If you’re an eco-conscious consumer, it’s likely you’ve noticed the emergence of new fabric options. Touted as an eco-friendly semi-synthetic fiber, Lyocell is one of the more notable new textiles.
It’s natural to be skeptical. Afterall, as a rayon, Lyocell fabric could harm the environment. If you’re wondering whether Lyocell is another example of greenwashing or a sustainable fabric boasting multiple benefits, then read on. Lyocell fabric could be the next great hope.
What Is Lyocell Fabric?
Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric and part of the rayon family of fabrics. Originally developed in 1972, it’s made using wood cellulose. It’s primarily made using natural ingredients, so it’s marketed as a more sustainable alternative to nylon, polyester, and other synthetic fibers.
Though Lyocell was first invented in 1972, it wasn’t until the 1980s—when a company called Courtaulds Fibers began researching sustainable textiles—that its popularity soared. TENCEL Lyocell became a popular brand name, with TENCEL and Lyocell eventually being used interchangeably.
It’s a soft and comfortable fabric that’s proven popular for pajamas, underwear, bedding, and similar items. Since it’s quite durable and long lasting, it’s also becoming popular in the activewear niche. It pairs well with other textiles, including cotton and wool.
Lyocell fabric is one of the world’s most environmentally friendly fabrics. It’s made from tree pulp, particularly eucalyptus trees, oaks trees, and birch trees. Since these grow quickly and don’t need much water, they have little impact on the environment. The Lyocell production process, explained in more detail below, also does not require the use of many heavy metals and toxic chemicals, increasing its eco-friendliness.
In the decades since its invention, Lyocell has become popular for its range of advantages:
- It’s made from sustainable materials.
- It’s compostable and biodegradable.
- It’s a breathable and soft fabric, making Lyocell an ideal fabric for bed sheets, pajamas, underwear, and similar products.
- Absorbent and stretchy, it will wick moisture so is an effective choice for activewear.
- It uses a closed-loop system, which minimizes the chemical impact its production releases, especially compared to alternatives.
- It can be blended with other fabrics to create clothing and bedding.
- It has antibacterial and hypoallergenic properties.
- It has dual temperature regulation features, with excellent heat retention in winter but keeping you cool in summer.
- Lyocell is wrinkle resistant.
That doesn’t mean Lyocell fabric is free from criticism. The environmental friendliness of its production is debatable, and products created with it have also received negative attention, with critics arguing all is not as good as it seems:
- Lyocell blended with synthetic fibers is no longer compostable or biodegradable.
- Lyocell takes a lot of energy to produce.
- It’s a somewhat delicate fabric that takes care to wash and maintain. I recommend a gentle detergent and cycle.
- It shrinks a bit on first wash.
- Failing to properly care for Lyocell means its longevity and durability could be undone.
- More expensive than other fabrics.
- It uses amine oxide, a potentially problematic chemical for aquatic life.
The benefits of Lyocell fabric—especially when compared to other fabrics—seem to outweigh the negatives. It’s worth giving it a try, though, to see whether this eco-friendly fabric lives up to the hype.
What Is Lyocell Fabric Made From?
Lyocell is made from a cellulose fiber found in wood pulp, including oak or birch grown on managed tree farms, though eucalyptus trees are the most common. Since Lyocell is made from natural materials, it’s naturally biodegradable. It’s also mixed with a N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide solvent to dissolve it and create wood chips, also known as amine oxide. Amine oxide can be toxic to aquatic life if released in high amounts into the ecosystem. Amine oxide does not, however, pose any risk to humans and is generally considered nontoxic.
In short, Lyocell is essentially wood. Final products containing Lyocell fabric can contain other materials and fabrics, such as cotton or nylon.
The production process
Lyocell fabric’s manufacturing process is relatively simple compared to alternatives. It starts with wood, which is cut into small pieces and ground into a wood pulp, hence why it’s often referred to as a pulp fabric. After this, the wood pulp is mixed with an N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide amine oxide solvent to create the raw cellulose.
It’s this part of the process that makes Lyocell more sustainable than some alternatives. While other options use toxic chemicals that harm the environment, the chemical structure of Lyocell does not include toxic chemicals as part of the manufacturing process. And for those that apply the use of amine oxides, the production of Lyocell uses the closed-loop process. In a closed-loop process, 99.5% of the chemicals used in the Lyocell production are reused in subsequent batches.
That cellulose is then pushed through spinnerets to create long, thin fibers. The Lyocell fabric fibers are then washed, dried, and separated before being cut. They’re then ready to be spun and made into the final product.
