What Is Rayon Fabric and Is It Sustainable? (2023)

Rayon: all the rage or worth removing from our sustainable fashion wardrobes?

Also known as viscose fabric, this semi-synthetic has sometimes been touted as one that’s good for our planet—and it’s certainly one of the most common, as the third most popular textile fiber in the world.

Is this a good thing?

What is rayon fabric and how does it shape up against hemp fabric, cork fabric, wool, and cashmere?

More importantly, is rayon eco friendly really?

In this article, we’ve explored the ins and outs of this cellulosic fabric and how it might not be as “natural” as some brands claim. Use the quick links to jump to different topics.

QUICK LINKS FOR RAYON FABRIC

  • What is Rayon Fabric?
  • How is Rayon Fabric Made?
  • Is Rayon Fabric Ethical?
  • Is Rayon Fabric Sustainable?
  • Different Types of Rayon Fabric
  • Rayon Fabric vs Cotton
  • How to Care for Rayon

WHAT IS RAYON FABRIC?

First of all, let’s clarify our terms. When perusing fabric tags, you may find yourself wondering, “What material is viscose rayon?”

This one’s easy: rayon = viscose and viscose = rayon.

While these are one and the same and viscose fabric and rayon can be used interchangeably, you’re more likely to see “viscose” on the label of luxury garments, or if you’re shopping in Europe.

Rayon or viscose fabric ends up in a lot of our clothes, especially silk alternatives.

In fact, it was first known as “artificial silk”.

Pros and cons of rayon fabric properties

Rayon is used as an affordable silk alternative because it’s a breathable and moisture-wicking fabric that is stretchy and soft to the touch.

Rayon is also comfortable and non-irritating, it’s commonly found in blouses, trousers, dresses, skirts, t-shirts, and interior decorations like bedspreads, upholstery, and blankets.

It also accepts dyes well, yielding a bright and beautiful material for lingerie and luxury garments. Though, while rayon dyes easily, it’s notorious for fading relatively quickly.

What is rayon made of?

The semi-synthetic fabric is made from wood pulp or plant cellulose, which is why it is considered a “cellulosic fiber”. Which puts it in the same class as lyocell, modal, bamboo, cupro, and acetate (acetate material being used for the likes of sunglasses frames).

(Video) WHAT IS RAYON? | S1:E13 | Fibers and Fabrics | Beate Myburgh

“Ahh,” you say, “a natural material—it must be sustainable then?”

Not so fast. Let’s rewind on rayon and first see how the fabric is made.

HOW IS RAYON FABRIC MADE?

What Is Rayon Fabric and Is It Sustainable? (1)

Rayon may start out as wood pulp, but the natural ingredient doesn’t stay “natural” for long.

Rayon’s alternative identity viscose comes from the fact that it becomes a viscous liquid during manufacturing.

How else could we turn wood into something akin to silk?

This process is long and far outside the realm of nature.

How is viscose fabric made?

1. Cellulose is extracted from wood pulp (typically from beech or pine trees or bamboo).

2. The cellulose is dissolved in caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) to convert it to its impurity-free alkali form.

3. The cellulose is squeezed between two rollers to form a sheet, which is then crumbled into “white crumb.”

4. Exposure to pure oxygen and the addition of carbon disulfide transforms the substance into “yellow crumb.”

5. After being dissolved again, the yellow crumb ripens and is filtered.

6. A spinneret transforms the solution into fibers.

7. A soak in a sulfuric acid bath turns the fibers into filaments that can be spun, drawn, and washed.

Whoa, that doesn’t sound very eco friendly, does it? What about ethics?

IS RAYON FABRIC ETHICAL?

All those chemicals sound pretty scary, so what does this mean for rayon textile workers?

If you think back to high school chemistry class, you might recall that caustic soda and sulfuric acid aren’t the most gentle of chemicals.

Caustic soda is corrosive and can lead to eye damage.

(Video) Rayon, Modal, Tencel, Lyocell, Viscose, Cupro (or Cupra or Cuprammonium) Production, Sustainability

Sulfuric acid (aka battery acid) is officially classified as a hazardous substance that can also cause skin and eye problems, and lead to reproductive complications, lung damage, burns, and more.

