Polyester vs Cotton: What's the Difference?

Polyester vs Cotton: What's the Difference?


Polyester vs Cotton

Most people’s main priority when buying a new item of clothing is how it looks. And we get it: you could care less about what material a shirt is made from if the style matches your tastes and the fit is perfect. But taking a look at that little tag inside a shirt, or scrolling down the page to “details and care” can tell you a lot about how that garment will feel and perform over time.

Whether you’re looking for a casual dress shirt or a versatile pair of pants, polyester and cotton are the two most common fabrics you’ll come across. Knowing the differences between them will better equip you to choose the right apparel and make sure your hard-earned money is well spent.

Polyester vs Cotton

Alright, let’s start with the basics. What is polyester? Polyester is a synthetic material made from petroleum. It’s also a relatively new material: the polymer was first invented in the 1930s and by the 1970s it was competing with natural fabrics, like cotton.

If you’ve ever tried on a vintage shirt from that era (you know the kind: shiny fabric, retro print, loud colors), you’ll remember how uncomfortable they can be. But you should also know that polyester has evolved tremendously since the 1970s and has been adapted for comfort and performance. In fact, polyester and polyester blends have ushered in a new era of high-performance wear. Even team USA sported uniforms made with recycled polyester at the 2022 Olympics.

Next up to bat is cotton. Cotton is a natural textile derived from—you guessed it—the cotton plant. The material has been around for thousands of years (we’re talking since 5,000 BC) and is still the most commonly worn fabric in the world.

That’s not for nothing. Cotton owes its popularity not only to the fact that it is comfortable: it’s also easy to process and incredibly versatile. Fabrics like denim, corduroy, and even velvet are largely made from cotton. That’s right: there’s a high chance your t-shirt and jeans are made from the same material fibers.

It’s all well and good to know where your clothes come from, but it doesn’t really say much about how they function or how they feel on your body. So let’s take a look at the key differences between polyester and cotton and what they mean for you.

The Pros and Cons of Polyester

Let’s kick it off with the new kid on the block (so to speak): polyester.

Pros of Polyester

  • Moisture-wicking
  • Strong and durable
  • Shrink resistant
  • Wrinkle resistant
  • Withstands stretch
  • Lightweight
  • Low-maintenance care

Cons of Polyester

  • Made from a non-renewable resource (petroleum)
  • Not breathable
  • Certain blends can cling to the skin (i.e. static)

Pros and Cons of Cotton

Now let’s turn to a fabric that’s been around for, oh, only several thousands of years: cotton.

Pros of Cotton

  • Made from a renewable resource (cotton)
  • Breathable
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Comfortable on the skin

Cons of Cotton

  • Shrinkable
  • Stainable
  • Fades over time
  • Moisture absorbent
  • Moth food

The Environmental Impact of Polyester and Cotton

Now there’s one last angle we want to cover in this head-to-head: sustainability. Both polyester and cotton have an environmental footprint, but the nature of this impact is totally different.

As we said, polyester is a man-made material derived from petroleum. As a fossil fuel, petroleum is non-renewable, meaning that once the natural resource is tapped out, it’s actually gone. As a plant-based fabric, cotton ranks higher for renewability. Cotton crops are harvested and regrown year after year for an ever-lasting supply of cotton fibers.

Cotton is also easily recyclable and biodegradable. Polyester, on the other hand, does not break down naturally and—like other plastics—pollutes ecosystems. Fortunately, it is possible to recycle polyester and make new clothing fibers from used fabrics and even other plastic products like water bottles.

If it seems like cotton is the clear sustainable choice, we should point out that polyester manufacturing consumes less water than cotton production. It also sidesteps other farming-related sustainability issues, such as pesticides, which contaminate water and land. Overall, both cotton and polyester impact the environment; it’s just helpful to understand what exactly those impacts are.

The Final Word

In the end, both cotton and polyester garments merit a place in your closet. Cotton and other natural fabrics offer a great option when you need breathability. Polyester and synthetic blends are the top choices if you’re looking for high-performance and low-maintenance attire.

And really, we can’t emphasize low maintenance enough. Our poly-blend shirts are designed to be washed and dried (hung or in the dryer) without succumbing to wrinkles. In other words, if you feel the time spent painstakingly ironing a cotton shirt could be better spent catching up with friends, grilling a killer meal, or fine-tuning your fantasy team, polyester could be the textile for you.