Lyocell is being touted as the sustainable fiber of the future. Let’s break down the pros and cons of lyocell for climate conscious shoppers.
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Lyocell was first commercially produced in Alabama in 1992.
What is lyocell?
Great question! This semi-synthetic fiber is made from wood pulp but isn’t a natural fiber like cotton or hemp.
Its production requires far more technical processing methods and a lot more water, so why is lyocell being touted as the sustainable fiber of the future?
Here are the pros and cons of lyocell fabric, with some background on how this fiber is made and some of the best sustainable brands offering lyocell products.
- Breathable and hygienic
- Good for humid climates
- Requires specific technology to produce
- More expensive than conventional cotton
- Only as sustainable as the source of wood
The benefits of lyocell fabric
1. Lyocell is made using a renewable resource that sequesters carbon
Most lyocell is made from eucalyptus trees. Some lyocell is made with bamboo though, and some with oak, birch, and other types of wood.
Eucalyptus and bamboo are great choices for lyocell production because they grow fast, require minimal inputs (including a lot less water than cotton), and sequester carbon while they grow. Eucalyptus and bamboo are also very good at growing where plant crops don’t grow well. They also grow more densely, requiring around a fifth of the land needed to grow cotton. What’s more, unlike conventional cotton, eucalyptus and bamboo don’t require irrigation or pesticides!
Finally, most lyocell is made using wood sourced from well-managed forests, usually certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
2. Lyocell is 100% biodegradable and compostable
Lyocell is made from wood using non-toxic solvents. This means that if it isn’t blended with synthetic fibers, lyocell only takes a few months to fully biodegrade if exposed to the right conditions. This makes it very similar to cotton, hemp, and linen and vastly different to nylon, polyester, and other plastic-based fibers that can take over a century to even begin biodegrading.
3. Lyocell is made using non-toxic, closed-loop manufacturing
Lyocell production doesn’t create harmful by-products because the solvents involved are non-toxic. And, because lyocell is made in a closed-loop system, around 99.5% of the solvents are reused up to 200 times, meaning very little waste.
Which solvents are used to make lyocell? The main solvent is amino oxide, specifically, N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide, which is recyclable and doesn’t pose a risk to health.
4. Lyocell is strong and soft
Like hemp, lyocell is super strong. This is the case even when lyocell is wet. In fact, lyocell may be even stronger when wet. This is why lyocell is a great fabric for use in medical settings and why lyocell is even used to make conveyor belts and safety equipment!
Despite being super strong, lyocell is also very soft. This is why it’s become a popular fiber for making sateen sheets and soft towels as well as clothing and other household items.
5. Lyocell is great for regulating temperature and wicking away moisture
Lyocell absorbs moisture super well, thanks to its small, hydrophilic fibers. This means lyocell helps us to feel dry and comfortable even when we’re sweating or conditions are humid. No wonder lyocell is increasingly popular for bed sheets and gym clothes!
These moisture-wicking properties also make lyocell useful for bath towels and even diaper inserts, especially because it feels soft, doesn’t irritate sensitive skin, and is breathable too.
6. Lyocell is a more hygienic fabric than many
The breathability of lyocell means it is less likely to harbor bacteria and become smelly and musty. This is one reason why lyocell is increasingly popular for gym goers and for use in damp environments like bathrooms.
Another upside to this breathability is that you won’t have to wash your lyocell items as often as you would the equivalent cotton or synthetic items (which get smelly and unhygienic fast!). Fewer washes means you use less water and energy during the life of a product, which is often the biggest factor in the true sustainability of a fabric.
7. Lyocell can be blended with other fibers (synthetic and natural)
While a great fiber in its own right, lyocell can also be blended with other fibers to confer particular qualities on a fabric. It blends especially well with silk and merino wool to create soft fabrics that are more durable, stretchy, and easier to care for.
Lyocell can also be mixed with cotton, hemp, and linen, as well as synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic.
8. Lyocell is quick and efficient to produce
Lyocell production might sound complicated but it is actually very fast and efficient. From harvesting wood to producing spun fibers ready to knit into fabric, the whole process can take less than three hours. This is exceptional for a semi-synthetic fiber and beats rearing and shearing sheep or alpaca, then cleaning, carding, and spinning wool into yarn.
The result of this speedy process is greater potential yields of fiber and more efficient use of water (about 20% less than for cotton), energy, and human resources. It also makes lyocell a good on-demand fabric that, with the right technology, can be produced in a variety of locations very quickly.
9. Lyocell can be easily dyed with non-toxic dyes
Lyocell is very absorbent, which makes it great for use in towels and also very easy to dye. Unlike with some natural fibers, like wool, lyocell doesn’t need to be treated with chemicals to make it more amenable to taking on color. Instead, lyocell can be dyed like regular cotton, meaning no need for toxic chemicals and carcinogenic azo dyes.
The downsides of lyocell fabric
There are very few downsides to lyocell. In fact, there are only three I can think of!
1. Lyocell can be a bit more costly than other fabrics
You need specific technology and skills to make lyocell, which means it can be a bit more expensive to produce than some other fibers such as wool or hemp. That said, depending on where you set up production, there can be huge savings in the transportation of raw materials.
