Acrylic is a petroleum-based synthetic fiber widely used to make fabrics for fashion, similar to polyester and nylon. Many people don't know much about acrylic, what it's made of, its properties, and its impact.
Acrylic fiber is often used to create clothing made of acrylic fabric. Acrylic fabric is used to create cheaper clothes as it saves a lot of money on raw materials.
The main advantage of synthetic acrylic fiber compared to natural fibers is its very low cost.
But synthetic fabrics made of acrylic fiber aren't environmentally friendly or healthy. Their manufacturing has both health and environmental impacts.
Read on to find out what companies are hiding from you about synthetic acrylic fiber fabrics.
What are synthetic acrylic fibers
Acrylic fiber or Polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) is a synthetic material made from petroleum-based plastics. Around 2 kg of petroleum is needed to make 1 kg of acrylic.
Acrylic fibers are polymers made of one key ingredient, acrylonitrile or vinyl cyanide. They are an important category of man-made fibers.
Acrylic fabric is often used in the textile and apparel industry. Acrylic fiber makes fleece, circular knits, coats, sweaters, sportswear, boots, hats, and socks. It's also used in household textiles, outdoor furniture, and industrial materials.
Acrylic fiber is also used in the manufacturing of carbon fiber for industrial applications.
Acrylic yarn is additionally popular in knitting, as a durable and affordable knitting material for many amateur knitters.
Although it can be used alone, acrylic fiber is usually blended with other natural or synthetic fibers.
Various types of acrylic fiber
The acrylic fibers include acrylic, modacrylic, and other vinyl monomers.
Fibers are referred to as a modacrylic if they contain less than 85% by weight of acrylonitrile but at least 35% by weight. Modacrylics usually resemble acrylics. They have good crease retention, resiliency, and wrinkle resistance. Common trade names for modacrylics include Elura, SEF, Verel, and Zefran.
Fibers that contain a minimum of 85% acrylonitrile in their chemical structure can be designated as acrylic fibers, according to the definition of the International Synthetic Fiber Standardization Office (BISFA) and International Standards Organization (ISO).
Acrylic fiber is generally composed of a comonomer, a polymerizable precursor to a copolymer aside from the principal monomer. This component is necessary to improve the dyeability and processability of synthetic acrylic fabrics.
Most synthetic acrylic fibers are copolymers of acrylonitrile and other vinyl monomers, such as vinyl alcohol, vinyl chloride, vinyl acetate, vinylidene chloride, methacrylic acid, acrylic acid, and methacrylate esters.
When vinyl acetate is used as a comonomer, the fibers are called Nytril fibers, synthetic fibers composed mainly of a long-chain polymer of vinylidene dinitrile. They contain at least 85% vinylidene dinitrile by weight. Nytril isn't as popular as other types of acrylic fiber because it's more difficult to dye.
Lastrile is an elastic fiber made from copolymers of aliphatic diene and at least 10% by weight of acrylonitrile but no more than 50%. Lastrile isn't commercially produced today.
How are acrylic fabrics produced
The American DuPont Corporation first made acrylic fibers in 1944. The company was already known for the development of nylon and polyester production.
It began commercial production of acrylic fiber in 1950 when it became popular as a wool replacement. Synthetic acrylic fabrics have many benefits and steadily gained a more prominent market share.
Acrylic fabric production involves the polymerization of a plastic solution. It's usually produced in facilities that also make other synthetic textiles.
The process begins with the free radical polymerization of the acrylonitrile polymer polyacrylonitrile in a water-based solution.
During vinyl cyanide polymerization, the double bond between the first two carbon atoms is broken. The molecules attach in a linear chain. The process consumes tons of water, energy, and chemicals.
The acrylonitrile polymer is dissolved using a strong chemical solvent. This results in a gel-like material.
Acrylic fiber is manufactured by either wet spinning or dry spinning extrusion processes. Spinnerets transform the viscous solution into acrylic fibers.
The dissolved polymers are extruded into warm air during dry spinning. Then the acrylic fiber solidifies by evaporation.
The polymer is dissolved and extruded into a bath then dry with the wet spinning extrusion process.
After being purified and extended to make long filaments, the acrylic fiber is ready to be spun into threads, which are then woven into fabrics.
The making of long filaments is an important step in acrylic fiber production. Fiber extension is necessary to create commercial textiles that use acrylic fiber many times longer than its original length, which increases production efficiency and lowers the overall cost.
Many different industrial methods for producing acrylic fibers exist. Many of them involve hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Other methods include the use of propylene and ammonia. They require high temperatures, therefore consume a lot of energy.
Aksa is a Turkish company based in Yalova that manufactures solution-dyed acrylic staple fiber since 1968. It's one of the world's largest producer of acrylic fiber with a market share of 13.2%.
Aksa produces tow, top, or staple fiber in ecru or various colors. Acrylic fiber is supplied as producer-dyed with the help of gel dying, dope dying, or continuous tow dying systems.
Acrylic fiber commonly undergoes heavy chemical treatment at the textile production facility or even before at the manufacturing plant. One of them involves flame retardants, used to decrease the otherwise very high flammability of acrylic fibers.
Other companies in China, India, and Indonesia also produce acrylic fiber, especially to supply emerging markets in developing countries. Common trade names for acrylic fibers include Sayelle, Zefran, Acrilan, Creslan, and Orlon.
