We recently took an in-depth look at rayon fabric. Despite the fact that it’s technically made from plants, rayon cannot be considered a non-toxic, eco-friendly fabric most of the time.
However, it’s still one of the most popular fabrics used today. This leads a lot of people to wonder: is rayon better than the other versatile and widely-used fabric, cotton?
In this article, we’re going to look at the pros, cons, differences, and similarities of rayon and cotton. First, let’s quickly look at the basics.
Rayon vs. Cotton: The Basics
Rayon (also called viscose) is an umbrella term for semi-synthetic fabrics that are made from cellulose fiber (a.k.a. plants). Although there are several different types of rayon, they all go through a similar manufacturing process. The pulp from plants like bamboo or beech/pine trees is essentially dissolved and pressed into fabric using toxic chemicals like carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid to become what are called “regenerated fibers.” The most common types of rayon include modal, lyocell, and bamboo, while cactus and banana silk fibers also technically fall into the category of rayon as well.
Although the base materials of rayon start out as plants, the chemical processes that are used to manufacture it are actually very toxic to workers, communities, and the environment. By the time these plant fibers become a fabric, they can’t even be considered a “natural” material anymore.
(There are, however, better ways to produce rayon, as the brand TENCEL does. You can read more about that here.)
By contrast, cotton requires a lot less manufacturing and fewer toxic chemicals to process. It is still considered a natural fiber by the time it becomes fabric. That being said, the specific level of negative or positive impact that cotton has on human and environmental health greatly depends on the way in which the cotton plants are grown and harvested.
Non-organic (conventional) cotton requires herbicides and pesticides to grow, is very water-intensive, and strips topsoil of vital nutrients.
Organic cotton, on the other hand, does not harm the soil nor leave pesticide residue on the final product.
Regenerative cotton is even better than organic. It goes beyond the ‘do-no-harm’ of organic cotton and actually restores and heals the soil in the way it is grown.
As we’ll see, both of these fabrics have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their performance as textiles.
Does Rayon Fabric Feel Like Cotton?
Nope! Rayon is more silky and smooth. It feels more like silk than cotton. Cotton generally has a rougher texture and tends to be thicker than most rayon.
Rayon also tends to be more drapey than cotton, so it will usually fall and curve with your body more than cotton will.
What Are the Advantages of Rayon Fabric Compared to Cotton?
Rayon was originally created to mimic silk (because it’s significantly cheaper), so if you’re looking for a finer-looking fabric for a gown or nice blouse, rayon might be the better choice.
Rayon also tends to be cooler and more temperature-regulating. This is partly just because of the nature of the fabric and partly because of the way it hangs further away from your body. (More on this below.)
What Are the Disadvantages of Rayon Fabric?
Rayon tends to be more vulnerable than cotton in general. Depending on what specific kind of rayon we’re talking about, rayon doesn’t do as well with heat or moisture. It can also lose its shape and stretchiness more easily than cotton. Cotton, on the other hand, actually gains strength when it gets wet (by about 20 percent) and can sustain a great deal of heat.
Rayon is also very flammable, which is something to keep in mind when dressing children, the elderly, and other potentially vulnerable individuals. Cotton is much less vulnerable to flames.
Additionally, rayon doesn’t usually hold color as well as cotton, so your viscose rayon clothes will likely fade faster.
Not only that, but cotton can stand just fine on its own in a variety of different applications (which is why it’s not uncommon to see “100% cotton” on the tags of everything from t-shirts to towels to bedsheets and more). Rayon, on the other hand, is typically blended with other materials in order to improve performance.
What About Shrinkage?
As mentioned above, rayon is more prone to shrinking. Cotton fibers will usually shrink a little bit at first wash, but rayon is even more vulnerable to shrinkage (especially with heat). You should be careful with any fabrics that are over 30 percent viscose rayon, and consider hand washing or dry cleaning.
Rayon vs. Cotton for Temperature Regulation
This is one area where rayon is typically better than cotton, especially in warmer seasons. Although cotton tends to be more a more breathable fabric, rayon (especially bamboo rayon and TENCEL) is cooler to the touch.
