What are the differences between Polyester and Polypropylene? If you’re looking to buy a new rug or upholster a chair, you have probably come across these multi-syllabic terms. These common materials are often used for the same products, but what are their differences?
The main difference between polyester and polypropylene is that polypropylene is more water-resistant than polyester, making it a quick-drying fabric that works well for athletic wear. Polyester lacks the quick-drying properties of polypropylene, but it is washable and wrinkle-resistant, qualities that make it easy to care for.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the best and worst qualities of both polyester and polypropylene. We’ll also consider the common uses of each material to help you decide which fabric best suits your needs.
- Polyester vs Polypropylene: Key Points
- What is Polyester Fabric?
- What is Polypropylene Fabric?
- What’s the Difference Between Polyester and Polypropylene?
- Pros and Cons of Polyester
- Pros and Cons of Polypropylene
- Popular Products Made of Polyester and Polypropylene
- Should You Buy Polyester or Polypropylene?
Polyester vs Polypropylene: Key Points
Here is a quick overview of the key characteristics of polyester and polypropylene fabrics to give you a general idea of their unique qualities.
Moisture Absorption: One of the key qualities you want to consider in these fabrics is moisture absorption. Both polyester and polypropylene are good moisture-wicking fabrics.
Polypropylene is more water-resistant than polyester because it transfers moisture instead of absorbing it; this makes it ideal for certain athletic wear. Polypropylene dries very quickly and also retains heat, which is why it is often used in thermal clothing.
Polyester will absorb some moisture, though it is moisture-resistant.
Comfort: When considering comfort, though, polyester usually wins. It is considered to be a more breathable fabric (meaning that airflow can pass through it) when it is blended with another type of fabric. Polyester is also washable, which is a key consideration for most types of clothing.
Durability: One of the big advantages of synthetic fabrics is their durability. Both polyester and polypropylene are commonly used in rugs and carpets because they are so tough. They are both stain-resistant materials as well. Of the two, polypropylene is probably slightly more durable because it is non-porous.
Just like it can’t absorb water, it also can’t absorb most stains. However, both materials are non-biodegradable because they are polymers made from petroleum.
UV Resistance: Another feature to consider is UV resistance. This is one area where you want to be sure you pick the best material for the job because polypropylene is not UV resistant. It starts to degrade if it is exposed to sunlight for too long.
Obviously, this could be a concern for the clothing you want to wear outside! This is one of the reasons polypropylene is commonly used for underwear (especially thermal or sports underwear and t-shirts). Polyester, on the other hand, will hold up well under direct sunlight. It is known for being fade-resistant as well.
Uses: As mentioned earlier, polypropylene and polyester are both used for a wide range of items. Polyester is probably best known for its uses in clothing, household items like bed sheets and curtains, and rugs and carpets. Polypropylene is used heavily in thermal wear, tote bags, and packing materials.
Cost: In terms of cost, it depends on what kind of item you are purchasing. Polypropylene is generally cheaper than polyester to produce, but this doesn’t mean that the end product will always be cheaper. Things like brand names and types of products play a big role in determining the price.
What is Polyester Fabric?
To throw around scientific terms for just a moment: polyester is a polymer made from fossil fuels. It is created through a chemical process known as condensation polymerization.
Polyester was invented in the 1920s and came to prominence during the World Wars (like nylon, which was invented for military uses such as parachutes). It grew in mass appeal because of its extreme durability. The downside of this durability, which is becoming more recognized today, is that polyester is not biodegradable; many consumers see it as an environmental hazard because of this.
In general, polyester feels lightweight and smooth. It is usually blended with another fabric such as cotton when used in apparel for greater comfort. One-hundred-percent polyester is not super breathable, which means it can feel very hot and sticky on the skin.
When blended with another fabric, though, it retains its characteristic stretch and durability and gains added breathability and comfort. Depending on the blend of polyester in a piece of fabric, it can be transparent like some rayons or thick and smooth like velvet.
Some of the best qualities of polyester are that it is shrink and fade resistant, it is washable, it can be dry-cleaned, and it is both mildew and UV resistant. Some polyesters can even be ironed at very low heat.