According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s a human carcinogen when inhaled in a mist (i.e. used occupationally).

There’s one other chemical used in rayon manufacturing that is perhaps the most concerning: carbon disulfide.

The colorless liquid has been used in the production of rayon for as long as it’s been around, about 150 years of evidence showing how harmful it is for workers.

Carbon disulfide is necessary to remove the cellulose to allow it to be further transformed into rayon, but it also has a unique and undesirable effect on humans.

Which is the production of a toxic degenerative brain disease causing adverse effects on the nervous system. This may manifest chronically in subtle personality changes, dizziness, anxiety, anorexia, vision changes, and Parkinsonian paralysis.

Outside of the nervous system, it may also produce acute complications for the kidneys, blood, nerves, heart, liver, eyes, and skin.

It can even lead to mental deterioration and insanity to those exposed long term (i.e. garment workers).

In Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, Paul David Blanc writes:

“Throughout most of the 20th century, viscose rayon manufacturing was inextricably linked to widespread, severe, and often lethal illness among those employed in making it.”

Things haven’t necessarily improved.

IS RAYON FABRIC SUSTAINABLE?

Here’s another complication of carbon disulfide. Even if workers are adequately protected from its harmful effects, the environment isn’t.

For every gram of viscose rayon that’s produced, up to 30 grams of carbon disulfide is used and released into the environment. It should come to no surprise that the majority of the carbon disulfide found in the environment comes from the production of rayon.

When it enters the environment, it makes its way into drinking water, animals, and indirectly humans.

Then there’s the fact that rayon has to be made in large factories equipped with storage for chemicals and heavy manufacturing machines. Most of this takes place in China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

In fact, the chemical-heavy process is why rayon isn’t produced in the U.S.—because it’s too toxic for EPA standards.

Not only does the extraction of pulp for cellulose waste around 70% of the tree, but reports have found that some of the wood pulp is being sourced from endangered forests, and is leading to deforestation and other issues (i.e. biodiversity loss).

An estimated 30% of the world’s rayon comes from endangered and ancient forests. No rayon jumpsuit looks good enough to justify those losses.

Is rayon biodegradable?

There’s one big benefit to rayon from an ecological standpoint: it’s biodegradable.

A recent study found that not only is rayon biodegradable, but it’s actually more biodegradable than other fabrics (namely, cotton).

However, just because something is biodegradable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to dispose of in your garden heap.

(Video) What Fabrics Are Sustainable?

One thing to consider for those planning on tossing a torn rayon shirt into their indoor compost bin—is whether it has been processed with toxic chemicals. Consider this when spreading your finished compost on your veggie beds.

Some good news, please?

For those of us with greenwashing-proof spectacles, it’s apparent rayon is (in almost all cases) not a sustainable fabric—which is a good thing!

Why?

Because all of this conscious commotion has urged some producers of the fabric to change their ways.

But the question still remains “can rayon ever be eco friendly?”

With a growing number of companies using this material, it’s getting there. Many of the top viscose producers have already made commitments to meet EU BAT (Best Available Techniques) criteria—the most comprehensive standard for the production of viscose.

It measures things like carbon disulfide requirements, freshwater, and energy consumption, caustic soda use, emissions, and more.

This actually leads to two types of rayon fabric we would be okay wearing.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF RAYON FABRIC

What Is Rayon Fabric and Is It Sustainable? (3)
Lyocell and modal rayon

Lenzing has led the way for the responsible production of rayon.

They produce two types: TENCEL™ modal (which is made from sustainably-harvested beech trees) and TENCEL™ lyocell (which is made from sustainably-harvested eucalyptus trees).

Regular readers of Sustainable Jungle are probably familiar with those names, but you might know that they are technically a class of rayon. The main difference being that lyocell is created by a solvent spinning technique that causes no significant chemical change to the fibers.

While Lenzing isn’t the only company to produce modal and lyocell, they are considered the most sustainable.

