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Alpaca wool has long been used as a substitute for conventional sheep wool in the knitting of garments. The fibers are stronger and softer than sheep wool and contain no lanolin. Because of this, people with sensitivities to sheep’s wool or lanolin find alpaca fibers to be easier on the skin. Despite the hypoallergenic nature of alpaca fibers, some still find them irritating to the skin and complain of allergic reaction. This reaction, however, may not be a true alpaca allergy.

The Myth of Wool Allergies

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Before we can ascertain the nature and prevalence of alpaca allergies, we first need to figure out what science tells us about wool allergies in general. According to the International Wool Sectariat, over thirty percent of Americans report an allergic reaction to wool. However, the number of true wool allergies may actually be quite small. If an individual were truly allergic to wool, she would experience sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose and trouble breathing, just as she would if she were allergic to cats.

It’s All About the Fibers

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The perceived allergic reactions to wool--including hives, splotches, redness and itchiness--are manifestations of sensitive skin’s reaction to the coarse fibers of wool, according to Mike Safley, writing for Northwest Alpaca. The coarse fibers are known as medullated fibers, which are those guard hairs and primary fibers in an alpaca or other animal’s wool in which the medullary cells have contracted, leaving coarse, hollowed-out stalks in their wake. The more medullation appears in a fleece, the itchier it is against the skin, and therefore the less desirable it is for use in garments.

Microns and the “Prickle Factor”

The diameters of fibers in an animal’s wool are measured in microns. The more microns, the coarser the fiber, and the higher the prickle factor. For the thirty percent of Americans that report wool allergies, there is a good chance that their skin is susceptible to what’s known as prickle, or the way the skin’s neuron transmitters react to the fibers that make up wool. Regardless of type of wool, if a garment is made up of any kind of fiber more than thirty microns in diameter, the prickle factor appears in full effect.

What about Alpaca Fibers?

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As previously mentioned, alpaca fiber is hypoallergenic because it contains no lanolin—the fatty, waxy substance produced by sheep and goats and other wool-producing animals. It also earns this designation because most garments made with alpaca are from the wool of young or baby alpacas; the fibers making up the yarn often fail to have a diameter of more than twenty-two microns, the diameter at which the itch factor begins to be an issue.

Still Itchy?

Many consumers who find conventional wools to be uncomfortable find better results buying alpaca wool garments. However, if garments made from alpaca still produce a prickle, do your best to look for items that are made from fibers that are less than twenty-two microns in diameter; buy knitted, not woven, items; and avoid wearing these garments in sweat-producing environments, in which the skin’s sensitivity can increase. With any substance, there is also the possibility that an individual could experience a true allergy. True alpaca allergies are rare.