For this reason, those who run hot at night might prefer rayon bedsheets. If that’s you, just make sure you buy sheets that are sourced and manufactured using a more conscious and non-toxic process. Cariloha is a great brand for non-toxic bamboo sheets.
You may also prefer to wear rayon in humid and hot climates and/or during the summer months. If this is you, go for brands that use TENCEL, which uses a much more environmentally-friendly manufacturing process to make their rayon. Check out brands like MATE, tentree, and TAMGA Designs.
Rayon vs. Cotton Fabric When it Comes to Stretchiness
On its own, rayon is not very stretchy at all. (This is one of the reasons it’s often blended with other types of fabrics.) Cotton is naturally a bit stretchier than rayon.
Of course, both fabrics may be mixed with a bit of spandex to increase the stretch. (The majority of organic cotton underwear, for example, is mixed with some spandex.)
What About Durability?
This is another category where cotton wins; it’s a much more durable fabric. Since rayon is artificial silk, you can imagine that it’s a finer fabric, more prone to tearing and fading. This is why you won’t see rayon used for things like upholstery or outerwear!
What About Wrinkles and Stain Resistance?
Neither cotton nor rayon are naturally wrinkle- or stain-resistant. In fact, you should be wary of any fabrics that are labeled “stain-resistant” (along with similar claims like “stain-free,” “wrinkle-free,” and “permanent press”). Manufacturers use perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) to give fabrics these characteristics. Also known as “forever chemicals” because our bodies are not able to detoxify them, PFCs are extremely toxic and are linked to poor immune system functioning, cancer, developmental problems, infertility, and more.
Which Is More Absorbent?
This one is up for debate, and can vary depending on the type of rayon. Some people find cotton to be more moisture-absorbent, while others say rayon is better for soaking up wetness. This is why both of these fabrics are often used in activewear and athletic clothing.
Rayon vs. Cotton: Which One Wins on Versatility?
Rayon can actually be formed to mimic not just silk but also wool, linen, and cotton. It’s used for a lot of different things, from athletic wear and bedsheets to sundresses and lingerie.
But, you probably know that cotton is also one of the most widely used fibers! It can also be used for all types of clothing, lingerie, upholstery, outerwear, bedding, towels, etc.
Therefore, there appears to be a pretty close tie on the versatility factor!
What is the More Comfortable Fabric?
Cotton and rayon can both be very comfortable. But of course, it depends on things like personal preference, how the actual garment is made, and the purpose of the garment. Many people find cotton more cozy and comfortable for things like underwear, loungewear, and outerwear. Whereas rayon might be more comfortable for bed sheets or for a cool sundress on a hot day.
Which One is More Eco-Friendly?
All things considered, cotton is likely better for the environment. BUT, it depends on how both the cotton and rayon were processed.
For example, the chemically intensive, conventionally made rayon/viscose is much worse than organic cotton. TENCEL branded rayon is much lighter on the environment. Conventional cotton and TENCEL both require synthetic chemicals to produce, but the chemicals are just different (and therefore have different consequences). Organic and regenerative cotton are the most eco-friendly of all of these options.
Which One is Better for Babies & Children?
Generally, organic and/or regenerative cotton is better for babies, kids, the elderly, those with chronic illness, and other vulnerable people. This is because it’s best to decrease these individuals’ exposure to toxic chemicals as much as possible.
Organic Cotton Fabric vs. Rayon
One important note is that rayon actually cannot be organic. This is because of what we mentioned earlier about how rayon does not even qualify as a “natural” material by the time it finished its transition from a plant material to a piece of finished fabric. Something that is not natural cannot qualify as organic.
Bamboo rayon is often marketed as just “100% bamboo fabric,” but it’s important to note that it’s still rayon. There has been a lot of greenwashing in the area of bamboo fabrics (with multiple large companies even being fined by the FTC because of it). Bamboo fabric is still rayon. You can read more about this here.
When it comes to rayon vs. cotton, there are definitely pros and cons to each. Those who are conscious about decreasing exposure of potentially toxic chemicals to themselves and the Earth will choose organic and/or regenerative cotton whenever possible. When buying rayon, you’ll want to shop from brands that use closed-loop manufacturing processes and are transparent about what kind of rayon is being used and exactly how it is produced.