In recent years, increasingly more synthetics have been labelled as ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’. This has led to some confusion about what is really natural and what isn’t. One material that people often get confused about is Tencel. Synthetic fibers are generally considered not eco-friendly while natural fibers are. Most people agree Tencel is safe for the environment but many are not too sure if Tencel is actually natural or synthetic.
So what’s really going on?
While Tencel share many of the same properties as natural fibers, Tencel is classified as a semi-synthetic fiber because it is a man-made textile. However, unlike most synthetic fibers that are made from petrochemicals, Tencel is manufactured from wood pulp that is sourced from sustainable forests.
- Why is Tencel classified as a semi-synthetic fiber?
- What is the difference between Tencel and synthetic fibers?
- What is the difference between Tencel and natural fibers?
- Does this mean that Tencel™ is not as good as natural fiber?
- To wrap up
Why is Tencel classified as a semi-synthetic fiber?
What are natural fibers?
Britannica defines natural fiber as any hair-like raw material that is directly sourced from an animal, vegetable or mineral source and spun into yarn.
Examples of natural fiber include cotton, hemp, flax, wool and silk.
What are synthetic fibers?
Synthetic fibers are made from small molecules of plastics. Petroleum-based chemicals go through chemical processes and hair-like strands are extracted using a spinneret.
Examples of synthetic fibers are polyester, nylon and elastane.
What are semi-synthetic fibers?
Tencel™ and bamboo are rayons, a class of semi-synthetic fibers sourced from plant cellulose that have been chemically processed to form the finished product.
The raw material for Tencel is derived from wood pulp, which is a natural plant source. However, similar to synthetic fibers, the wood pulp goes through chemical processes to dissolve it. This solution is pumped through spinnerets to form long strands of Tencel fiber.
This is why Tencel can’t be called a truly natural fiber. However, it isn’t really a synthetic one either and doesn’t contain microplastics. Even though Tencel is more natural than synthetic, its properties lie somewhere between the two.
This Eileen Fisher Tencel and silk top feels far from synthetic:
What is the difference between Tencel and synthetic fibers?
There is a vast difference between Tencel and synthetic fibers.
While most synthetic clothes are made from petrochemicals that are bad the for environment, Tencel is made from wood pulp that is sourced from sustainable forests.
Unlike synthetics, the chemicals used to manufacture Tencel are low-toxicity and 99% are recovered for re-use rather than let out into the environment.
Being plant-based, Tencel is also naturally breathable and moisture-wicking, which helps reduce body odor and bacterial growth. For a synthetic fabric to achieve the same qualities, it needs to be treated and finished with even more toxic chemicals, many of which have been linked to allergic reactions, cancer and organ damage.
Polyester and the likes also release microplastics into the water when washed whereas Tencel doesn’t.
The icing on the cake? Tencel is biodegradable and compostable.
This Icebreaker Tencel-merino T-shirt is a great non-toxic alternative to chemical-laden polyester sportswear:
What is the difference between Tencel and natural fibers?
The main difference between Tencel and other natural fibers except bamboo is that it’s chemically and mechanically processed to achieve the lustrous Tencel yarn that we use. Cotton, linen, hemp and other plant-fibers don’t need to go through chemical processes to extract the fiber strands.
Unlike many natural fibers, Tencel lyocell is pure white when produced, so it doesn’t need harsh bleaching.
And the biggest plus in my books is that it’s naturally anti-wrinkle, which is a nice change from easily-crumpled linen and cotton.
There is no need to iron this Tencel dress and it can be easily stuffed into suitcases – the perfect travel companion.
Does this mean that Tencel™ is not as good as natural fiber?
Tencel™ is just as good, if not better than natural fiber. I’ll tell you why.
When I say ‘good’, I look at it from 3 main angles – whether it is sustainably produced, if it is safe to wear and use, and whether it is biodegradable.
The raw material for Tencel™ is exclusively sourced from responsibly-farmed birch and eucalyptus forests, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to be sustainable.
The raw material then goes through chemical and mechanical processes with N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMNO). Even then, 99% of the NMNO used is recovered and recycled rather than released into the environment.
In fact, the manufacturing of Tencel™ uses less water than growing and processing cotton.
Even though this video is uploaded by Lenzing, it shows you how Tencel is made and why it’s sustainable:
The chemical N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMNO) that is used to process Tencel™ is considered to be low-toxicity. After processing, Lenzing (the company that produces Tencel™) has their Tencel™ fibers OEKO-TEX certified by a third party organization. This means you can be assured Tencel™ is free from residual harmful chemicals.
Just keep in mind that generic lyocell is not Tencel™ and therefore, not necessarily certified as safe. And if the Tencel™ yarn is blended with other fibers or a toxic dye is used to color the finished product, it might not be safe either.
If safe and non-toxic Tencel™ apparel is important to you, only buy from eco-friendly fashion brands who use Tencel™ branded yarn, use non-toxic dyes, and have their clothing OEKO-TEX certified.
Eileen Fisher is a sustainable fashion brand who only uses Tencel branded lyocell in their clothes:
Tencel is biodegradable
Even though it is a semi-synthetic fiber, unlike synthetic products that takes centuries to degrade, Tencel™ can fully biodegrade within the year. In fact, you can compost Tencel™ in your backyard compost bin.
However, in the real world, things are not so simple. Tencel™ is used in a range of clothing from baby clothes to underwear to activewear. Tencel™ has many great properties but it’s not stretchy (not many fibers are). You’ll find most Tencel™ clothing, especially activewear, made of a blend of Tencel™ and elastane.
Sadly, Tencel™ is not be biodegradable if it is blended with synthetic material like polyester or elastane.
To wrap up
Even though Tencel is a semi-synthetic fiber, it shares many characteristics with natural fibers and is also one of the most eco-friendly fibers on the market.