However, polyester is commonly used in mass-produced apparel and doesn’t have the expensive, high-fashion appeal of fabrics such as silk and cashmere. This doesn’t mean that polyester isn’t a good-quality fabric. It’s pretty hard to buy apparel that doesn’t have some amount of polyester in it these days! However, it is something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a high-quality piece of clothing or fabric.
What is Polypropylene Fabric?
Once more into the realm of science! Polypropylene is a synthetic thermoplastic polymer that is created from the addition polymerization of propylene. Propylene is a gas that used to be a waste product left over during oil and natural gas production. In the 1950s, scientists found a way to make this waste product useful, and polypropylene has been used widely ever since.
As a fabric, polypropylene is best known for its thermal properties and its stain and water resistance. Polypropylene cannot be dyed after it is made into a fabric–color is added while it is still melted plastic. After that, nothing can be absorbed into the fabric!
You could probably dip a piece of polypropylene fabric into bleach and it would not change color. This makes it super durable for uses such as furniture upholstery and carpeting.
This fabric is also hydrophobic, which means it does not absorb water because of its chemical composition. This gives it the famous sweat-wicking properties that are popular in workout clothes.
Most people know this fabric for its thermal applications, though. It is commonly used in cold weather gear because it has low thermal conductivity, which means that it traps your body heat while you are wearing it.
Would you consider polypropylene to be a good-quality fabric? It’s often mass-produced and quite cheap. It is excellent for certain uses but less so for others; it can be hard to care for, is not UV resistant, and does not handle heat well. It is certainly a useful fabric, but it’s not what most people would consider a luxury fabric.
What’s the Difference Between Polyester and Polypropylene?
The fundamental difference between these two materials is their chemical composition. They are both polymers, but they are made through different processes that give each material unique characteristics. Let’s look in a bit more detail at how each fabric meets the key qualities we looked at earlier.
Polyester is moisture-resistant. It can be a good choice for outerwear and is commonly used in coats. Polypropylene is hydrophobic and does not absorb moisture at all.
Polypropylene is sweat-wicking and thus is commonly used for workout gear. It is very quick-drying as well. The downside to both polyester and polypropylene in this area is that they often retain odors.
Polyester is usually considered smooth and comfortable when it is blended with another fabric such as cotton. Polypropylene can be amazingly comfortable if you need an extra layer of warmth, whether you are in the office at work or on the hiking trail. It is often used in cheap but highly effective thermal underwear.
Both polyester and polypropylene are very strong because they are polymers. Though they are made in slightly different ways, they are both essentially melted plastic sprayed out of a nozzle-type extruder. The melted polymer is then shaped in a variety of ways into thread or yarn-type shapes to be made into fabric.
Have you ever tried to rip through a thermal t-shirt? You would have to be really strong! This is a tough fabric. Both polyester and polypropylene are commonly used for rope, webbing, and military gear because of their strength.
Durability is a little tougher to classify. In most ways, both polyester and polypropylene are extremely durable. As mentioned earlier, they are both mildew and water-resistant. They are commonly used for rugs and carpets because of this.
In attire, though, polyester is considerably more durable. It is easily washable and can be dry cleaned. Some polyesters can even be ironed at a low heat (check your clothing labels, though, because you don’t want to melt a hole in your favorite blouse!).
Polypropylene melts easily. You can’t wash it in hot water, it can’t be dry cleaned, and don’t even think about ironing it!
The weight and texture of polyester and polypropylene can vary greatly depending on the intended use and whether or not it is blended with another fabric. Polypropylene is usually a very lightweight fabric since it is used for things like filters in face masks and thermal underwear. Polyester runs the full gamut, from sheer rayon to the deep pile of velvet.
Polypropylene has to be dyed during its formation, which makes it colorfast–since it is entirely unabsorbent, it can’t be dyed later on. Polyester can be dyed, but special synthetic dyes and heat must be applied.
Most polyester garments can be machine-washed. While polyester is washable, some people report that it tends to retain odors. Some laundry experts suggest turning polyester clothes inside out before washing to avoid any snagging during the wash.
Polyester clothes can be tumble-dried on low heat and should retain their shape. You should never expose polyester to high heat, though. Polyester can be dry-cleaned; check clothing labels to find out if your clothing can be washed at home or not.
Polypropylene is a bit more finicky when it comes to care. It is generally suggested that polypropylene fabric be hand washed in cool water and hung outside to dry. Some clothes may be safe to machine wash on a cool setting.
