Although many people tend to think, “low quality, low cost” when they think of polyester clothing — in fact, polyester has been called “the poor man’s cotton” — but there are many instances where that just isn’t true at all.
For centuries, cotton has been considered the best and most comfortable fabric in the world, while the decades old polyester, with its many good qualities, still has a generally bad reputation in comparison.
Yet, when you look at the facts, you’ll find that cotton and polyester both have good and bad aspects to them.
In fact, when it comes to certain activities, you would be much better off wearing polyester than you would wearing anything else – especially cotton!
Let’s look at the pros and cons…
Both polyester and cotton are used in a number of ways including for clothing and household linens.
One primary different is, nowadays, cotton is used mostly for clothing and such things as furniture and medical supplies (like bandages); even then it’s over a $100 billion industry.
Polyester, on the other hand is extremely versatile and, in addition to clothes is used in food packaging (including the obvious plastic bottles), rope, lacquers, even X-ray film.
Cotton absorbs and releases perspiration quickly, giving it breathability, but it also stays wet and clammy longer — making it both uncomfortable and heavy — whereas the much less absorbent polyester doesn’t stay wet but unless special blends are used to wick away the moisture it does keep sweat next to your body making it uncomfortable.
Cotton also has a softer, more supple feel, making it less likely to irritate the skin. That means it’s usually a better bet for those with sensitive skin, including children and infants.
However, over the years, polyester has gotten an increasingly softer feel. Also remember, that depending upon the cotton and the weave cotton can be highly uncomfortable so for both polyester and cotton the way it is made is of critical importance.
In general, cotton has the edge here but not by much.
Ease of Maintaining
Since polyester isn’t very absorbent and it dries much faster it doesn’t require the use of hot water when washing it and the very nature of the tight bond of the polyester molecules means it’s much more resistant to wear and tear.
The lack of absorbency also means that polyester clothes don’t hold stains and they certainly hold they shape better without wrinkling.
On the other hand, cotton stains at the slightest touch and once the stain is set it’s almost impossible to remove; and I think we all know how often cotton has to be ironed to remove wrinkles
For maintainability, polyester wins hands down.
For a plant grown, natural product, cotton’s soft cellulose fibers are densely interlocked giving it surprising strength. However, over time, it still frays and tears and gets holes in it.
Polyester, on the other hand, was developed to essentially last forever.
This can be bad for the landfill but even the cheapest polyester clothing is nearly indestructible.
For durability, polyester is the clear winner
Most Environmentally Friendly
Cotton is usually thought of as the champ here but actually that’s a misconception.
All fabrics, including cotton, require huge amounts of energy and water in their production.
They require rinsing and bleaching and finishing with various Earth unfriendly chemicals which all usually end up in the waste and water systems and pollute the earth unless they are captured and processed properly.
Maybe even worse, cotton is, by far, the most pesticide using crop in the entire world; it uses one-fourth of all pesticides manufactured!
Of course, while cotton fabric may require as much energy use as polyester and more than polyester to maintain it at least it’s not made from petroleum; that’s a big plus for it.
But, most cotton garments sold in the world are manufactured in the Asia and using the cotton is shipped to the manufacturing companies and the finished clothes are shipped out to the various countries in the world which is a lot of oil used.
All in all, neither cotton nor polyester wins any eco-friendly awards so let’s call this a tie.
Both cotton and polyester clothes range from very cheap to outrageously expensive and while polyester is thought to be less expensive, the 100 percent cotton products that are mass-produced in countries with very low costs and wages (like China, Burma and Pakistan) and can be made and shipped for a very low price.
Another factor is that since polyester lasts longer than cotton you’ll will not have to spend as much replacing your worn out clothes.
With the price of oil soaring this has brought parity to the costs of the two fabrics so we’ll call this one a tie also.
When looking to pick the right fabric for you there are a number of considerations, let me summarize the above in a niche chart.
|– Factor –||– Cotton –||– Polyester –|
Of course, the real solution might be to go with a cotton/poly blend which gives you advantages of both fabrics.
Companies such as Nike, The North Face, and Under Armour are all great companies to keep in mind if you are wanting to make the switch, as all of these specialize in “performance wear” that is intended to keep you dry when you sweat while being very durable and maintainable.
The way that these clothes manage to keep you dry when you sweat is by moving moisture away from your body, which allows the sweat to evaporate, instead of keeping the moisture against your body the way cotton does.
You can keep yourself comfortable and healthier by shopping for these performance clothes that will keep you dry when you sweat.