Rayon or cotton, which is best for the environment? Our analysis suggests cotton is better, but only when it is organic. Read on to find out more.
Rayon vs Cotton: The Basics
Rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric that uses cellulose fiber harvested from the wood pulp of fast-growing trees and plants (including bamboo). It is very popular, especially in fast fashion, because the fabric exhibits similar properties to cotton but can be created at a lower cost. It is breathable, wicks moisture effective, and retains heat quite well. It does, however, have a tendency to shrink in hot water and can get stained from body oils.
Cotton is an organic fabric created from fibers harvested from around cotton plant seeds. It has been used for thousands of years to create clothing and is still one of the most popular fabrics in the world, thanks to its high tensile strength, moisture-wicking, and relative ease of production. Unlike rayon and many other fabrics, cotton has a higher wet strength than dry; rayon fibers weaken when wet.
It has fewer disadvantages than rayon (see the table above for the full list), but it does tend to cost more – particularly when grown organically.
Below, we’ve compared the two materials side-by-side, and then gone into detail about different aspects:
Rayon vs Cotton Comparison Table
|Rayon Properties||Cotton Properties|
|Other Names||Viscose, Modal, Lyocell||-|
|Made From||Chemically-treated wood and bamboo cellulose||Fibers from cotton plant seeds|
|Natural or Synthetic?||Semi-Synthetic||Natural|
|Breathability||Very Good||Very Good|
|Advantages||Rayon is cheaper to produce and provides a substantially higher yield per acre||Cotton fiber has better wet strength and is a better insulator. Cotton also has natural anti-microbial properties|
|Disadvantages||Rayon shrinks in hot water, and the more environmentally-friendly methods of creating it increase costs. Some forms of rayon require dry cleaning. Rayon may absorb body oils leading to staining||Higher production cost, particularly for organic cotton|
|Environmental Impact Score*||Generic Viscose Rayon = E, Modal = D, TENCEL = B||Conventional Cotton = E, Organic Cotton = B, Recycled Cotton = A|
|Sustainability Issues||Rayon industry contributes to deforestation and pollution. Rayon product is chemically-intensive||Cotton growing can be pesticide and water intensive, leading to pollution. Less impact when grown organically.|
*Data derived from the MADE-BY Environmental Benchmark for fibers, which ranks materials based on six criteria: greenhouse gas emissions, eco-toxicity, energy use, water use, human toxicity and land use.
Rayon vs Cotton: Production Methods
Rayon can be made using several different processes, each of which gives their name to a different rayon fabric. Viscose, modal, and lyocell are all different types of rayon, each of which is made using the process they are named after. Essentially, the processes involve treating the cellulose natural fibers (wood pulp, basically) from bamboo plants with a range of chemicals (including sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide) in order to create fabric.
The end fabric is similar for each, but the exact chemical process and production steps defines how cheap and how sustainable the process is (as well as how sustainable it is). Although rayon uses natural fibers, it is considered semi-synthetic. Rayon is fabric made using an intensive process, and some consider it closer to man-made than natural.
Cotton comes from the fibrous casing that protects seeds of the cotton plant. The fiber is separated from the cotton seed and cleaned and then ‘carded’. This process turns the small cotton fibers into long strands which are then spun into yarn. This yarn can then be dyed any color and woven into clothing. Cotton fabric is considered natural because it does not require intensive chemicals when produced.
Rayon vs Cotton: Sustainability
Viscose rayon and modal rayon fiber are both unsustainable products. These processes are not a closed loop, which means that harmful chemicals, such as carbon disulfide, are lost in wastewater and not recovered, instead entering the environment where they cause damage to plants, animals, and humans. Fabric made in this way is safe to wear, but has been linked with health problems for those manufacturing it, including skin conditions, heart disease, nerve damage, and strokes. Viscose rayon is not produced in the US or many other Western countries for this reason – the process of creating rayon fibers is too toxic.
There is one bit of good news – a type of rayon called Lyocell is better, and, in particular, Tencel, which is a branded form of Lyocell created by Lenzing. This is made using an environmentally-sustainable closed-loop process which recovers almost every chemical used and is far better for both the environment and workers than viscose rayon.
Production of non-organic cotton fiber can be devastating for the environment. This method uses significant amounts of both pesticides and water to grow the crop, causing huge damage and pollution to the surrounding area. Despite being a natural fiber, non-organic production methods are as damaging as those for man-made fibers.
Organic cotton fiber is better: it is grown without pesticides, relies on rain for watering, and uses natural methods to improve the soil. However, this comes at a cost: the fiber yields are lower and costs are higher. This is reflected in the cost to the consumer, which is considerably higher for organic cotton than the same fabric grown non-organically or rayon, particularly viscose rayon.
Cotton vs Rayon: Uses
Both cotton and rayon are used in the textile industry, primarily for making clothes but also for sheets and bedding.
Rayon vs Cotton: Price
Rayon is almost always going to be cheaper that cotton, especially if it is organic. The cotton price reflects its production process: it requires more land to produce and the conditions that produce a good yield are harder to come by. Viscose rayon, in particular, is cheap, and used substantially in fast fashion products.
Rayon vs Cotton: Our Verdict
Both these fabrics have similar properties and both have sustainable and unsustainable versions. Rayon can be a good purchase but is only sustainable if you stick to Tencel products, which tend to be more expensive. Clothes made using the viscose or modal production process are cheaper, but highly likely to have been created in an unsustainable fashion.
Overall, cotton is the superior of the two fabrics. It washes better, will likely last for longer, and is a better insulator. However, unless you purchase clothes labeled organic cotton or recycled cotton, it is no better for the environment than viscose and modal, the two forms of rayon which cause the most pollution, so we recommend you stick to organic cotton fabric.
Both cotton and rayon are frequently used to make sheets. Both are breathable, wick moisture well, and soft. The differences in key properties for sheets are small, but our money is on a high-thread count organic cotton. It isn’t cheap, but it is the best (and the best for the planet too). Rayon can still be a good choice if it is high-quality, but unless it is Lyocel we would be concerned with the environmental impact. We recommend against buying viscose rayon sheets (or any other viscose rayon products for that matter).