However, Polypropylene is sensitive to heat. It cannot be washed in hot water and it should never be dry cleaned. It will probably melt if you try to iron it. However, it should be safe to go at it with a steamer if it is very wrinkly.
Polyester is used in every imaginable kind of clothing. It holds its shape well, which lends itself to things like pleated dresses. It’s cheap, which makes it an excellent material for mass-produced items like t-shirts. It’s water-resistant, which makes it a popular material for coats and jackets.
Next time you go clothes shopping, check the labels to see what fabric each item is made of. Most of the labels you look at will mention a significant percentage of polyester in the fabric blend.
Polyester is also well-known for its use in athletic wear. As we all know by now, it’s a sweat-wicking material, which keeps you cool while you are working out. It is also breathable and wrinkle-resistant–you can look and feel good while jogging!
Baseball caps are also often made either from polyester or a polyester-cotton blend. The durability and water resistance of polyester make it a great fit for headwear!
Polyester is also used in most of your household linens, from towels to bed sheets to dishrags. The main appeal here is price: polyester can be produced at low cost, which means you, the consumer, can snag a set of polyester-blend bath towels at Target for way cheap.
Polyester is also used in everything from seat belts to mousepads. Polyester is more prevalent than you might think in the sewing world; polar fleece, velvet, broadcloth, rayon, and microfiber are all polyester blends.
Polypropylene is also used in a great variety of clothes, but it is typically used for more specific purposes, like warmth. For example, polypropylene glove liners are an excellent, cheap way to keep your hands toasty.
Let’s talk about thermal underwear! Polypropylene makes excellent base-layer clothing (good base-layer clothing fits close to your skin, wicks moisture, and regulates your temperature. It is worn beneath insulation layers).
The military often uses base layer garments made from polypropylene. The average consumer can buy polypropylene undershirts at low cost as well, though.
Polypropylene also makes excellent thermals/long underwear (a two-piece set consisting of a long sleeve shirt and long pants, meant to be worn under your “real” clothes). If you work in a chilly environment, you might want to consider these for everyday wear. Most people suggest thermals for outdoor use, though–if you plan a winter hike, for example.
For everyday use, polypropylene is a popular material for athletic undershirts. Its sweat-wicking abilities make it great for everything from a light jog to a marathon since it keeps your skin dry and does not irritate your skin while you move.
Besides its better-known uses in athletic wear, rugs and carpets, and various kinds of ropes, polypropylene is used in the interfacing that is sewn into waistbands and hats, in furniture upholstery, and (right now) as a filter in highly effective face masks.
Breathability and Insulation
Both polypropylene and polyester are usually quite breathable (which is one of the reasons they make good workout clothes!). Polyester is typically blended with another fabric to attain good breathability. Polypropylene wins as an insulator hands-down, though. This is why it is so popular as thermal underwear!
Polyester is UV resistant, which means it will not fade in the sun. Polypropylene will fade in direct sunlight. In general, though, both fabrics are durable and will hold both their color and shape very well.
Here’s a cool fact you probably didn’t know! Polypropylene can dissipate an electrostatic charge, which means that this material doesn’t create static electricity! Polyester, however, is a big culprit when it comes to those staticky moments where your hair clings to your sleeves and you feel like bits of lightning are dancing all over you.
Now for the less fun announcement: polypropylene is highly flammable. Clothes made of polypropylene will melt at high heat, which can cause terrible injuries.
Polyester resists ignition, but once it reaches a high enough heat, it will also melt, which can cause very bad burns. This is why you should never take your cute polar-fleece blanket out to the bonfire with you.
It is worth noting that some people are allergic to synthetic fabrics. These fabrics are sometimes treated with harsh chemicals that can irritate sensitive skin. Of course, people can also be allergic to wool, cotton, or silk. If you develop skin irritation after wearing a particular type of fabric, it is a good idea to consult a doctor.
This is what most people consider the serious flaw of synthetic fabrics. They are not biodegradable, and they are so cheap to produce that they comprise a huge percentage of the retail clothing industry. Some polypropylene and polyester items can be recycled, however.
Of course, affordability is one of the most compelling features of both polyester and polypropylene! The military uses these fabrics, the clothing industry depends on them, and consumers have come to expect the kind of pricing that wouldn’t be possible with most natural fabrics.
