Rayon, commonly referred to as viscose or viscose rayon, is a whole group of regenerated cellulosic fibers similar to modal, acetate, cupro, and lyocell.
Rayon is made from cellulose-based material such as trees, bamboo, soy, fruits, and agricultural waste. But rayon manufacturing requires heavy processing and is usually very toxic.
To help you make more mindful purchasing decisions as a well-informed consumer, here is the truth about rayon fabric that most companies are hiding from you.
In this article:
- What kind of material is rayon?
- What is rayon fabric used for?
- How is rayon fabric made?
- Is rayon a good quality fabric?
- Is rayon a polyester?
- Is rayon better than cotton?
- How to care for rayon fabric?
- Is rayon biodegradable?
- Is rayon eco-friendly?
- Why is rayon bad?
- Sustainable alternative to rayon
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What kind of material is rayon?
Rayon is a man-made, cellulosic fiber and considered a semi-synthetic material derived from plants or wood. It's made of natural polymers called cellulose.
Rayon is also known as viscose rayon in the textile industry. It's a conventional man-made material, cheap and highly polluting. But it remains a very versatile fiber used in a wide variety of applications.
Rayon isn't a new type of fabric. It was developed back in about 1855 but the term rayon was officially adopted in 1924. Man-made cellulosic fibers include viscose, modal, lyocell, acetate, and cupro.
The global production of man-made cellulosic fibers is 6.7 million tons globally. It accounts for 6.2% of all fiber production worldwide.
Rayon is the most broadly used man-made cellulosic fiber. It has around 79% market share with 5.3 million tons produced in 2018.
Although rayon is a man-made fabric, it's not fully synthetic. It doesn't contain petrochemicals.
What is rayon fabric used for?
Rayon fabric is often used in the fashion industry to make affordable clothing, shoes, bags, accessories, and jewelry. It's also used to make beddings, household textiles, home decor, upholstery, and furniture.
The popularity of rayon is rising. Fashion brands and clothing designers use rayon to meet consumers' demands for trendy and affordable clothing.
Rayon is a relatively cheap fiber that makes low-cost and low-quality clothing. It's ideal for making cheap garments as the primary fiber content.
Rayon is widely used in the textile and apparel industry as a substantial part of the fiber composition in most semi-synthetic clothing.
In the fashion industry, rayon fabrics make knitwear, sportswear, hats, suits, blouses, evening dresses, formal shirts, coats, sweaters, pajamas, undergarments, and more.
You can find rayon in homeware, furniture, upholstery, carpets, bathrobes, towels, drapes, bed sheets, curtains, and home decor, like other soft and luxurious fabrics as a cheaper alternative.
The market for rayon fabrics is expected to slightly rise in the coming years, as new apparel and home furnishing applications develop, especially in China.
Although rayon can be used alone, it's often blended with other types of fibers such as polyester, nylon, cotton, wool, silk, spandex, and more to lower raw material costs.
How is rayon fabric made?
Rayon fabric is manufactured from wood pulp. Its fabrication involves many different processes and is very chemically intense using chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone, or caustic soda.
Rayon fabric is produced by the dissolution of a cellulosic solution. It's generally made in facilities that also produce other types of semi-synthetic materials, including viscose, lyocell, modal, and acetate.
Cellulose from wood pulp is converted into a soluble compound using strong acids and chemicals. A heated mechanical spinneret with tiny holes then forms filaments of regenerated cellulose out of the solution.
This specific form of extrusion is called wet spinning and produces multiple continuous filaments. The polymer is dissolved and extruded through several thousand holes into a large spin bath, washing rolls, and drying rolls.
Rayon fibers are cooled down, washed, purified, and extended to make long filaments. They are then ready to be spun into yarns, which are woven into fabrics by textile manufacturers.
The cellulose extraction and processing are what make rayon fabrics not sustainable in most cases.
Is rayon a good quality fabric?
Rayon is a cheap fabric widely used in low-quality clothing. It's very soft, comfortable, lightweight, breathable, and anti-bacterial. It's a material found in a lot of everyday clothing as a cheaper alternative.
Rayon fibers are very pleasant to the touch, water-absorbent, and dry quickly. And they are also resistant to moths and mildew.
Rayon fabrics drape and hang well. They have good resistance to wrinkling and pilling, with multiple sheens, and color options.
However, rayon fabrics don't resist high temperatures. They have low thermal stability and will lose longevity when exposed directly to UV and sunlight.
Is rayon a polyester?
Although rayon and polyester are man-made fabrics, they are very different. Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from petrochemicals. Rayon is a semi-synthetic cellulosic fiber and derived from wood pulp.
Both polyester and rayon are used for apparel and footwear such as shirts, dresses, pants, jackets, undergarments, hats, shoes, and sportswear.
Rayon and polyester are some of the most common fibers used for clothing. They are readily available, cheap to manufacture, and can be dyed easily.
Many conscious consumers don't buy synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon anymore because they are byproducts of the oil industry. Unfortunately, rayon can be even worse.
Is rayon better than cotton?
Rayon is better than conventional cotton because of its lower environmental impact. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) gives regular cotton a total impact score of 101.9 points compared to only 55.61 for viscose rayon fabric.
Cotton is still the most widely used natural fiber worldwide and one of the cheapest to produce. And it's the second most used fiber for garment production behind polyester globally.
Cotton is easy to clean, soft, durable, lightweight, breathable, and absorbent. It's a natural material, bio-based, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable.
However, conventional cotton has one of the worst environmental impacts amongst natural fibers used in the textile and apparel industry. It takes about 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton, equivalent to a single t-shirt and pair of jeans.
How to care for rayon fabric?
Rayon fabrics are easy to wash and care for. They can be washed in the washing machine with a cool wash setting at a temperature lower than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and a tumbling speed lower than 600 revolutions per minute.