What sets them apart from other producers is their use of a closed-loop system, where nearly all the water and chemicals can be recaptured for reuse instead of being discarded into the environment.

Not only are lyocell and modal (especially TENCEL™) better from an environmental standpoint, but they are also stronger, more absorbent, and more durable. They also have more elasticity and can handle moisture better than regular rayon—but generally they come at a higher price.

Info about brand…

What material is bamboo rayon?

Now we’ve got to break the good fabric news with one type of rayon that is commonly misrepresented as being sustainable: bamboo rayon.

Bamboo certainly starts out eco friendly.

The base grass is one of the most sustainable plants in the world because it grows quickly without needing a lot of water, pesticide, and herbicide inputs. Fast growth means it consumes more carbon dioxide (and produces more oxygen) than most other plants.

However, it too requires a tremendous amount of chemicals to process into rayon.

And as you may recall from our article on bamboo fabric, around 50% of the chemicals used to create bamboo rayon are released into the environment…

That’s definitely not a good look for our planet.

(Video) What is Bemberg Rayon? - Debunking Sewing / Fabric Myths

What material is cotton rayon?

Cupro fabric (cupra) rayon is made with either a byproduct of the cotton industry (cotton linter) or recycled cotton garments.

We’re certainly not falling head over heels for cupra rayon but if you’re looking for a vegan silk alternative and have found a brand that’s transparent about the closed-loop process they use to produce it, then this fabric might be for you (if you promise to wear forever!).

RAYON FABRIC VS COTTON

What Is Rayon Fabric and Is It Sustainable? (4)

Rayon is sometimes used as a cheaper substitute for cotton. While they may be found in similar products, like underwear, activewear, and some industrial items, there are some differences worth noting.

  • The colorfastness of rayon isn’t as strong as cotton and colors might fade quicker.
  • Cotton is far more durable than rayon. It’s also stronger, especially when wet (whereas rayon loses some of its strength when wet).
  • Rayon is also very flammable, whereas cotton isn’t as prone to catching fire.
  • Rayon can mimic peace silk—cotton would have a hard time resembling a fancy silk dress.

We mentioned earlier how rayon biodegrades more easily than cotton, despite the fact that cotton is natural and rayon is semi-synthetic.

Does that mean it’s more or less eco friendly than cotton?

That depends on both the cotton and the rayon. TENCEL™ Lyocell rayon would certainly be considered more eco friendly than traditional cotton (the dirtiest crop in the world), while organic cotton still trumps even the most sustainable rayon.

If choosing between traditional cotton and traditional rayon, well… is there an Option C?

HOW TO CARE FOR RAYON

Heat is rayon’s arch-nemesis. It may cause it to shrink or become misshapen. That said, avoid ironing—except on low-low heat.

Wash in cold water (or dry clean) and use a mild detergent (like any one of these zero waste laundry detergents).

Do not machine dry.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON RAYON FABRIC

How eco friendly is rayon?

Let’s just say there’s a reason we left it off our list of sustainable fabrics.

Aside from TENCEL™ modal and lyocell, rayon scores low on the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres.

In fact, it’s classified as a Class E fiber, which is the lowest rank in terms of human toxicity, ecotoxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy, land, and water use.

So, if we are going to wear viscose, we’ve got to be sure it’s produced in a transparent closed-loop process, like what you get with Lenzing’s modal and lyocell.

(Video) What Is Recycled Polyester? Is It A Sustainable Fabric? Everything You Need To Know About the Debate

Alternatively, we’ll stick to second-hand rayon based fabrics from some of our favorite online thrift stores.

On the whole, the sustainable place for rayON is rayOFF of our bodies.

The toxic chemicals and depleted forests are reason enough to say “no” to this fabric until some serious improvements are made—regardless of how perfectly that dress drapes.

FAQs

Is rayon good for the environment? ›

Rayon, Viscose, Modal

Solvents used during the process can be very toxic to humans and to the environment. Viscose, modal, lyocell and bamboo are different types of rayon. The other substantial environmental concerns arising from rayon production is the massive deforestation involved.

