What Is Rayon Fabric? Exploring the Controversial Fabric

May 25, 2023

Compared to polyester and nylon, rayon is touted as an environmentally friendly fabric. Despite its popularity, critics argue that companies that manufacture rayon are guilty of greenwashing in an industry already rife with harmful environmental implications.

With global production of rayon fabric increasing, it’s time to take a look at the impact and potential consequences of this popular fabric.

What Is Rayon?

Rayon fabric is a semi-synthetic fabric derived from natural materials, typically eucalyptus trees, but also bamboo, cotton, and even soy, to name just a few. 

This durable and smooth fabric absorbs moisture easily and is used to make blouses, denim, athletic wear, and virtually any other form of clothing.

While rayon is used primarily in the fashion industry, it’s also used for upholstery, crafting, and other applications. Lauded for its soft feel, breathability, and longevity, since its invention in 1846 it’s been used for a wide array of products, depending on the type of rayon fabric used, of which there are several. 

Rayon is praised for being a more sustainable alternative to synthetic fabrics. As you’ll see, though, as a semi-synthetic fabric, it’s not as sustainable as other fibers.

Types of Rayon

While “rayon fabric” may seem like one fabric, there are actually multiple types: viscose, modal, and Lyocell. Each has similarities to the others, especially in the rayon production process, but there are differences, some significant. 

Each rayon fiber is manufactured in slightly different ways, giving them various pros and cons, although they each use the same closed-loop system and chemicals, making their environmental impacts quite similar.

Let’s take a look at them and see what their properties are. 

Viscose rayon

Viscose rayon is the most common type of rayon and is normally what people mean when they refer to regular rayon. Though it has the weakest durability, viscose rayon is one of the softer types of rayon and boasts a softer, silkier rayon fabric feel.

Before wood pulp was used in its production, manufacturers used silk, which made it soft and drove its initial popularity. In fact, viscose is often called “artificial silk.” 

One of the more breathable of the three main types of rayon, viscose rayon is the least likely to shrink when it’s washed and dried. It does have its negative traits, however. It’s the least environmentally friendly of the main types of rayon, with viscose manufacturers being linked to pollution in Asia, and this impact being partly responsible for rayon fabric’s negative reputation.

Modal rayon

Though viscose rayon is made solely from wood pulp, modal rayon fabric is a blend of natural materials, one of which is wood pulp from the beech tree. A semi-synthetic fiber, modal rayon is typically mixed with other fabrics, usually cotton or spandex, before making the final product. The process makes modal fabric a more durable and long-lasting fabric compared to viscose rayon.

Because of its soft touch and environmental friendliness, eco-conscious companies use modal rayon in sustainable fashion and housewares, for products ranging from underwear and pajamas to bed sheets and towels. One of the more expensive types of rayon to get, it boasts a more luxurious feel than its counterparts.

For more information about this versatile fabric, check out my article all about modal rayon

Lyocell rayon

Lyocell fabric is similar to modal fabric in that wood pulp from trees is used to create it. Lyocell is mostly made from eucalyptus, but also oak and birch, and it’s mixed with different materials to create a semi-synthetic fabric. The main difference between Lyocell and modal rayon, however, is that fewer chemicals are used in Lyocell fabric’s production method. That alone makes it a more environmentally friendly option.

The end product is appealing for several other reasons, too, including a softer and smoother feeling. It’s also the more moisture-absorbent of the three main types of rayon fabric, making it better suited to athletic wear. It wicks moisture away more easily than the two other types of rayon, which lets wearers stay cooler while wearing it.

For more information about this sustainable fabric, read my article about Lyocell

Advantages of Rayon

The sustainable fashion and upholstery industries have jumped on rayon because it offers multiple benefits:

  • Rayon is made in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way than the leading synthetic fabrics.
  • Rayon has a smooth feel that consumers appreciate, especially in rayon garments.
  • Rayon is soft and versatile enough to use in various products.
  • Rayon can be easily blended with other fabrics to improve softness, comfort, and versatility.
  • It’s breathable and moisture absorbent enough to be used in athletic wear.
  • Rayon is less likely to wrinkle than natural fibers such as cotton and hemp.
  • Rayon is durable and won’t become misshapen or fade after many washes.
  • It can be affordable depending on the source and type.

