... functional clothing becoming more popular with shoppers."
The research was carried out by engineers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Hubei University for Nationalities, and is published in the latest issue of the Applied Materials and Interfaces journal.
The study focuses on titanium dioxide - a chemical known, say the scientists, to be an "excellent catalyst in the degradation of organic pollutants".
The substance is already used in self-cleaning windows, odour-free socks and stay-clean kitchen and bathroom tiles. Initial efforts to extend its use to cotton fabrics proved limiting because the substance's self-cleaning properties could only be "excited" under ultraviolet lights, making it impractical for everyday use.
The team's breakthrough was to create a nanoparticle alcohol-based compound made up of titanium dioxide and nitrogen.
The mixture was added to triethylamine, an acid neutraliser commonly used in dyes. After being stirred for a 12 hours at room temperature, the liquid was heated at 100C (212F) for a further six hours.
The cotton fabrics were then immersed in the mixture before being squeezed dry, heated and immersed in hot clean water. Finally the coated materials were treated with silver iodide particles, which aid light-based reactions.
To test the effectiveness of their invention, the engineers marked the fabrics with an orange dye stain and exposed them to the sun. After two hours in the light, the team said 71% of the stain had been removed - a "dramatic" improvement over previously trialled techniques.
The process is also long-lasting. The experiment was repeated on the same cloth five times with no loss of activity - suggesting that the enhancement was stable. Washing and drying the material did not reduce its effectiveness.
Clothes industry experts say there should be huge interest in the process if it could be rolled-out on an industrial scale.
[Meantime, there's no truth in the rumour that Unilever chairman Michael Treschow and his opposite number at P&G, Bob McDonald, are jointly seeking to acquire a certain patent. Is there?]