More than half of all retail clothes sold around the world contain polyester. Polyester shows up in everything from sportswear to high fashion, but like all materials, it has strengths and weaknesses. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of polyester?
Polyester is an inexpensive, synthetic, man-made material. It is durable, strong, lightweight, flexible, resistant to shrinking and wrinkling, and easily dyed. The biggest disadvantage of polyester is that it is not breathable. It traps perspiration and heat next to the skin, which can make you feel sticky, clammy, and uncomfortable in humid weather.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics of polyester, common uses of polyester, and strengths and weaknesses of polyester.
What is Polyester & How is It Made?
Unlike natural fibers such as wool (which comes from sheep, as you know!), polyester fibers come from a lab.
Polyester is a plastic made from petroleum. A scientific process called polymerization creates a reaction between an acid and an alcohol. This makes the melted plastic that spins out into polyester fibers.
The end result of this process is a repetitive strand of polymers that create an incredibly strong fabric thread.
Developed in the 1930s, polyester fabric saw some highs and lows in popularity. Do any of you remember the scratchy double-knit fabric your grandparents probably wore in the 1950s? That was one of polyester’s less proud moments!
Then polyester exploded into the vibrant styles of the 1960s, and aided the birth of the printed t-shirt in the 1970s. These days, you can find polyester everywhere, from seatbelts to Easter dresses to the upholstery in your living room!
Advantages and Disadvantages of Polyester Fabric
Since its invention in the early 1900s, polyester has taken over the garment industry. This versatile fabric has thousands of other uses as well. However, its detractors point out the dangers of the world-wide fascination with polyester.
This brief list describes the most prominent features of polyester.
Advantages of Polyester
Polyester production costs less than manufacturing cotton or wool. Polyester fibers can be mass-produced in enormous quantities at a low cost. This results in a lower cost for the consumer, which is the greatest advantage of polyester.
Some people point out a difference in quality between printing on polyester and printing on cotton. However, you can print on polyester, which allows for the creation of things like very cheap printed t-shirts.
Most fabrics require special laminating treatments to make them waterproof. Polyester is naturally water-resistant. This means that manufacturers do not have to apply costly lamination treatments.
Polyester’s long, stable polymers make this fabric strong and resilient. Because of this, Polyester also holds its shape well and doesn’t easily get stretched out. Despite its strength, 100% polyester is a supple, lightweight fabric that works well for many styles of clothing.
Because of its resilient nature,100% polyester snaps back into shape after stretching. It has a bit of natural give to its fabric, though. This allows for freedom of movement while you are wearing polyester garments. Polyester is often blended with another fabric such as spandex or elastane for clothes that need a lot of stretchiness.
The true versatility of polyester lies in its ability to blend with other fabrics. Blended fabrics maximize the strengths of multiple kinds of fibers in one fabric. Polyester has subtly infiltrated all aspects of the garment industry by sneaking into dozens of other popular fabrics as a blend!
One of the best-known polyester blends is polycotton, which has taken over a huge percentage of the t-shirt market. A cozy polyester-spandex blend often shows up in garments like yoga pants and workout gear.
Polyester’s ability to hold its shape when it is heat-set into things like pleats and curves give it shape versatility as well. This adds to the appeal of polyester in the ready-wear garment industry.
Finally, polyester fabric can be dyed cheaply and easily during its production. This means that polyester is versatile in terms of coloring as well.
Like many synthetic fabrics, polyester has moisture-wicking abilities. If you wear a polyester t-shirt on your morning jog, the fabric will draw the moisture of your sweat away from your skin and out through the polyester. (Though temperature does dramatically impact this process, as you will see later on).
Polyester fabric has high flame resistance, which means it takes a lot to make polyester actually burst into flame. Because of this, polyester is one of the most popular fabrics for use in children’s sleepwear, which has high standards for heat resistance!
However, as you will see in the disadvantages section, polyester does melt at high heat, which carries significant risk.
Mildew and Chemical Resistant
The synthetic fibers of polyester give it natural mildew and chemical resistance that add to its durability. It takes a lot to damage polyester fabric in any way.
Polyester’s natural water-resistance causes water to bead on its surface instead of soaking through.
Polyester is not waterproof, though. Enough water pressure will eventually penetrate the fabric. Increasing the thread count in polyester fabric increases its water-resistance.
Polyester often serves as at least one of the layers in jackets and coats because of its weather-resistant nature.
Polyester fabric provides high UV protection. As with any fabric, though, if you can see the sunlight through it, the sunlight can reach you! It’s important to take additional protective steps such as wearing sunscreen.
Aside from its low cost, the best quality of polyester is its easy maintenance.
Polyester is quick-drying, which means you can easily hang it up to drip-dry in your shower. It is machine washable and can be dry cleaned.
It is highly wrinkle-resistant, so you can wear it all day without looking scruffy by dinnertime. Finally, it is highly stain-resistant because it does not easily absorb liquids.
Of course, if you intend to wear polyester, the question of comfort is key! On the spectrum of fabric softness, polyester ranks somewhere between cotton and cashmere. It feels light and silky against your skin.
Disadvantages of Polyester
Lack of Breathability
The biggest complaint most people voice about polyester is its lack of breathability. Polyester fibers, which are essentially plastic, do not facilitate airflow. Many people prefer the natural, loose weave of cotton that is far more breathable.
Lack of Moisture Absorption
While polyester does wick moisture away, its lack of breathability means that it does not absorb the sweat from a person’s skin. In hot or humid weather, polyester will often cling to your sweaty skin very unpleasantly.
Most athletic wear uses a poly blend to avoid this issue. Polycotton merges the moisture-wicking ability of polyester with the breathability of cotton. This mitigates the stickiness of 100% polyester and the dampness of 100% cotton.
