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Wear Your Coffee (Without Spilling It All Over Yourself)

From high-tech fabrics made of grounds to beauty products that claim to get rid of under-eye circles, coffee’s popping up in fashion and beauty.

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Jason and Amy Chen founded Singtex, a functional sports clothing company, in 1989. After a stint in the family business — bedding — the Chens got into clothing design in order to capitalize on the global demand for innovative materials. They experimented with bamboo charcoal and coconut-shell charcoal as fabric materials, but their aha moment happened not in a lab, but in a cafe.

While standing in line at Starbucks in 2005, the Chens watched as another customer asked the barista for a bag of used coffee grounds to take home to decrease odors. Amy leaned close to her husband, laughing, wondering if coffee grounds could be used to make clothes that hide the smell of sweaty men.

Amy’s joke was a game-changer. Believing that coffee grounds possessed similar deodorization functions as bamboo charcoal, Jason leaped into research with three colleagues to see if they could use coffee grounds to make yarn.

People have been drinking coffee since the seventh century, but it’s only recently that they also started wearing the stuff. Now, modern technology allows the use of raw materials that couldn’t previously be made into clothing. Using a small amount of coffee grounds and recycled plastic bottles, Chen and his team developed soft, strong yarn, which they then dyed white using an expensive Chinese medical distraction machine.

The first generation of coffee fabric, however, ended up being an odiferous failure. After just a month of wearing, coffee oil in shirts made from the new fabric combined with sweat, leading to horrible body odor — exactly the opposite the Chens were going for.

Technology once again saved the day. The Chens purchased yet another expensive machine — a CO2 extraction machine — to remove the oils from the yarn, and four years and eight generations of fabric later, they were thrilled to find that the fabric they manufactured not only kept odor at bay, but they felt it did it more effectively than other fabrics on the market. With this, they were ready to launch S.Café in 2008. Semisynthetic, the fabric is UV-resistant, lightweight, breathable, and soft to the touch, and it quickly entered the market as the new “it” fabric.

Jason and Amy Chen
Photo: SINGTEX®

S.Café was said to also have antibacterial properties, and overnight, wearing coffee became sexy. Soon, other companies started jumping on the bandwagon. In 2012, a sportswear company in California called Virus launched a line of spandex performancewear made from grounds that had been turned to coffee charcoal, and in 2015, American Eagle Outfitters co-branded with S.Café to launch a line of jeans that contained a small amount of coffee grounds, which the company promised would cut down on odors.

S.Café went on to successfully co-brand with over 100 companies, including The North Face, Patagonia, Lululemon, Timberland, Hugo Boss, Warcol, and Warrior, all but revolutionizing sportswear.

Chen believes that in addition to coffee’s antibacterial properties, using it in the manufacturing of his company’s products has eco-friendly advantages. He says that pure coffee oil, a byproduct extracted from the grounds, can be a “bio-compound for replacing petrochemical material.” Singtex has developed a new product called Airmem, which is a membrane made from coffee oil that is used to make waterproof jackets. The company also sells pure coffee oil to cosmetic companies that use it to make shampoo, soap, and cosmetics.

It’s not just clothing manufacturers who are using coffee in their products. Today, the market is saturated with coffee-based creams that are said to get rid of dark circles under a consumer’s eyes. Rubbed over the body, it’s also marketed to decrease cellulite, tighten skin, or cure skin ailments such as eczema. In short, cosmetics companies have made all sorts of promises about coffee-based products.

Are the claims true? Sometimes it’s hard to see where the marketing ends and the benefits of a product begin. While there’s some evidence that caffeine has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it could be a beneficial ingredient in anti-cellulite lotions and potions because it helps break down fat, in the case of coffee lotions and potions, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Although caffeine has proven benefits, some cosmetics companies market their coffee-based products using clever marketing, rather than science. For example, one company writes on a label of an eye care product that a consumer must drink “2 to 3 liters of water each day; respect regularity of meals, ingest a balanced diet, and practice physical activities.” In other words, it’s pretty hard to say whether the minute amount of coffee oil or prescribed healthy living will contribute to increased skin elasticity and overall beauty.

In the case of clothing, Singtex has marketed S.Café fabric as deodorizing and fast-drying. The company also purports that “coffee grounds within the yarn fills in little microscopic holes that create a long-lasting natural and chemical-free shield preventing UV rays from contacting the skin.”

S.Café® products.
SINGTEX®

Alex Berezow, Ph.D., a senior fellow of biomedical science at the American Council on Science and Health, weighs in: “Chemical-free? Okay, this is probably a scam. Everything is a chemical.”

In truth, S.Café does have a higher rating of UV protection over functional poly and cotton according to Intertek, a multinational inspection, product testing, and certification company. Singtex just might want to be more careful with their marketing verbiage.

Regarding S.Café’s deodorizing qualities, Singtex says that the fabric absorbs odors so well that it doesn’t even need to be washed. Although the yarn has been rated higher than functional poly and cotton for controlling odor, does it truly absorb odors? “I’m skeptical that [the fabric] traps odor and doesn’t need to be washed,” says Berezow. Further, he wonders if S.Café is a necessary product: “If we wash our hands and practice basic hygiene, antibacterial clothing isn’t needed.”

Regardless of whether Singtex’s coffee-based fabric is perfect, or even if it’s truly needed, the company’s model of turning “trash to cash” appeals to consumers, and people who wear sportswear made from S.Café give it a high rating. Because recycled plastic and coffee are used as ingredients, combined with the facts that there are no solvents used and that CO2 emissions have been reduced in its production, it has become an eco-friendly sportswear option.

Every year, Singtex partners with its client Patagonia to team up with the Taiwan Society of Wilderness (SOW) to fund a wetlands conservation project in Taipei, and the company donates 1 percent of its sales to environmental projects.

Drink it, slather it, wear it — the coffee trend doesn’t appear to be dying any time soon. The biggest reason for the success of his company’s coffee-based product is, according to Chen, very simple, and it all comes back to his wife’s joke at Starbucks: “Behind every successful man,” he says, “stands a woman!” Indeed, it seems like this dynamic duo has done quite well supporting each other’s vision for a sustainable, coffee-fueled future.

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