Why is rayon not eco-friendly? ›

Rayon is indeed made from plants, but it's not necessarily eco-friendly because of its toxic production and the deforestation associated with it. Viscose is the same thing as rayon. Modal's production isn't as toxic but can still lead to deforestation.

Is rayon more sustainable than cotton? ›

Rayon has been classified as a more sustainable alternative to polyester or cotton; let's challenge that theory. Rayon is made by dissolving cellulose (the main constituent of plant cell walls) into a chemical solution and then spinning it into threads.

Which is better rayon or cotton? ›

When it comes to rayon vs cotton, rayon is more absorbent than cotton. Cotton is insulating fabric but rayon is a non-insulating fabric. Rayon is a fabric that we can use in a humid climate whereas cotton is best to use in a warm climate. Rayon is weak when wet and the cotton fabric gets stronger when wet.

What are the worst fabrics for the environment? ›

Environmental impacts
  • Nylon and polyester. Made from petrochemicals, these synthetics are non-biodegradable as well, so they are inherently unsustainable on two counts. ...
  • Rayon (viscose) ...
  • Cotton. ...
  • Wool. ...
  • Manufacturing processes. ...
  • Other materials.

What are pros and cons of rayon? ›

Rayon fabric is soft, breathable, and comfortable to wear. Its soft texture is like that of silk and linen. Also, the fabric is moisture absorbent, making it an ideal fabric for sportswear and humid climates. However, some rayon fabrics require hand washing or dry cleaning and can shrink when machine washed.

Is rayon better for the environment than polyester? ›

Rayon is more sustainable than petroleum synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon.

Is rayon better than polyester? ›

Comparing their tactility, rayon is actually softer to the touch in comparison to polyester. This leaves your fabric more flexible if you were to densely stitch with it. Polyester is rougher to the touch compared to rayon, and leaves the fabric feeling stiffer when densely stitched.

What are the disadvantages of rayon? ›

Disadvantages of rayon

The fabric shrinks quickly, so you have to be careful while you are washing. The fabric gets less strong when it gets wet. The fabric isn't stretchable in itself. The fabric is not sustainable.

Is rayon synthetic or natural? ›

One of the most widely known semi-synthetic fibers is called rayon.

Is rayon better than linen? ›

Rayon is more absorbent than either cotton or linen, which makes it an ideal summer fabric. The material does not build up static electricity, which prevents shocks from static. It wrinkles easily because of its low resilience, but it can withstand temperatures from an iron that are slightly less than cotton.

How long does rayon take to biodegrade? ›

When buried in soil, rayon and linen can degrade in just a few weeks. (This makes them more biodegradable than cotton.) Tencel, an elastane alternative, takes a bit longer — with a test showing half of the material broke down after 94 days; this is still a much shorter time than the synthetic materials it can replace.

Which fabric is most biodegradable? ›

Which Fabrics are Biodegradable?
  1. Organic Cotton. The cotton bud. ...
  2. Hemp. Hemp grows incredibly easily. ...
  3. Lyocell. Sustainable lyocell. ...
  4. Organic Linen. Organic linen biodegrades quickly. ...
  5. Silk. Silk is biodegradable but has ethical issues. ...
  6. Bamboo. Bamboo is antibacterial and biodegradable. ...
  7. Wool. ...
  8. Jute.

How can I buy eco-friendly fabric? ›

Where to Buy Organic & Sustainable Fabrics
  1. EARTH INDIGO (Canada) – Organic and eco-friendly fabrics.
  2. FIL & TIC (France) – Mostly organic fabrics, some unique prints.
  3. GAIA CONCEPTIONS (USA) – Undyed and some naturally dyed knit fabrics.
  4. LILLESTOFF (Germany) – GOTS certified cotton fabrics, many different prints.

Does rayon breathe like cotton? ›

Rayon has very thin fibers, which allows it to breathe more than other fabrics and gives it a lightness that prevents it from sticking to a body in hot weather. Since it is so comfortable and cooling to wear, rayon is an especially good fabric for sportswear and summer dresses.