Disadvantages of Rayon

Rayon’s many advantages don’t mean that it doesn’t have any negatives. You’ve got to take the good with the bad, though. Here are a few disadvantages to rayon:

  • Water-repellent rayon takes longer to decompose than natural fabrics.
  • The elements, such as water and sunlight, can diminish rayon’s durability.
  • It wrinkles easily and doesn’t handle being ironed well.
  • Carbon disulfide and other chemical processes are used in its production, which can have environmental consequences.
  • Rayon’s sustainability is inconsistent. 
  • It can be expensive depending on the source and type.

What Is Rayon Used For?

Rayon fabric is predominantly used in fashion, upholstery, such as bed sheets and curtains, and other innovative applications, such as surgical products, and tire cords. Over the past few years, more brands have started using one of the three types of rayon in their materials to increase their environmental friendliness. Keep an eye out for the following brands:

How Is Rayon Made?

Strictly speaking, rayon is any durable fabric made out of the raw material regenerated cellulose, which is typically harvested from various trees, including, eucalyptus, hemlock, beech, pine, birch, and spruce. While the process for manufacturing rayon differs depending on the type being made, it follows a similar pattern with each.

This is where the controversy over rayon’s sustainability emerges. The environmental friendliness of each fabric’s manufacturing process is unique, with modal and Lyocell being the more environmentally friendly options. 

The overall process sees wood chips being turned into cellulose, which then create sheets. These sheets are then submerged in sodium hydroxide—a chemical that receives criticism because of how it harms the environment—to break down the sheets into a solution known as sodium cellulose xanthate.

Other chemicals are used as part of the manufacturing process, depending on which form of rayon you’re talking about, but since rayon fabrics use a closed-loop system, little of the sodium hydroxide or other chemicals escape into the environment. 

The cellulose fiber sheets are subsequently put through a spinneret to create long fibers. These can then be used to create rayon garments or other products.

Who Manufactures Rayon?

Multiple worldwide companies, including Formatex and MicroModal, create the different types of rayon around the world. The following regions and countries produce the most rayon:

  • Europe
  • The Philippines
  • China
  • Japan
  • Indonesia
  • India
  • Pakistan

Lenzing AG is the most well-known rayon fabric manufacturer, however, with the Austrian company being known for its environmentally friendly and sustainable practices. Lenzing reuses 99% of the solvents used in its fabrics production, recycles water, and limits the use of toxic chemicals.

Harmful Effects of Rayon

Rayon fabric is touted as sustainable and environmentally friendly, thanks to a closed-loop system that catches and reuses the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Certified-sustainable rayon also boasts using environmental best practices during the growing and harvesting of trees.

Despite this, it’s still a manufactured fiber, and manufacturing requires resources and heavy machinery and inevitably contributes to carbon emissions. Rayon fabric receives criticism particularly for its chemical and deforestation impacts. 

It’s worth looking at precisely how rayon affects the environment. It mightn’t be as sustainable as proponents believe.


Modal, Lyocell, and viscose fabrics, among other plant-based, natural fabrics, comprise 6.2% of the fashion industry, and it’s estimated that it’ll grow to as much as 9%. The amount of wood pulp from trees needed to produce this virtually doubles accordingly. That’s a problem, considering many of these fabrics are already sourced from old growth and receding forests.

The deforestation fuelled by the fashion industry’s use of wood pulp has a very real impact, and that impact isn’t even limited to environmental implications. Mass tree harvesting puts communities reliant on these forests at risk—economic risks and health risks—and threatens their overall survival. According to NBC News, viscose method manufacturing companies have destroyed forests of Borneo ironwood in Indonesia in order to plant eucalyptus trees there, a process that threatened to “dry out the land and increase the risk of fires as well as destroy the natural habitat of a diverse array of plants and animals.”

The industry is taking measures against this, however, with brands like H&M switching to more sustainable sources of rayon. Lensing—a company behind the manufacture of rayon fabrics—is a leader among this movement, thanks to the company’s commitment to sustainability

To provide a framework for these attempts at sustainability, there are a number of certifications rayon fabric manufacturers can earn, such as the Forest Stewardship Council certification. A voluntary standard, this certification focuses on ensuring fabric manufacturers use environmental best practices and sustainable forest management when growing and harvesting trees for products.


