As part of a wave of bamboo-based products, bamboo sheets have become popular in recent years. Bamboo is often touted as an eco-friendly fiber beloved by many, largely because bamboo grows fast and is a carbon sink and, well, because pandas write most of the product reviews. Just kidding. As with many things, though, bamboo is a little more complicated than it seems at first. Let’s look at the pros and cons of bamboo for bed sheets.
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The advantages of bamboo for sheets
Bed sheets made with bamboo are typically good at wicking away moisture and have some natural anti-odor and antibacterial qualities.
Bamboo is an astonishingly versatile and strong plant that has a wide range of uses. It can grow up to four feet in a day, absorbs five times more carbon dioxide than most other trees, and produces around 35% more oxygen. It regenerates itself quickly after harvesting and requires little water and no pesticides to grow well.
So, bamboo must be a super eco-friendly option for bed sheets, right? Not so fast.
Some of the qualities that make bamboo a fantastic choice for an eco-friendly flooring material also make it rather problematic for use in producing soft textiles.
The downside of bamboo
Bamboo is naturally incredibly strong. It is used in bridge-building and even for prefabricated eco-homes! It can act as a significant windbreak and can withstand hurricanes and tornadoes.
Understandably, then, to make bamboo into soft, supple fibers that can be woven to make bed sheets, something serious has to happen to the raw material. This process can be done mechanically but is most often done using harsh chemicals.
Mechanical processing of bamboo is very labor intensive and time consuming, so not very economically viable. Products are available using mechanically produced bamboo, however, including clothing and bed sheets, but it’s hard to know how a company making these textiles sources their bamboo.
Why does it matter whether soft bamboo fibers are created by mechanical or chemical means? Well, chemically produced bamboo involves the use of chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid, and results in a product called viscose rayon. These chemicals cause hazardous air and water pollution and endanger factory workers.
Bamboo rayon makes up most of the bamboo fabrics currently on the market, including bamboo bed sheets. To make bamboo rayon, bamboo fibers (cellulose) are dissolved in a strong solvent, with the resulting pulpy mass then extruded through a spinneret and into a second solvent that hardens the fibers to make threads. The manufacture of bamboo viscose is slightly less chemically intensive than for bamboo rayon, but viscose is not as soft as rayon.
It’s not unusual for bamboo rayon and viscose manufacture to involve the use of:
- Lye (sodium hydroxide)
- Chlorine bleach (which poses a risk of dioxin exposure)
- Sulfuric acid
- Carbon disulfide
Only around half of the chemicals involved in this process are recovered and reused. The rest end up in waterways as part of the huge amount of waste water generated by bamboo fiber production.
Is there a better bamboo fiber for textiles?
If you love the feel, look, and other qualities of bamboo textiles, check out lyocell (brand name Tencel). This is a much better option than viscose rayon and is kind of like the grown up, sustainable cousin to viscose rayon. Not all lyocell is made with bamboo (most is made with eucalyptus), but all lyocell is a semi-synthetic fiber made using similar processes to viscose rayon but with non-toxic solvents in a closed loop process.
This means that around 99% of the chemicals and water used to soften the cellulose fibers are recycled and reused up to 200 times or so. Bamboo lyocell is also very absorbent, allowing for the use of non-toxic dyes instead of harsh dyes such as carcinogenic azo dyes.
Not all lyocell is made the same though, and not all is sustainable. Find out more here.
100% bamboo, natural bamboo, and bamboo linen
Some companies use more traditional ‘softening’ methods for bamboo that take longer and use less harsh chemicals or natural fermentation, which means a much lower environmental impact but a much higher price.
When bamboo is processed into yarn using a combination of a machine and natural enzymes, this is usually referred to as bamboo linen or is labelled as “100% bamboo” without the ‘rayon’ or ‘viscose’ qualifier.
It used to be that these naturally derived bamboo fibers weren’t as soft as rayon made from bamboo (or other plant materials). This made it pretty easy to tell if a manufacturer was misleading you with those spurious ‘100% bamboo’ claims; if something said it was made with bamboo but felt soft to the touch, chances were that the company was falsely advertising that product and contravening textile labeling regulations.
Now, though, there may well be some natural and eco-friendly bamboo bed sheets on the market that feel just as soft as rayon bamboo and may even last longer. The problem is that the Swiss company, Litrax AG, seems to have dropped the product they spent years refining.
Litrax AG dedicated around four years, between 2005 and 2010, to developing a process to create soft, spinnable bamboo fibers using a finely tuned cocktail of natural, environmentally friendly enzymes to break down bamboo without toxic chemicals. Finally, in 2010, Litrax-1® was created and announced to great fanfare.
This fiber, extracted directly from the stalk of the bamboo plant, is processed mechanically and enzymatically into a soft, luxurious fiber. The process is similar to that used to create linen, but the fiber itself is as soft as cashmere and retains the breathability and moisture wicking properties of bamboo. It also absorbs odors, feels cool in warm weather, has a silky sheen, and has received Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 certification; the company even said they’d provide a special DNA coding for the fibers so that customers could be certain they were buying a product made with Litrax-1 (R).