Environmentally conscious consumers list many valid concerns about the dangers of polyester.
The polyester production process involves a lot of energy and impacts greenhouse gasses. On top of that, any product made from fossil fuels is not sustainable.
Polyester is also not biodegradable. Some studies indicate that polyester fabric will not degrade even over a period of 50 years!
Finally, the cheap, easy production of polyester definitely boosts quick fashion. This adds to the problem of fashion waste. How many of you have bought a cheap dress for a special occasion, and thrown it out a year later when you no longer needed it?
While polyester has a high burn point, it does melt more easily than you might think. This can cause serious injuries. If polyester melts onto you, it will actually fuse to your skin and will require professional medical treatment.
In less scary but still annoying circumstances, polyester will melt under high iron settings. It can also become mishappen if your dryer heat is set too high.
Because it lacks breathability, polyester can hold onto odors. It’s also tricky to get grease and oil stains out of polyester.
Obviously, polyester’s lack of breathability can impact comfort. People also complain that polyester can hold a static charge, causing issues with static electricity (if you have long hair, you have probably taken off a winter coat and watched your hair stand straight out from your head as it clings to the coat!).
Some polyester blends are prone to pilling as well. Pilling is that thing where a little bump of loose thread breaks free from the weave and appears on the surface of the fabric.
Polyester fabric is non-hypoallergenic. It contains chemicals that can cause hormone issues and create skin allergies.
Some people also worry that the chemicals used in polyester production are dangerous in their own right.
What Can You Use Polyester For?
What can you use polyester for? Well…pretty much everything! You can find polyester in the garment industry, but it also makes a strong showing in household products, upholstery, and carpeting.
Polyester is used in:
- Athletic wear
- Dresses, dress shirts, and bottoms like pencil skirts and dress pants. (Polyester makes excellent pleats because it holds its shape so well!)
- Household items like bedsheets, tablecloths, and curtains
- Upholstery (polyester fabric’s water-resistance makes it an excellent, durable upholstery material).
- Rugs and carpets (the tensile strength of polyester fibers make them a tough and long-lasting carpeting material).
Examples of Polyester Products
Let’s look at a few more specific examples of polyester uses.
- Swimwear: Almost all swimsuits contain polyester. Its elasticity and water-resistance make it the perfect choice for swimwear!
- Rain jacket: Many raincoats contain polyester because of polyester’s water-resistance.
- Jersey/polycotton t-shirts: Stretchy and breathable polycotton steals the show. A huge part of the t-shirt market uses a polycotton blend! 100% cotton, 100% polyester, and the newer tri-blend fabrics remain popular t-shirt materials, though.
- Seatbelts: Believe it or not, polyester also makes a strong showing in a number of industrial fabric areas like seatbelts! Its natural strength makes it a good choice for this important product.
Is Polyester Fabric Good or Bad Material?
Polyester fabric is an excellent material if your main concern is affordability. On the other hand, some people consider polyester fabric a bad material because its production is harmful to the environment. Your answer to this question depends on your priorities!
Here’s the thing: you probably have a closet full of fun, brightly-colored clothes. Many of them undoubtedly contain polyester! Who doesn’t love walking into Target, TJ Maxx, or J.C Penny to browse the racks and racks of affordable clothes?
When you think about it, this easy access to cheap fashion didn’t exist even a hundred years ago. Your great-grandparents probably owned only a few sets of clothing. They knew how to darn holes, let hems down, and treat stains and wrinkles to make those clothes last.
Today you probably zip out to the store and buy a new blouse to give yourself a confidence boost when you have a big presentation coming up at work. Or you buy a new dress for your friend’s wedding, because what if someone remembers that you wore your other dresses last year at other weddings?
This is the mindset of cheap fashion. Some people argue that this more-more-more mentality lends itself to massive waste. Others insist that the explosion of cheap fashion enriches the lives of the general public with its vibrancy, color, and creativity.
The fact is, fifty years ago only wealthy consumers could afford to fill their closets with a huge variety of clothing. Today the average consumer can easily afford retail clothing.
Affordable clothing for the general public is a good thing! But whatever your thoughts on the subject, it’s hard to argue that the tradeoff of this easy access to cheap fashion is the environmental impact.
Is Polyester Sustainable?
No, polyester fabric is not sustainable because it is derived from petroleum. In fact, polyester fabric production consumes billions of barrels of oil every year. The use of any fossil fuel is not sustainable in the long term.
As a synthetic, polyester fabric is also not biodegradable. This means that increased polyester fabric production multiplies plastic waste in landfills around the world.
Cheap fashion, polyester’s greatest strength, can also be its weakness; mass production often leads to mass pollution. You are far more likely to toss out your ten-dollar polyester shirt than your one-hundred-dollar silk shirt.
Just to pile on the scare factor, recent studies show that polyester fabric also leads to micro pollution. Washing polyester fabric causes tiny plastic fibers to drain away into the wash water. These microfibers cause a significant amount of micro pollution.
All of that said, there are ways to address these environmental concerns. For example, some companies like Adidas and Ikea strive to use a significant percentage of recycled polyester in their clothing lines.
Does all of this mean you should avoid purchasing polyester clothing? Polyester fabric has made the world more comfortable, more colorful, and more fun for millions of people over the years.
What you should do is make sure that you are an informed consumer. You can make thoughtful purchasing decisions now that you are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of polyester.
As you have seen, the biggest advantages of polyester fabric are that it is affordable and versatile. The biggest disadvantages of polyester fabric are that it lacks breathability and can be harmful to the environment.
Do you feel like you now fully understand the complex pros and cons of polyester? If you found this article helpful, please leave a comment below to let us know how you plan to use polyester fabric!