Why Is wool So Irritating?

Why is wool so irritating to many people’s skin? I cannot even tolerate cashmere-I was wearing a cashmere sweater over a thin shirt, and it was making me itch. I could never wear any wool next to my skin-the thought of it makes me cringe. Yet, some people are not bothered at all-what is it about the wool fibers 9as opposed to cotton or solk) that makes them so irritating?

Just trying to help, but have you considered you may have some kind of eczema? I found this page through Google:

My advice – check out with your doctor if you’re having allergic reactions to the wool.

You may be truly allergic to the wool. This is especially likely if you are allergic to lanolin. If so, welcome to my world, you poor bastard. Lanolin is used in lots of creams and such meant for dry skin, so you have to be vigilant to avoid it; fortunately, wool is harder to hide.

You may also have a high level of what’s called tactile defensiveness. Wool, even the “non-itchy” kinds, has an uneven layer just below the very thin surface. (See Unca Cecil’s column on why wool insulates when wet for a more complete description.) Most people don’t notice that scratchy bit in the finer wools, but some people do and have a hard time getting used to it to the point that they can ignore it. Folks who are very tactile defensive are driven to distraction by things most of us can learn to ignore pretty quickly: tags in clothes, lumps in the toe seams of socks, and so on.

Either of these sound like you?

As a living history volunteer, I know many people who work with wool in 18th century techniques, and surprisingly, it’s completely different.

While there are people who are truely allergic to wool, (and presumably some people like flodnak are allergic to lanolin, although I’d not met anyone with that allergy before) many people who experience itching etc, when in contact with commercial wool products are not allergic to the wool itself, they are allergic to the chemicals used to process comercial wool. When wool is prepared commercially, it is washed with chemicals to remove and recover the lanolin which is then sold to cosmetic companies etc. Since wool fibers are composed of hollow tubes, and commercial rinsing is not very effective, some of the chemcials are retained inside the tubes. Traces of modern chemical dyes can also be retained within the wool fibers adding to the problem. Not only does modern processing strip wool of all its lanolin (the natural softening agent) leaving it “stiffer” than it is naturally, it also leaves behind chemical residues that can be irriating to the skin.

Allergies and skin reactions are funny things, every person’s body chemistry is different. If you really want to wear wool, you might consider finding a fiber arts person who produces their wool items " sheep to store". Artisans typically use older wool processing techniques , which are less harsh, and work in smaller batches which allows for better rinsing and more consistant results. Also, many use natural dyes which can be less irritating as well…
This is all from personal experience, YMMV