The production process has also been seen as an environmentally friendly one for its minimal use of water and moisture management. As eucalyptus trees—the main material used to create Lyocell—don’t need much irrigation, the fabric uses up to half as much water as alternatives.
What Is Lyocell Fabric Used For?
Lyocell is soft to the touch and boasts a silky appearance. As it has a natural, comfortable, and soft feel, combined with a shiny appearance, Lyocell fabric is used in multiple areas:
- Dress shirts
- Medical dressings
Lyocell is a popular fabric for these items because it boasts antibacterial and hypoallergenic properties—making it great for people with sensitive skin—while having excellent heat regulation qualities. It’s also 50% more absorbent than cotton, making it a natural fit for activewear.
Brands using Lyocell fabric
Many fashion brands have increasingly focused on sustainable clothing, with growing numbers of them established exclusively to focus on environmental fashion. Many of these brands have started using Lyocell clothing in their lines, including the following popular sustainable companies:
- Paneros Clothing
- Organic Basics
- Threads 4 Thought
- Amour Vert
As highlighted above, Lyocell fibers are used in fashion for its luxurious feel, soft touch, breathability, and overall durability. While it can be an expensive fabric on its own—one of its primary criticisms—that cost comes down when it’s blended with other fabrics. Should these also be sustainable, then consumers can take advantage of an affordable, environmentally friendly product.
Environmental Impact of Lyocell
Made from mostly sustainable material, Lyocell is the most environmentally friendly fabric in the rayon family. Compared to other materials (detailed below), it boasts multiple sustainability benefits. The closed-loop system used in its production process, for example, catches 99.5% of chemicals used in the process. The remaining amount is considered nonhazardous.
Eucalyptus trees used to produce Lyocell don’t require fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation, there’s also little waste of natural resources or environmental impact associated with the practice.
You may be wondering about Lyocell’s being made from tree pulp and what sort of environmental impact that tree sourcing might have. While some brands may engage in such a practice, Lenzing AG and other large Lyocell fabric manufacturers use sustainable forest management practices to ensure this isn’t the case. Multiple certifications apply to proper forest management, which are detailed in further below.
Lyocell is also certified as biodegradable and compostable, so its impact on wildlife and the environment remains minimal.
Lyocell fabric can be certified under various circumstances by a wealth of organizations. Consumers may want to be on the lookout for these to ensure the products they buy are as sustainable as possible. These act as proof that Lyocell fabrics and the final product avoid using toxic materials and use organic and sustainable best practices.
There are various worldwide certifications that apply to the manufacturing of sustainable and natural fibers:
Oeko-Tex focuses on the use of harmful and toxic chemicals in products. Alongside ensuring that they’re environmentally friendly, this certification proves it isn’t harmful to human health.
Forest Stewardship Council
With forest management being a vital part of Lyocell fabric’s production, ensuring it’s done sustainably is vital. The Forest Stewardship Council is one of multiple organizations that certify this sustainability.
Overseen by the European Union, this initiative focuses on a product’s eco-quality and performance. Products with this certification are seen as leaders in their niche and come better recommended for their sustainability.
TENCEL, a brand name for Lyocell fabric, is one of the more sustainable Lyocell options, although amine oxide—a substance considered harmful—is used in the production of Lyocell, and may be a chemical of concern to some.
How Does Lyocell Compare to Other Fabrics?
Because of how it feels, alongside other properties, Lyocell fabric is often compared to other fibers, including cotton and polyester, while sustainability advocates claim that bamboo is the more sustainable alternative. It’s worth looking into exactly how Lyocell compares to natural fibers, synthetic fibers, and semi-synthetic fibers.
Lyocell fabric and cotton both have a soft feel, although this only appears in cotton after a few washes. It can initially feel crisp before getting softer following several washes. With Lyocell, however, consumers can expect softness from the start.
Durability and longevity make a difference in sustainable fashion, with longer-lasting products being seen as more environmentally friendly. Both cotton and Lyocell fabric excel in this department, although Lyocell garments need to be handled with care to achieve this. Cotton also needs frequent washes, which damages the fabric over time.
Handling Lyocell fabric and cotton is also quite different. While cotton is easy to care for and machine washable, Lyocell needs more care and may need to be hand-washed—or machine washed on delicate—and hung to dry. Lyocell fabric is more resistant to wrinkles, however, which cannot be said of cotton.
Both fabrics offer sustainability benefits, with Lyocell known for being environmentally friendly. With cotton, consumers must ensure that it’s certified organic cotton for that to be the case. Regular cotton is not grown with suitable sustainability practices.