So, what’s the problem with Litrax-1? Well, put simply, it seems to have vanished. Litrax themselves no longer mention it on their website and neither do their partners who tested the fiber and used it to create yarns back in 2010. Litrax-1, touted as a genuinely eco-friendly bamboo fiber, appears to have never made it to market.
I’ve contacted Latrix but am yet to hear back. So, for now, my best guess is that the company realized it wasn’t economically viable and focused their efforts on other textiles. There were early indications that cost might be a problem, with Latrix themselves stating quite clearly in early press releases that they intended to go after high-end fashion houses as clients because these were the only ones who would be able to afford the fiber.
While it seems that Latrix-1 is no longer an option for eco-friendly bamboo sheets, other companies may have taken up the mantel. Mulberry Threads, for instance, are arguably one of the most eco-friendly options for bamboo sheets, although their products aren’t widely available and their process isn’t entirely transparent.
Mulberry Threads claim not to use harmful chemicals in making their products and instead break down organically grown bamboo into fibers by crushing the raw material and applying a natural enzyme to break it down. These fibers are then spun into yarn to make their bed sheets and sleepwear. Their bamboo products are Oeko-tex certified and made using a closed-loop process. They also package their bedding in reusable sleeping bags made with the leftover fabric from production.
If you’re looking for eco-friendly bamboo sheets, then, Mulberry Threads is a great option. Ettitude is another excellent option, offering sustainably sourced lyocell (made using 100% bamboo).
When 100% bamboo isn’t bamboo
Bamboo rayon is the product of a chemical process and, interestingly, chemically produced bamboo fibers don’t seem to have the same natural properties as bamboo produced by mechanical means. So much so that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) clamped down in 2009 and again in 2013 and 2015 on manufacturers who were effectively ‘greenwashing’ their toxic bamboo products.
“With the tremendous expansion of green claims in today’s marketplace, it is particularly important for the FTC to address deceptive environmental claims, so that consumers can trust that the products they buy have the environmentally friendly attributes they want,” David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.“
The FTC also noted that the natural antimicrobial properties of bamboo were lost in the chemical bath of conventional manufacture, meaning that the claims made by the companies cited were misleading at best. These companies were also cultivating a green image for products that were decidedly not eco-friendly, given the detrimental environmental impact of rayon manufacture and because rayon and viscose don’t break down very well in landfill, and may just leach toxic chemicals when they finally do degrade.
Who are the companies in question? Some big brand names, including, in 2015, J.C. Penney, Backcountry.com, buybuy BABY (part of Bed Bath & Beyond), and Nordstrom. These companies settled with the FTC and agreed to pay a total of $1.3 million for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the agency’s Textile Rules (R). In 2013, the culprits were Amazon.com, Inc.; Leon Max, Inc.; Macy’s, Inc.; and Sears, Roebuck and Co. and its Kmart subsidiaries, Kmart Corporation and Kmart.com. These companies agreed to pay penalties totaling $1.26 million (R).
All in all, it’s nice to have an active and assertive Bureau of Consumer Protection who go after this kind of greenwashing.
So, if you really want bamboo sheets, choose mechanically processed bamboo or bamboo lyocell. The traditionally processed stuff won’t be as soft as cotton, hemp, or flax, and will cost more, while the lyocell is super soft, strong, and a little less costly than the fermented stuff.
Companies to consider for bamboo bed sheets
Mulberry Threads are, as mentioned above, arguably your best option for eco-friendly bamboo sheets. If you’re on a budget, though, and still want bamboo sheets, Ettitude Bamboo Lyocell Sheets are a fantastic choice too. (Ettitude also makes bamboo lyocell waffle towels, which I love! Read my review here.)
Ettitude make sheets with organic bamboo Lyocell and have OEKO-TEX certification for their manufacturing process. They promise to only use non-toxic, eco-friendly dyes in their products, source their bamboo sustainably, and work with a manufacturing partner that is certified by Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) for safe, human, and ethical working practices.
PlushBeds are also a mostly eco-minded company that offers Tencel sheets.
In general, though, bamboo is not the best choice of natural materials for bed sheets or other household textiles or clothing. It’s far better suited to use as flooring, fencing, for kitchen utensils, and for use as a building material if you’re designing and building an eco-friendly home.
This was SO informative! I bought bamboo-undies (Boody) and they are so comfortable, but I couldn’t find enough research (google) to make me confident that they were truly eco-friendly although certainly better than conventional cotton. After I was targeted for bamboo-bedsheets, I looked around and again for info on bamboo textiles but everything kept pointing to it being mixed with rayon. Your article confirms my feelings, thank you.
Thank you so much for giving such clear, and clearly honest information. I am rethinking my idea of getting bamboo bed sheets, and looking at organic cotton or linen instead!