Can you put rayon clothes in the dryer? ›

Lay the item flat in its natural shape on a drying rack or hang to dry. Do not put it in the dryer, as Rayon can definitely shrink in the dryer. To remove wrinkles, we recommend steaming for the best and safest finish.

What is most breathable fabric? ›

Breathable Fabrics
  • Cotton.
  • Nylon and Polyester.
  • Rayon.
  • Linen.
  • Silk.
  • Merino Wool.

Is rayon harmful to humans? ›

Rayon is a fiber that is made from cellulose that is chemically converted from wood pulp. Not only is the production of this material dangerous, but wearing it can also be unhealthy. Rayon fabric can emit toxic substances that can cause nausea, headaches, vomiting, chest and muscle pain, and insomnia.

Why is cotton not sustainable? ›

Conventionally-grown cotton is bad for the environment because of its high water consumption and pollution, soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, and use of harmful pesticides and fertilisers.

Why is wool not sustainable? ›

Wool production gobbles up precious resources. Environmentalists are increasingly highlighting the negative impact of sheep farming on the landscape. Land has been cleared and trees have been cut down to make room for grazing sheep, leading to increased soil salinity, erosion, and decreased biodiversity.

Is viscose the same as rayon? ›

The terms Rayon and Viscose are often treated interchangeably. Even the Federal Trade Commission considers the terms to be the same. The viscose process is one of the most common ways to make rayon today. The term “viscose” comes from “viscous, which describes the liquid state of the spinning solution,” says Swicofil.

Is rayon toxic for skin? ›

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, satin, nylon, and rayon can restrict your skin from breathing, cause rashes and clog skin pores. Further, the chemicals from synthetic fabrics can enter your skin pores and settle into your system, increasing the toxic load on your body and triggering stress.

What is the difference between viscose and rayon? ›

Rayon is highly absorbent and easy to dye while viscose looks like silk and feels like cotton. 3. Both rayon and viscose are manufactured in the same process but they differ in materials used. While rayon can be made with cellulose from a variety of plants, viscose is made from wood pulp or cotton linter.

Is rayon from bamboo eco-friendly? ›

Bamboo rayon is marketed as an eco friendly fibre. It's water efficient, it rapidly regenerates, and it's a carbon neutral fibre. That is, it is a plant-based fibre that absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it releases during harvesting.

Is rayon made of plastic? ›

Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber, made from natural sources of regenerated cellulose, such as wood and related agricultural products. It has the same molecular structure as cellulose. It is also called viscose.

Is rayon made from bamboo? ›

Rayon is a regenerated cellulose fiber, which means that a natural raw material is converted through a chemical process into a fiber that falls into a category between naturals and synthetics. The source of cellulose can be wood, paper, cotton fiber or, in this case, bamboo.

What fabric is similar to rayon? ›

Like viscose, tencel, modal, and some other fabrics, rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric, or a regenerated fabric.

Does rayon make you sweat? ›

But beware of Rayon, which looks like linen, but is a cost-effective alternative that won't absorb water the same way real linen does and will leave you uncomfortably sweating.

Is nylon and rayon the same thing? ›

Rayon is a regenerating natural fiber (cellulose fiber), which is made from the wood pulp. Whereas nylon or polyester, fibers are purely synthetic polymers, made entirely from chemicals.

Is rayon better for the environment than polyester? ›

Rayon is more sustainable than petroleum synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon.

What are pros and cons of rayon? ›

Rayon fabric is soft, breathable, and comfortable to wear. Its soft texture is like that of silk and linen. Also, the fabric is moisture absorbent, making it an ideal fabric for sportswear and humid climates. However, some rayon fabrics require hand washing or dry cleaning and can shrink when machine washed.

What are the disadvantages of rayon? ›

Disadvantages of rayon

The fabric shrinks quickly, so you have to be careful while you are washing. The fabric gets less strong when it gets wet. The fabric isn't stretchable in itself. The fabric is not sustainable.

