Often, positive attributes in apparel are linked with renowned brands and steep prices. Consequently, buyers tend to flock to familiar stores recognized for their quality, affordability, and fashion. Little thought is given to the garment’s place of origin or the material used, whether natural or synthetic. We rarely investigate why our preferred garments hold such appeal to us.
What are Natural and Synthetic Fabrics?
Fabrics can be categorized into natural and synthetic materials. Natural fabrics, like cotton, silk, and wool, are made from animal or plant-based fibers, while synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, rayon, and acrylic, are entirely man-made and produced from chemicals. Synthetic fibers have become increasingly popular in recent years, with demand for polyester fibers increasing by more than half since 1980, causing polyester to overtake cotton as the most used textile.
Despite synthetic fibers being known for their durability and cost-effectiveness, they are derived from petroleum products and require a complex manufacturing process, similar to other synthetic fabrics. Natural fibers, on the other hand, occur naturally on our planet and do not require scientific invention. Consequently, there have been many debates over the superiority of synthetic versus natural textiles.
For thousands of years, cotton has been a commonly used fabric in clothing production, accounting for 40 percent of clothing manufactured worldwide. While cotton is prone to shrinking and has low resilience, it is highly absorbent, soft, strong, and easy to care for. Additionally, cotton is a hypoallergenic natural fiber, making it a suitable choice for individuals with sensitive skin. Its all-natural composition also makes it a comfortable and versatile fabric, suitable for year-round wear. There are different types of breathable fabrics available in the market but cotton is supreme of them all.
Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from coal and petroleum, where its fibers are created through a chemical reaction between acid and alcohol. The specific process can vary, but companies keep the details confidential due to competition. Because of its synthetic qualities, polyester is highly durable and long-lasting compared to natural fibers. It resists stretching, shrinking, and wrinkles, although it has a “plastic-like” feel that can be uncomfortable in hot weather.
Nevertheless, polyester is easy to care for, holds its shape well, and dries quickly, making it useful for outdoor clothing. However, since polyester is a man-made material, the toxins used in its production may cause skin irritation or discomfort.
Environmental impact of natural and synthetic fibers
While most people prefer cotton over polyester due to its natural plant-based origin, both materials have similar environmental impacts. Both are manufactured in factories and undergo multiple chemical procedures involving additives such as detergents, chemical softeners, and bleaches that can be toxic to humans and the environment.
Cotton requires a significant amount of water and land to grow, as well as additional power for harvesting machinery. It takes approximately 2,700 liters of water to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt, though this is less than the average for other crops. The use of pesticides has decreased over time, but it remains the highest amount used for any crop. On the other hand, polyester is harmful as it is made from fossil fuels and other chemicals, leading to habitat destruction during the extraction process of non-renewable resources. Natural fabrics are lightweight fabrics and have a majority in the market due to their unmatched qualities.
Cotton is biodegradable and will eventually break down when discarded, but it can also be reused, requiring 97% less energy than manufacturing new material. Garments made from synthetic fibers are non-biodegradable and take about 30 years or more to decompose in landfills. However, polyester can be made from recyclable materials like plastic bottles, reducing waste in other ways. Despite this, polyester production rates continue to increase, significantly exceeding the decomposition time after disposal, creating more waste on our planet.
Depending on one’s concerns, both cotton and polyester fibers have roughly similar environmental impacts and consequences.
Both synthetic and natural fabrics have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to skin health. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester are often more durable, easier to care for, and more affordable, but they can also be less breathable and more likely to cause skin irritation. Natural fabrics like cotton and silk are often more comfortable, breathable, and hypoallergenic, but they can also be less durable and more expensive. Ultimately, the choice between synthetic and natural fabrics comes down to personal preference and the specific needs of the individual. It is important to consider the material’s breathability, hypoallergenic properties, durability, and ease of care when selecting clothing for skin health.