Taking good care of your clothes is one of the best ways to live more sustainably and ensure that they last longer. Give special attention to rayon fabrics, as they won't resist high temperature and tumbling speeds.
Extend the life of your clothes and the time you can wear them by taking good care of them and avoiding common mistakes. You can limit pressure on natural resources, reduces waste, pollution, and emissions.
Before washing rayon fabrics, read the care instructions that can be found on the care tag. This way, you can easily determine if the garment is washable.
The washing instructions may vary depending on the fabric's blend. Pure rayon fabrics can be cleaned and rinsed in cold water.
To save water, energy, and preserve the quality of your garment, it's best to use a temperature lower than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). It saves energy and prevents fabrics from melting.
Don't use any chlorine-based or strong detergent and use a gentle cycle in the washer to avoid high spin speeds. Make sure the washing speed doesn't exceed 600 revolutions per minute.
Do not dry rayon fabrics in a tumble drier. They have very low thermal resistance and will melt under high temperatures. The more sustainable way of drying your clothes is to hang them to dry.
Place them on a line in fresh air rather than using a dryer. It preserves the quality of your garments and saves an enormous amount of energy, carbon emissions, and money.
You can also lay the fabric down on a towel for a while, then flip it over. Or you can hang it up on a hanger to help it dry naturally.
Iron your clothes only when it's necessary. If you decide to iron rayon fabrics, select the lowest temperature possible to prevent any damage.
Iron the fabric through a damp cloth if possible. Rayon fibers can easily melt and too much ironing will eventually damage the fabric.
Rayon doesn't resist chemicals very well. Keep chemical-based glues, perfume, and nail polish remover, and alcohol-based solvents far away from your clothes.
Don't use acetone or organic solvents to remove stains either. They will dissolve the fibers and cause irreversible damage to the garment.
Is rayon biodegradable?
Rayon is biodegradable but it takes between a few weeks to a few years for rayon to biodegrade depending on the type of rayon fabric and processes used during manufacturing.
Even if rayon isn't made from petroleum-derived products like nylon or acrylic, it isn't considered a natural material. Rayon fabrication requires many energy, water, and chemical-intensive industrial processes.
Rayon fabrication can be extremely polluting. It not only consumes large amounts of resources but also heavy chemicals that are toxic to humans and ecosystems if released untreated into the nearby environment.
Depending on the conditions present in the environment, rayon can biodegrade in a few weeks. But it can also take up to many years to fully decompose under cold conditions.
Rayon is a man-made cellulosic fiber made from regenerated cellulose extracted from plants or wood pulp.
According to recent research, cellulose biodegrades very quickly under six weeks with optimal soil moisture of -33 kPa and soil temperature of approximately 25 ºC.
However, Korean researchers pointed out that the more water-repellent rayon fabric is treated, the slower it will decompose. And most semi-synthetic fabrics receive heavy treatments to make them softer, stronger, and elastic.
The biodegradability of rayon fibers in relevant environments (wastewater treatment plants, composting, landfill, soil, seawater) is demonstrated by international standards and certified by international certification organizations such as Vincotte or Din Certo.
Is rayon eco-friendly?
Rayon is a cellulosic fiber made from natural cellulose derived from wood pulp. That is why it's often marketed as eco-friendly. But it may be harmful to the environment and human health as it requires toxic chemicals for its fabrication.
Rayon production involves many different processes and is very chemically intense using harmful chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone, or caustic soda.
Textiles made from man-made fibers such as rayon are regarded as a potential source of contamination for marine environments, as reported by faculty scientists.
Cellulosic fibers were also reported as an important share of microfibers in a 2011 study. Microfibers facilitate the transfer of pollutants, monomers, and plastic additives to organisms with uncertain consequences for their health.
Why is rayon bad?
Rayon is bad because its polluting manufacturing emits poisonous gas. Heavy chemicals are required for rayon production and they pollute drinking water, the air, and soil, damaging ecosystems, plants, animals, and human health.
An enormous amount of water gets polluted during the production of rayon fibers. To be more environmentally friendly, chemicals used during manufacturing must be fully recovered in closed-loop production processes.
Even if rayon can take a short time to decompose under the right conditions, it adds to waste, pollution, and microfibers landing in the ocean every day.
Garments made of rayon are usually low-quality. They aren't very durable and lose their shape and color over time. Fibers will break down easily when washed.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that rayon is a natural fiber. Although rayon is made from renewable resources such as wood pulp, it's a man-made semi-synthetic fiber.
Rayon production is highly polluting and has a large negative impact on the environment. Rayon also takes time to decompose, especially as it adds to the number of microfibers landing in our oceans every day.
Sustainable alternative to rayon
Making rayon fabrics in highly regulated and sustainable production facilities could improve its eco-friendliness.
A better alternative to rayon fabric is lyocell. Tencel, a very popular brand of lyocell, is an environmentally friendly cellulosic fiber produced sustainably.
Tencel lyocell is made of cellulose from wood pulp like rayon. It's a semi-synthetic fiber made from renewable materials. Lyocell isn't natural but its impact on the environment is very low compared to other synthetic fibers.
Sustainable lyocell production facilities can almost fully recover and reuse water and chemicals with closed-loop processes. When more than 99% of the solvent is recycled, lyocell production is considered eco-friendly.
The main ingredients used in lyocell fabrication are N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO) and water. NMMO, also commonly called amine oxide, is considered non-toxic and is easily regenerated.
Lyocell is arguably one of the most eco-friendly cellulosic fibers. Usually made from wood, it can also be produced out of bamboo, soy, seaweed, or coconut.
Read our selection of the most popular, affordable, and sustainable clothing brands that create eco-friendly clothing from Tencel lyocell.
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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.