Recently, we attended a webinar about how to keep your home free of toxins. In the conversation about which fabrics to choose for your furniture, one of the panelists suggested using a synthetic (polyester) fabric to avoid stains.
People often think synthetic fiber fabrics are naturally stain resistant. They are not. They are stain resistant because of the addition of chemicals which you do NOT want to bring into your home.
Now, the situation is a little more complicated than: They are NOT. Synthetic fibers are both hydrophobic, meaning that they resist absorbing liquids; and oilophilic, meaning that they more readily absorb oils and grease. There is a continuum of these states, hydrophilic – hydrophobic and oilophilic – oilophobic; but it is true that natural fiber fabrics are both hydrophilic and oilophobic. This means that natural fiber fabrics absorb water well, but oil poorly. Synthetic fiber fabrics are the opposite: They are hydrophobic and oilophilic, meaning that they resist absorbing water but more readily absorb oils and grease.
The fact that natural fibers are hydrophilic also means that they clean much better than hydrophilic synthetics. Washing machines (all washing action, with a machine, or by hand) depends on water absorption to clean. The more absorbent the fibers, the better they will clean.
So what do these hydro/oil phobic/philic characteristics mean for the staining and stain removal behavior of natural fibers versus synthetic fibers? It means that, lacking the addition of chemicals that we would all prefer to avoid, or that we should avoid AT ALL COSTS, a natural fiber fabric will absorb water-based stains more easily than a synthetic, but you will have an easier time removing that stain. Natural fibers will resist oil-based stains better than synthetics. And should you get an oil-based stain, you will have an easier time removing it than from a synthetic fabric. Synthetics will not clean in your washer nearly as well.
Synthetic fibers are almost never left “pure,” that is, the fiber only in the yarn. They are turned into “performance” fabrics which do not stain, wrinkle, fade, or yell back at you, by the addition of chemicals. Synthetic fibers have the characteristics that people want, not because of their inherent characteristics, but because producers add chemicals which are both supremely toxic and which migrate into your home and into our environment. Americans want their fabric to BEHAVE, and the chemical industry has stepped up!!
PFAs (and their close cousins PFOAs, PFCs and PFOs), are some of the “forever chemicals” used n fabric to make them behave. They are worth learning about so you can protect yourself and your family. We’ve written many articles about this critical problem. The state of California has just taken steps to regulate PFAs. (More about this in a later post – but please look at the many posts in our blog about these chemicals. Simply search for “PFA” or “stain resistant” or close in the search bar on our (this)blog.)
Some of the chemicals used in performance fabrics have been voluntarily limited in use in the US, but their close cousins are in constant use. And none have been outlawed. Even asbestos is still perfectly legal to use in products in the US and with no notification at all. (The New York Times has a relatively new section, Wirecutter, a product recommendation section, which announces why they are so expert in suggesting products for us. They gayly ignore the facts about toxicity reported in other sections of the same newspaper – More about that later !!)
The most surprising, most troubling, fact in this post is most likely the fact that there is NO LAW, absolutely no requirement, to reveal anything about finishes used or additives added to fabrics at any stage of the production process – not the melt or fiber preparation stage, the yarn (spinning) stage, weaving, or post production stages. It is perfectly legal, in the USA, to add asbestos to your fabric and not tell you. The only facts required to be revealed about fabrics are: the fiber content and the country of origin (which is where was it woven, even though there might be 6 or more different countries involved in the supply chain of the fabric). There are, in the US, five chemicals which are prohibited in manufacturing; and a smattering of others that are regulated spottily. Thousands of chemicals are used regularly in textile production. Roughly 400 are prohibited or limited by GOTS or Oeko-Tex. (GOTS is more restrictive). (Assigning an accurate number to the number of chemicals regulated or prohibited by either is difficult because many of the chemicals can have equally unsavory cousins synthesized easily which are technically outside of the regulations. This is a future blog post topic in itself! )
This fact, that so little is regulated regarding fabrics in the US, is one of the main reasons why we encourage people to ask for and insist on one of the three fabric certifications that we think are useful: GOTS, the Global Organic Textile Standard, or Oeko-Tex 100 or the Oeko-Tex Made In Green certifications.
How can you determine if a fabric is safe? We’ll offer an easy-to-use guide in our next post. Look for fabric that has the GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard) certification. GOTS is the “gold standard” for textiles, although it has had recent severe problems with fraud that we will cover. The second best (and only other) certification that we feel is worth its salt in fabrics is Oeko-Tex. Either the Oeko-Tex 100 or the Oeko-Tex Made In Green certifications. But beware, because Oeko-Tex will certify synthetics (yes use only Oeko-Tex 100 or Oeko-Tex Made In Green when you must use synthetics– hmmm , let me think about what those must use applications are – you can help ! !!).
PS: for foam used in furniture, mattresses, etc., INSIST on either Oeko-Tex 100 or GOLS, the Global Organic Textile Standard.
Let’s protect this planet and the living beings on it by limiting the use of plastic based synthetic fabrics to instances where they are absolutely necessary. This does not include your furniture!
13 thoughts on “Polyester is not stain resistant”
Clearly it depends on the type of stain and therefore on the probability. In short, for a tablecloth I would suggest a cotton tablecloth for a football jersey, one in polyester…
We hope to convince you to never choose synthetics by our future (and past) posts on issues with synthetics such as microplastic. But you are correct that synthetics do certain jobs better than natural fibers currently. With consumer demand, this does not have to remain the case.
I have missed your newsletters coming in, thank you for restarting our connection. I now have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities dues to working with cotton polyester broadcloth for a decade in the seventies when this was the only material available to quilters. Inhaling the fumes from my hot steam iron on this cloth, eventually made me toxic. You may remember my article written in the late 1990’s The Toxicity of Textiles (www.sandysmallproudfoot.com) will explain cloth is one big chemical bath from beginning to end.
Thanks, Sandy. So sorry fabric induced the tragedy of chemical sensitivity on you. Absolutely remember your work. We’ll both keep working to make fabric safe. Patty
I’ve missed your newsletters in recent years, have you been offline or have I been missing your newsletters. I’m going to forward your recent one to a friend in Tennesssee, another quiltmaker. Sandy P
Your guys are the best! The information you provide can’t be found anywhere else! We value your posts.
You have a typo at the bottom of this post where you refer to GOLS as Global Organic Textile Standard. You meant to say Global Organic Latex Standard.
Thanks, Jim! And thanks for the error correction. Will correct that !
I didn’t know about the asbestos…otherwise I would have included that in my book Second Skin (2011) but I have always been wary of polyesters. And of any cloth that smells suspicious…a little water on the surface reveals a lot to a sniff test.
Great post and advice regarding the certs.
you seem to forget that washing and sepecially machine dryng polyester makes it release microplastics which might kill sea enimals (and poison us too) Marie-Paule (from France) http://mpnougaret.wordpress.com
Hi mpnougaret; This post was just about stain resistance. We started posting about microplastics years ago. Just search in the search bar for various posts. But thanks for reminding us all of an over-arching reason not to use synthetics!
glad to see you’re back out here, and hope to get some real progress made in the year ahead (also with our AGiR! hitting the 10 year mark next September…) keep up the good work! best, Rachel
*** Rachel Aronoff, PhD Directrice Scientifique AGiR! (https://www.genomicintegrity.org) Action pour l’intégrité Génomique via la Recherche! & Présidente et Responsable Biosécurité Hackuarium (www.hackuarium.ch) wiki.hackuarium.ch #DIYbio #citizenscience #DoItTogether