Lyocell fabric and polyester don’t compete in the softness department. While Lyocell is a soft and comfortable fabric, polyester has a much coarser feel. Lyocell fabric is better recommended for sensitive skin because of this quality.
While Lyocell clothes are durable when handled with care, polyester excels in this department and is known for its overall durability. Unfortunately, that durability also means that it doesn’t biodegrade and will last in landfills for centuries.
As polyester is one of the cheaper fabrics to make clothes from, it’s the most cost-effective option to choose. Polyester is also easier to take care of than Lyocell. You can throw polyester into the washing machine without much concern, but to wash Lyocell requires a bit more caution, gentle cycles or hand-washing only.
The most notable distinction between polyester and Lyocell is the drastic difference in sustainability between the two fabrics. As Lyocell fabric is a semi-synthetic fabric, it’s biodegradable and compostable. Polyester, however, is a synthetic fabric that harms the environment by releasing microfibers when washed and requiring a great deal of toxic chemicals and carbon emissions to manufacture, making it the least recommended option in this regard.
Bamboo is an environmentally friendly material that doesn’t need much acreage to grow, can be sustainably harvested, and has a minimal chemical impact on the environment. It’s been lauded for its use because of this in several industries, including construction. In fashion, it can offer a comfortable and breathable feel.
The chemical impact bamboo has on the environment is actually larger than Lyocell fabric because of the closed-loop process that Lyocell employs. While bamboo uses the same chemicals as Lyocell fabric, namely sodium hydroxide, it doesn’t have the closed-loop system in place, meaning more of these chemicals are released into the environment.
Then there’s bamboo Lyocell, a product that’s become increasingly popular, as it uses the same production process as traditional Lyocel but blends it with bamboo to create a more environmentally-friendly product. The resulting fabric is soft, comfortable to wear, and breathable, making it an attractive option.
Modal and viscose
Since they’re part of the same family—rayon fabrics—people regularly compare viscose, modal and Lyocell fabric. Both modal and Lyocell have a soft feel, are breathable, and should last a while when properly cared for, while also using the same materials in their production process.
There are differences between these three fabrics, with their production being slightly different.
Lyocell fabric uses N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide—a nonhazardous material—instead of the sodium hydroxide in modal fabric, which is harmful to the environment. That makes Lyocell the more environmentally friendly option. That’s just as true when compared to viscose, as viscose fabric needs more energy in its production, which contributes to carbon emissions.
Though viscose fabric does offer some benefits compared to other fabrics, it loses out to Lyocell fabric in multiple ways, with the latter being softer and more absorbent, making it a more appropriate option for clothes and activewear.
Lyocell vs TENCEL
Lyocell fabric and TENCEL are used interchangeably quite often, although there is a difference between the two, which leads to confusion. TENCEL is a brand name and is the same as Lyocell fabric from other companies. Much like “Kleenex” is often used to refer to all facial tissues but only a select few tissues are Kleenex brand, so TENCEL is not actually the word for all Lyocell.
The TENCEL brand itself, however, commits to using environmental best practices when making Lyocell fabric and has been certified as such. In fact,TENCEL Lyocell has more sustainability credentials than options seen elsewhere.
How to Wash and Dry Lyocell
While Lyocell fabric offers multiple benefits, it does have its drawbacks, with its difficulty to wash and dry being one of the more notable. Following a few particular instructions—particularly those on the label—simplifies the process and prevents Lyocell shrink. Here’s the general advice you should follow when you wash Lyocell:
- Hand-wash a Lyocell garment as much as possible.
- If machine washing, wash on cold, at 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) or lower.
- Use an eco-friendly wool laundry detergent.
- Preferably set the machine to a wool wash cycle, although a gentle cycle is an effective runner-up.
- Machine drying should be avoided. Instead, hang your garments to dry.
Lyocell fabric is a durable and long-lasting fabric when treated appropriately and cared for the right way. Too much washing is never good anyway—especially on the environment—so ensure adequate care of any Lyocell products, and follow the above tips so your Lyocell fabric will have a long lifespan.
Is Lyocell Fabric a Sustainable Fabric? Wrapping Up
Though it has its issues, it doesn’t seem that Lyocell is guilty of greenwashing. Lyocell fiber manufacturers seem to be doing their best to produce the fabric with minimal environmental impact, and Lyocell fabric’s popularity is growing in the sustainable fashion world.
A versatile, comfortable, and flexible fabric, consumers show an increasing preference for its low environmental impact, though its high price seems to have prevented more widespread popularity.