our garments averages 18 to 18.5 microns in diameter.

The finer the fiber, the softer it feels. So, if you buy an alpaca base layer using fibers of 18 microns, it will feel softer than a merino wool base layer.

Microscopic images of different clothing fibers side by side

To sum up, royal alpaca is less itchy than merino wool due to:

an alpaca free in arequipa

Smoother scales

Alpaca wool fibers have smoother scales that make it feel less itchy than merino.

Lanolin-free (nearly)

Alpaca contains almost no lanolin and is considered hypoallergenic.

Very fine fibers: 18 to 18.5 Microns

We use the finest alpaca wool called Royal Alpaca, with diameters of under 19 microns.

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