Rayon vs Cotton: Material & Sustainability Comparison Guide

Rayon, a semi-synthetic fabric made from wood and bamboo cellulose, and cotton, a fabric made from fibers harvested from the cotton plant, are two common fabrics used to create clothes – but which is better for us and the environment? Check out the comparison table then read on for our verdict on rayon vs cotton:

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
Thread Count 300-600 100-1,000+
Heat Retention Medium Medium
Moisture-Wicking Good Good
Breathability Very Good Very Good
Advantages Cheaper to produce, provides a substantially higher yield per acre Remains strong when wet, better insulator, natural anti-microbial properties
Disadvantages Shrinks in hot water, more environmentally-friendly methods of creating it increase costs, some forms require dry cleaning, may absorb body oils leading to staining Higher cost, particularly for organic cotton
Environmental Impact Score* Generic Viscose = E, Modal = D, TENCEL = B Conventional Cotton = E, Organic Cotton = B, Recycled Cotton = A
Sustainability Issues Deforestation, Pollution, Chemically-Intensive Pesticide-Intensive, Water-Intensive, Pollution

*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: Properties

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. It has fewer disadvantages than rayon (see the table above for the full list), but it does tend to cost more – particularly organic cotton.

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 types of rayon, each of which is made using the process they are named after. Essentially, the processes involve treating the cellulose with a range of chemicals in order to create fabric. The end fabric is similar for each, but the process defines how cheap and how sustainable the process is.

Cotton comes from the fibrous casing that protects seeds of the cotton plant. The cotton fiber is separated from the 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 and woven into clothing.

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.

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.

Production of non-organic cotton fabric 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. 

Organic cotton 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 cotton yields are lower and costs are higher. This is reflected in the cost to the consumer, which is considerably higher than both non-organic cotton and rayon.

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 fabrics.