Does rayon biodegrade? ›

When buried in soil, rayon and linen can degrade in just a few weeks. (This makes them more biodegradable than cotton.) Tencel, an elastane alternative, takes a bit longer — with a test showing half of the material broke down after 94 days; this is still a much shorter time than the synthetic materials it can replace.

Is rayon synthetic or natural? ›

One of the most widely known semi-synthetic fibers is called rayon.

Is rayon from bamboo eco-friendly? ›

Bamboo rayon is marketed as an eco friendly fibre. It's water efficient, it rapidly regenerates, and it's a carbon neutral fibre. That is, it is a plant-based fibre that absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it releases during harvesting.

Is viscose the same as rayon? ›

The terms Rayon and Viscose are often treated interchangeably. Even the Federal Trade Commission considers the terms to be the same. The viscose process is one of the most common ways to make rayon today. The term “viscose” comes from “viscous, which describes the liquid state of the spinning solution,” says Swicofil.

Is rayon toxic for skin? ›

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, satin, nylon, and rayon can restrict your skin from breathing, cause rashes and clog skin pores. Further, the chemicals from synthetic fabrics can enter your skin pores and settle into your system, increasing the toxic load on your body and triggering stress.

What happens if you wash rayon? ›

When rayon fibers are wet, they lose nearly half of their strength and can easily tear or become misshapen—which is why you should skip the washer and tumble dryer. Gently pull and shape the garment back to its original shape and size as it begins drying.

Is rayon fabric good for your skin? ›

Polyester, acrylics, rayon and nylon are common fibers that can have a negative impact on people with skin conditions. These fibers are hydrophobic and tend to trap moisture which can irritate your skin.

What material is closest to rayon? ›

Rayon is a soft and light fabric that is similar to silk.

Why is rayon called artificial silk? ›

Though rayon is chemically similar to cotton, it has a silk like shine. That is why it is called artificial silk. It is used in textile industry for making clothing like sarees, blouses, dresses, socks, etc.

What is rayon made of? ›

rayon, artificial textile material composed of regenerated and purified cellulose derived from plant sources. Developed in the late 19th century as a substitute for silk, rayon was the first man-made fibre.

Is rayon toxic to wear? ›

Rayon is a fiber that is made from cellulose that is chemically converted from wood pulp. Not only is the production of this material dangerous, but wearing it can also be unhealthy. Rayon fabric can emit toxic substances that can cause nausea, headaches, vomiting, chest and muscle pain, and insomnia.

Can you recycle rayon? ›

Recycle. If you have rayon garments that are no longer wearable, they can still be passed along to commercial recycler. Many municipalities offer periodic curbside pickup or have drop boxes where fabrics can be deposited for recycling (see Reference 5).

Where does rayon come from? ›

Rayon is a fiber from regenerated cellulose, generally derived from wood pulp. Rayon is usually made from eucalyptus trees, but any plant can be used (such as bamboo, soy, cotton, etc). To produce the fiber, the plant cellulose goes through a process involving a lot of chemicals, energy and water.

Videos

1. Are All Natural Fabrics Sustainable? (The Harsh Truth)
(FittDesign Studio)
2. Is Reformation Sustainable? Truth Behind Brand Ethics + Sustainability
(The Sustainability Enthusiast)
3. ALL ABOUT SUSTAINABLE FABRICS | FABRICLORE
(Fabriclore)
4. SOTP Fabrics: Viscose 101
(Sum of the Parts the Label)
5. Sustainable Fabric Review: Tencel
(Franky Dune )
6. WHAT IS VISCOSE? | S1:E9 | Fibers and Fabrics | Beate Myburgh
(Beate Myburgh)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Edwin Metz

Last Updated: 01/01/2023

Views: 6601

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (78 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Edwin Metz

Birthday: 1997-04-16

Address: 51593 Leanne Light, Kuphalmouth, DE 50012-5183

Phone: +639107620957

Job: Corporate Banking Technician

Hobby: Reading, scrapbook, role-playing games, Fishing, Fishing, Scuba diving, Beekeeping

Introduction: My name is Edwin Metz, I am a fair, energetic, helpful, brave, outstanding, nice, helpful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.