Acrylic fiber is ready to be shipped to textile manufacturers once it has been spun into yarn. The textile and apparel industry weaves acrylic fibers into fabrics to create apparel and other applications.
Acrylic fabric properties
Acrylic fiber is a unique material with many unique properties. It's generally used in the same applications as wool.
Synthetic acrylic fabrics look and feel like wool. They are warm, soft, and lightweight. They are resistant to moths and chemicals.
Acrylic fiber is moderately stiff and has excellent resiliency and recovery from bending deformation.
Acrylic fiber is also highly resistant to sunlight and UV degradation. It can be dyed easily in brilliant colors.
Unfortunately, acrylic fabrics aren't breathable. They capture heat well and are best worn in winter. Acrylic fiber limits airflow considerably and can lead to overly high body temperatures in hot climates.
Acrylic fiber is also highly subject to pilling, more than most other types of fabric. When blended with other synthetic or natural fibers, it lowers the overall cost of the garment but also reduces its lifespan considerably.
Synthetic acrylic fabrics are easy to wash. However, washing acrylic fibers in hot temperatures not only consumes an unnecessarily high amount of energy but also can melt and damage the fabric.
When the water is too cold, acrylic fiber can become firm and inflexible. To avoid any piece of clothing covered in pills, it's best to wash acrylic fabric separately by hand with moderately warm water and hang it to dry.
Synthetic acrylic fiber endangers your health
Acrylic fabric is hazardous to your health. The main component of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, a carcinogen and a mutagen that targets the central nervous system, with similar effects to cyanide.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declares that the synthesis of acrylic plastics is highly toxic and lead to behavioral consequences.
Acrylic is also a clastogen, a mutagenic agent with high genotoxicity that disrupts or breaks chromosomes.
Polyacrylonitrile polymers may lead to cancers as they enter our bodies after wearing acrylic clothing through skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Acrylic fabric manufacturing involves highly toxic substances that are extremely dangerous to the health of factory workers. Hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide are emitted from various operations.
Acrylic fiber is also highly flammable. It presents a high danger of combustion for the wearer and must be kept away for warm temperature sources.
Synthetic acrylic fabrics treated with flame retardants contain toxic compounds necessary to slow the development of ignition. They are typically organohalogen and organophosphorus compounds such as organophosphates, phosphonates, or phosphinates, which are one of the most common causes of poisoning worldwide and frequently intentionally used in suicides.
Environmental impact of acrylic fabric
The popularity of synthetic fibers including acrylic fiber is on a steady decline, especially in the United States for a few decades.
Acrylic fiber production is declining worldwide because of the increased awareness of the environmental concerns and the high recovery cost of the solvents.
The environmental movement and subsequently the sustainable fashion trend began in the 1970s when the toxicity and carcinogenic characteristics of acrylic where published.
Today, public opinion against synthetic fabrics like acrylic fabric is at an all-time high.
There is no technology capable of effectively recycling acrylic. Acrylic fibers' environmental impact is extensively negative. They further increase our consumption of fossil fuels and dependency.
Acrylic fiber isn't biodegradable like many other synthetic fibers.
Acrylic fabrics take hundreds of years to decompose. As acrylic fiber breaks down, it releases toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the environment.
Synthetic fabrics like acrylic have a disastrous impact on people and the planet. They are well-known to be detrimental to ecosystems and nature.
They also contribute to the high amount of clothing waste that ends up in landfills every year.
Acrylic fabrics release plastic microfibers into the environment as well as toxic chemicals that harm workers and ecosystems surrounding manufacturing facilities.
Microplastics and volatile compounds poison plants, corp, and entire food chains. They cause harm to the environment and endanger human lives.
Many toxic substances are used in the manufacturing of acrylic fabric. They are difficult to fully recover and reuse.
In some Asian countries, regulations concerning environmental protection are not as strict as in western countries.
Since they aren’t handled or disposed of correctly, hazardous chemicals destroy land wildlife, marine life, and local communities.
Sustainable alternatives to acrylic fiber fabric
More sustainable and ethical alternatives to acrylic fiber exist. Many fashion brands and designers around the world avoid the use of synthetic fabrics like acrylic fabric completely.
Many prefer environmentally friendly organic fibers such as organic cotton, linen, and hemp. Natural fibers are also very strong, durable, absorbent, and quick-drying.
When certified organic, they are grown with little additional water, no ma-made pesticides, or fertilizers.
They aren't as popular as synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, or acrylic because they are much more expensive. But the cost of acrylic fiber is hidden. Its price doesn't reflect its huge social and environmental costs.
It's time to rethink how we produce and consume clothes. One of the best ways to be more sustainable is to choose eco-friendly and high-quality materials.
Here are some of the best sustainable fashion brands that create fabulous clothes out of organic materials that protect the environment and your health:
- Alternative Apparel creates fashion basics for a sustainable future. Men and women's apparel basics in soft eco-fabrics, organic, and Pima cotton.
- Organic Basics sustainably and ethically produces underwear, activewear, and essentials in Europe with organic cotton.
- PACT, a leading sustainable fashion brand using only organic fabrics and Fair Trade factories to design stylish essential clothing.
- MATE makes clean essentials sustainably in Los Angeles with non-toxic, natural, and organic materials.
- Mara Hoffman, a premium designer brand that creates dresses and swimwear out of hemp, recycled textiles, and other eco-friendly materials.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.