Pros and Cons of Polyester
Wow, that was a lot! Here’s a quick list to sum up for you:
- Polyester is water-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, and washable. It’s super easy to care for.
- Polyester is sweat-wicking and breathable, which makes it a good material for workout attire.
- Polyester is almost ubiquitous in the world of retail clothing and is quite affordable.
- Polyester is not biodegradable and is a polymer (plastic), which leads to environmental concerns.
- Polyester can cause allergies. There is also some risk that it can melt at high heat.
Pros and Cons of Polypropylene
And another quick summary of the key points:
- Polypropylene is hydrophobic, which makes it a great sweat-wicking material.
- Polypropylene is an excellent insulator and is often used for thermal underwear.
- Polypropylene is not biodegradable and is a polymer (plastic), which leads to environmental concerns.
- Polypropylene is not UV resistant and can fade and disintegrate under direct sunlight.
- Polypropylene cannot handle high heat and must be carefully cared for.
Popular Products Made of Polyester and Polypropylene
Some of your favorite clothes are probably made from a polyester blend. Mass-produced t-shirts, for example, are often made of polyester. Bedding sets, like this one, are often made of polyester because it doesn’t wrinkle easily.
Utopia Bedding Bed Sheet SetThis solid-color bedding set is made from one of the most popular polyester blends for household items: microfiber.
Brushed microfiber is very soft, which makes it perfect for sheets and pillowcases. The moisture-wicking properties of polyester help keep you cool while you sleep.
The bedding set is washable, wrinkle-resistant, and fade-resistant. Polyesters like microfiber are designed to make your life hassle-free!
Women’s Short-Sleeve Crewneck T-ShirtThese Amazon Essential t-shirts are an example of the versatility of polyester. They are mostly polyester with a bit of spandex blended in for added stretch. Their sweat-wicking capability makes them excellent workout attire.
The loose, comfy fit of these shirts also makes them a great item to pair with leggings for a cozy day at home. They are a solid, practical wardrobe choice: they are machine-washable, which makes them easy to care for, and also quite affordable! Of course, they also come in a variety of colors to suit your fashion needs.
Polypropylene is also more prevalent than you might think! You may start to notice polypropylene in tote bags, packaging materials, and even plastic bottles. And of course, you will often find wonderfully insulating items like this one:
Thermal Underwear TopThis is a classic example of 100% polypropylene where it is most useful–as a base layer for cold weather! These American-made shirts are designed to keep you warm and dry no matter how hard you are working or how cold it is outside.
The moisture-wicking fabric is designed to keep you dry even during a sweaty workout, and the cut of the clothing is intended to fit the shirt to your form so you can add insulating layers over the top for added warmth.
These shirts might not be super fancy, but based on the customer reviews, they do the job!
Polypropylene Disposable Face Mask Filter InsertHere we have just one example of the protective polypropylene filters for face masks that are very highly rated. They do not contain dangerous materials such as fiberglass (which is sometimes used in commercial-style air filters). They are safe to breathe through.
These mask inserts are not a medical tool, but they are widely recognized as an effective additional protection when used inside a face mask. Based on customer reviews, they are also soft and comfortable against your skin.
Should You Buy Polyester or Polypropylene?
Now we get down to the real question: which fabric is right for you? Based on what we have learned about polyester and polypropylene, we’ll make a quick assessment.
Both polyester and polypropylene are commonly used to upholster furniture. Polyester upholstery is often considered slightly softer and more comfortable, while polypropylene is more stain-resistant (because, as I’m sure you remember, it can’t absorb any moisture).
Here there is a definite disparity. Polyester is not breathable enough to form a safe face covering. The CDC recommends a tightly woven fabric such as cotton for face coverings. However, using polypropylene as a filter inside a facemask is highly effective.
Sports and Cold Weather Attire
Polyester is a great option for sports attire. It is durable, stretchy, and water-resistant, which means it is unlikely to irritate your skin while you are sweating and moving. Polypropylene is the best cold-weather insulator, though, so if you are looking for thermals of any kind, make sure they are made from polypropylene!
By now, you probably know way more about polyester and polypropylene than you ever thought possible! Do you think polyester or polypropylene will best suit your needs? Leave a comment below to let us know!