Rayon fabric’s proponents use its closed-loop system to hail its sustainability, and it’s true that 95% of the chemicals and water used in producing the fabric is captured and reused. If only it were that simple. Rayon fabric’s production process uses sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, both of which are toxic, which is partly why the process doesn’t meet EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards.

While these chemicals aren’t known to harm the environment in natural amounts, they have acute and long-term environmental effects when above this, including causing the death of birds, animals, and fish in two to four days. These chemicals also cause reproductive health consequences for the wildlife that survive exposure.

Human health

Despite the many benefits of the closed-loop system, rayon fabric’s production process uses several chemicals, particularly sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, that can have an impact on worker health. To understand how this occurs, it’s worth looking at what cellulosic fiber is. A catch-all term to describe pulp and other materials gathered from pulp, these are used in many fabrics made from natural fibers, not just rayon.

But rayon is a semi-synthetic material that needs particular chemicals added during the production process. The chemically intensive process is overseen by workers whose health is affected unless specific health and safety conditions are met. 

The problem? Rayon’s production process doesn’t meet EPA standards, which is why no rayon is manufactured in the United States.

Though rayon is certified as safe by the time it reaches consumers, the production process isn’t. The sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide used during the process affects human health and results in increased risk of heart disease, neurophysiological symptoms, stroke, and nerve damage. It’s likely that the fabric can be traced back to factories with poor health and safety standards, risking their worker health.

The production process can also affect the local population if these chemicals make their way into groundwater. Industrial waste is inevitable, and local communities bear the brunt of industrial waste.

How Does Rayon Compare to Other Fabrics?

Rayon vs. cotton

Rayon and cotton are often compared to each other, thanks in part to both having a soft and comfortable feel, and these similarities have led to the two sometimes being blended together to create an even better fabric. 

There are numerous differences between them, though, including their environmental impact, with most types of rayon being more environmentally friendly than cotton, unless it’s certified organic cotton. Regular cotton is pretty bad for the environment. It requires a lot of water to produce, and also erodes and degrades the soil and pollutes groundwater and local water sources. 

The uses of both are also different, with rayon being better suited to humid areas, while cotton is best suited to warmer climates. Rayon is more absorbent than cotton, while cotton boasts more insulating properties.

Rayon vs. polyester

Both polyester and rayon are used to create lightweight and comfortable clothing, although that’s about where all the similarities end. While polyester is a synthetic fabric, rayon is semi-synthetic and contains natural materials, making it the more biodegradable and compostable choice. Rayon is more environmentally friendly in other ways, as well, since polyester uses fossil fuels and releases microfibers when washed, which can kill fish and harm the environment.

There’s also a significant difference in how polyester and rayon feel. Rayon is softer and more comfortable to the touch, while also being more breathable. Polyester is easier to care for, and can be machine washed with ease.

Rayon vs. bamboo

Bamboo is one of the more environmentally friendly materials to make fabric from. Not only does it need less irrigation and water to grow than trees, but it also takes up less land, resulting in less deforestation related to bamboo. The same can’t be said for rayon fabric. 

Bamboo is also highly renewable. It can be regrown quickly with no chemicals, pesticides, or fertilizers.

As there are fewer chemicals and less waste associated with bamboo, it’s the more environmentally friendly option. Some chemicals, such as bleach, are released during its production, however, which is beaten by rayon fabric’s closed-loop system. 

The applications are similar. Bamboo, like rayon, is a versatile and soft fabric. 

Bamboo and rayon blends have become a common option that combines the environmental benefits and soft feel of both materials.

Is Rayon Fabric Sustainable? Wrapping Up

Rayon fabric continues to receive praise for its positive environmental impact and sustainability. Not all rayon fabrics are made equal, though, and that’s why debate continues to rage about whether it’s another case of greenwashing.

Know what kind of rayon you’re buying, who made it and where, and you can ensure that you’re buying the most ethically produced rayon available.

Done right, rayon is a sustainable and environmentally friendly option, although it needs more regulation and oversight, especially with its production process.