Lyocell also offers opportunities for savings in terms of energy, human resources, water, and other inputs. Finally, the durability of lyocell means it’s a great investment for the final consumer. Sure, lyocell can cost a bit more, but its price per year will be far lower than throwaway fast fashion items made with inferior fibers.
2. Lyocell can be a bit delicate and need special care
Despite being very durable and strong, lyocell can also be a bit delicate. The fibers can be damaged by high heat and rough use. This means it’s best not to iron lyocell using direct high heat and to minimize machine drying.
The good news is that lyocell doesn’t really wrinkle, so you’ll have little need to iron it anyway! If you do want to iron an item containing lyocell, such as a blended fabric item, put a pressing cloth between the iron and the fabric and use low heat for just a couple of seconds.
For 100% lyocell items, it’s usually best to handwash using gentle soap, then very gently squeeze out the water and hang to dry. Avoid twisting or wringing lyocell fabrics and use a hanger to dry tops or sweaters, so they regain their shape faster. If the garment feels stiff after drying, a few minutes in the dryer with a dry towel can help soften it up.
For items made with lyocell and other fibers, you’re more likely to be able to machine wash on a gentle cycle and dry on a low heat cycle. Always follow the care instructions where available.
3. Lyocell is vulnerable to greenwashing
Less an issue with lyocell itself and more an issue of marketing, lyocell is especially vulnerable to greenwashing. This is because the fiber and fabric allow companies to make certain claims regarding sustainability without being transparent about sourcing, manufacture, and other processes.
Lyocell may also make up just a tiny fraction of a garment or product but be the main focus of branding and marketing. If the rest of the item comprises virgin synthetic fibers or conventional cotton, the overall sustainability is very poor.
In short, not all lyocell is made equally. The fabric is only truly sustainable when made using:
- Responsibly sourced raw materials from sustainably managed forests (look for Forest Stewardship Council certification or similar)
- Minimal energy inputs (ideally from renewables)
- Non-toxic dyes and other chemical inputs
- A fairly compensated and well-treated workforce
- Minimal water inputs
- Best practices for environmental management.
Lyocell vs. cotton
Lyocell shines as a replacement for cotton. Some of the best uses for lyocell are applications where cotton or silk are traditionally used. This can include clothing and household textiles, plus medical uses, paper, and conveyor belts.
One increasing use of lyocell is in activewear. This isn’t surprising given that lyocell is far more absorbent than cotton and much more breathable and hygienic than synthetic fabrics like polyester.
It’s also a great choice year-round because it helps the wearer regulate their temperature and can minimize skin irritation in warmer climates.
Lyocell is a fantastic choice for travelers too! The lightweight fabric stays fresh for longer, but can be quickly washed by hand and dries fast. It also doesn’t take up much suitcase space, is suitable for warmer and cooler climates, and is soft, cozy, wrinkle-free, and looks fantastic.
Lyocell fabric FAQ
Lyocell is a plant-based fiber, just like viscose and rayon. However, viscose and rayon both require significant inputs of toxic chemicals, including sodium hydroxide solvents, and are not as breathable and moisture-wicking as lyocell. Think of lyocell as the third generation of cellulose fiber production, or the grown-up, sustainable version of viscose.
Lyocell isn’t a natural fiber like wool, hemp, and cotton, but isn’t totally synthetic like polyester and nylon, which are made with petrochemicals. Instead, lyocell falls somewhere in between, making it a semi-synthetic fiber.
The raw materials for lyocell come from natural sources, namely wood. But you can’t just chop up some eucalyptus, strip down some fibers and get knitting. Instead, the wood has to be processed using synthetic chemicals, albeit non-toxic ones.
To make lyocell, you need to first harvest some wood. This is usually eucalyptus, but can be bamboo, oak or birch. Next, you chip the wood into tiny pieces and dissolve it into sticky raw cellulose by adding solvents. At this stage, the cellulose structure is still the same.
Nothing has changed chemically, but the cellulose fibers are becoming looser and more easily accessible.
The next step is to heat the wood pulp solution and break it down further using amine oxide, another non-toxic solvent. You then filter the cellulose solution and spin it to create long, thin fibers. Once you have the fibers in hand, you wash and dry them and lubricate them to make it easy to spin into a usable yarn.
Finally, the fibers are woven into lyocell fabric which can then be cut and used to make all manner of textile products.
When choosing lyocell products, then, look for brands that are transparent about sourcing and how and where their lyocell is manufactured. Ideally, this means Benefit Corporations (B Corps), Fair Trade certified companies, and those adhering to strict ethical and environmental standards.
Some of our favorite sustainable brands that use lyocell include:
Ettitude (for towels, robes, sheets, and more!) – See our review
Under the Canopy (for towels)
Boob Design (for sustainable maternity wear)
Reformation (for sustainable swimwear and more)
Nuna (uses lyocell for car seat covers!)
Toad & Co.
Le Slip (great for sweaters).
Sustainable brands should also be committed to reducing emissions (such as by avoiding air-freight) and that use minimal packaging that’s plastic-free. Even better, look for companies that have upcycling and recycling closed loop programs and that are zero-waste or close, like Ettitude!