Synthetic fibers vs natural fibers – which one is better to wear? Synthetic fibers are made by humans with chemical synthesis through a process of polymerization. They are different to natural fibers that are derived from living organisms with little or no chemical changes. Synthetic fibers were first developed to try to replace natural fibers as the demand for textiles for clothing was exceeding the supply.
Introduction to Synthetic Fibers
The first synthetic fibers were produced in the late nineteenth century / early twentieth century. Man made or synthetic fibers are manufactured from polymer-based materials such as polyamide (nylon), polyester, acrylic and other spun thermoplastics.
Compounds used to make synthetic fibers come from petroleum based chemicals or petrochemicals. Viscose comes from pine trees or petrochemicals, while nylon, acrylic and polyester come from coal and oil.
We are surrounded by synthetic fibers in modern day life. They are used everywhere in our homes, in our clothing and bedding and even office and commercial environment.
It is used for stuffing in sofas, beds, pillows and cushions, sound absorbents, filters in heating and air conditioning systems and many more. It is used for surgical procedures, reinforcement materials, automotive tyres and even concrete.
In this article we will mainly focus on the use of synthetic fibers in textile production. But we will also look at the advantages and disadvantages of synthetic fibers vs natural fibers. Semi-synthetic fibers are those that are manufactured from plant-derived cellulose like rayon and viscose (which is manufactured from wood pulp).
The most common synthetic fibers that are used in the textile industry are nylon, polyester, acrylic, Lycra and spandex.
Methods of Manufacturing Synthetic Fibers
Generally synthetic fibers are made by extruding fiber-forming material through spinnerets into air and water so that a thread is formed. The fibers come in long lengths. Fiber spinning is divided into 2 processes: melt-spinning and solvent spinning. The most common method of producing synthetic fibers is through a process of melt-spinning.
- The first step is to heat the polymers until they start to melt.
- Fibers must then be drawn out the melt with tweezers as quickly as possible.
- The next step is to align the molecules in a parallel arrangement, which brings the fibers closer together and allows them to orient and crystallize.
In solvent spinning the polymer is dissolved in a solvent to make spinnable dope that is extruded into fibers. The solvent is then removed afterwards. Examples of solvent spun fibers are Kevlar, Lyocell, rayon and Lycra. Some polymers such as polyethylene are both melt spun and solvent spun.
Another method is heat-setting whereby heat is used to permeate the shape or dimensions of fabrics made from heat-sensitive fibers.
Non-woven fabrics are formed through extrusion and can be manufactured at a low cost. These would be used in the manufacturing of disposable items such as female hygiene products, wipes and disposable diapers (or nappies).
What is in Synthetic Fibers?
- Many hazardous chemicals are used to manufacture synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers that are produced from petroleum, like nylon and polyester, are not biodegradable. More than 20% of industrial water pollution is caused by the synthetic fiber industry. The contaminated water is pumped into rivers, seas and oceans and ends up killing aquatic life.
- During the manufacturing of polyester, two highly toxic chemicals, namely dihydric alcohol and terephthalic acid, are used. Neither are completely removed from the fiber and can enter the body through wet skin, causing dermatitis and respiratory diseases.
- Carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, acetone, ammonia and caustic soda are used when rayon is manufactured. These chemicals can cause muscle pain, nausea, headaches and insomnia.
- When acrylic fiber is made, acrylontrile is used. Even in small doses it is toxic and can be carcinogenic.
- Nylon relies on petroleum for the manufacturing. It goes through many chemical treatments during the manufacturing using caustic soda, sulphuric acid and formaldehyde. Chloroform, pentane, limonene and terpineol are used during the bleaching and softening processes. Many of these toxins remain in the fabric.
Hazardous chemicals used in the making of synthetic fibers pose a big risk to humans and the environment. Increasingly though, synthetic fibers are recycled, and is perfect for making swimwear. These are two swimwear brands that are using recycled plastic waste to produce sustainable swimwear.
- Laara Swim, a Danish company, is one of the 100% sustainable designer bikinis brands. They use fabric made from regenerated plastic waste that is found in the North sea, Adriatic sea and Mediterranean.
- Vitamin A produce sustainably made swimwear and leisure wear clothing using recycled nylon and natural fibers.
Advantages of Natural Fibers
Natural fibers are derived from sustainable and renewable sources and have several advantages associated with them.
- Most natural fibers are bio-degradable and fully recyclable.
- They have natural anti-bacterial properties, resist mildew and block UV radiation.
- Natural fibers are naturally hypoallergenic, making them ideal for people with sensitive skin or those prone to allergies. This makes it ideal to be used in clothing and textiles for newborns and babies.
- Natural fibers are breathable and heat responsive while also great insulators. Fabrics like wool, cashmere, silk and bamboo traps air between the micro-holes of the fabrics. This trapped air is then used as an insulator to generate warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer.
- Some natural fibers can be grown organically. It might be more expensive to produce and purchase, but it ensures that no harmful chemicals and pesticides are used in it’s production.
- Most natural fibers have a moisture wicking ability which allows ventilation through the fabric. This means dampness is drawn away from the skin, leaving you feeling dry. This high absorption quality in natural fibers is a very big plus. It is particularly important during the hot months, when fabrics such as cotton and linen will help keep you cool and comfortable.
The only disadvantage of natural fibers is that they are not as strong as synthetic fibers.
Advantages of Synthetic Fibers.
- Synthetic fibers are more durable than natural fibers as synthetic fibers are mostly unaffected by living organisms and microorganisms. Sunlight and ultraviolet light will degrade them over a period of time.
- Functions like stretching and waterproofing is possible with synthetic fibers.
- Synthetic fibers are more water and stain resistant than natural fibers.
Some people claim that the carbon footprint of synthetic fiber production is smaller than that of cotton or wool, although I personally disagree with that.
Disadvantages of Synthetic Fibers:
- Synthetic fibers have poor insulation as the mono-fibers do not have air pockets that will trap air like cotton and other natural fibers.
- It is not skin friendly and uncomfortable to wear.
- Some people are allergic to synthetic fibers. Textile dermatitis is a skin reaction causing redness, itchiness and inflammation after the skin has been in contact with synthetic fibers.
- Synthetic fibers are not biodegradable.
- Synthetics stick to the body when it is hot and sweaty as it doesn’t absorb moisture.
- It burns more easily than natural fibers, making it a hazard in the vicinity of heat sources or flames from fireplaces.
- It is susceptible to heat damage.
- Synthetic fibers melt easily.
- Hot washing and ironing damage synthetic fibers.
- More electrostatic charge is generated when rubbing than with natural fibers.
- Synthetic fibers cause micro plastic pollution when washed.
- A big disadvantage of synthetic fibers is that they are hydrophobic. This affects the processing of the fibers as the surfaces are difficult to wet. Hydrophobic material hinders the penetration of water into the pores of the fabric, thus making processes like dyeing difficult.
Synthetic Fibers vs Natural Fibers – which one will you choose?
What does it feel like to cover your body with plastic? Wearing clothes made from synthetic fibers is like wrapping your body in plastic. To me it is uncomfortable. So when it comes to synthetic fibers vs natural fibers, I would always choose natural fibers for my clothing and my home.
Please leave any questions or comments below and’ll get back to you.