Bamboo sheets have been increasing in popularity in recent years—and for good reason. They are sustainable, softer than cotton and linen, naturally hypoallergenic, and moisture absorbing. They also keep you cool in summer and warm in winter. Need we say more?
With more and more bamboo sheets with ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ claims and labels it can be overwhelming to know what to look out for when buying bamboo sheets for the first time. We created this simple guide to help you decode the labels and choose the best bamboo sheets for you. Spoiler: not all bamboo sheets are created equally. Read on if you’d like to learn more about the different bamboo fabrics on the market.
Firstly, it’s important to understand the source of where these different fabrics originate. According to The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA), bamboo is a natural fiber that can be processed mechanically into a natural bast fiber or chemically into a regenerated manufactured fiber. Let’s break down the difference:
- Regenerated cellulose fibers are created by taking natural raw cellulose (plant fiber)—like bamboo or eucalyptus—and then converting it through a chemical process to turn it into fabric. Regenerated cellulose fibers are neither truly synthetic fibers (in the sense of synthetics coming from petroleum) nor natural fibers (in the sense of processing fibers that are produced directly from plants or animals, such as wool).
- Bast bamboo fibers are processed mechanically using the same processes used to produce linen from hemp or flax, with similar sustainability benefits and considerations.
There are four varieties or generations of bamboo fabric on the market today: 100% bamboo viscose (also known as bamboo rayon), 100% bamboo modal, 100% bamboo lyocell and raw bamboo linen fiber. What makes these fabrics different from each other is the process involved in production. With vastly different environmental impacts and chemicals used, it’s important to pay attention to which type of fabric you are purchasing. Follow along as we discuss the generations of bamboo in the order they were developed
1. 100% Bamboo Viscose: The majority of bamboo sheets on the market are made of bamboo viscose, also known as bamboo rayon. Viscose and rayon are essentially synonymous terms; ‘rayon’ is most widely used in North America, while ‘viscose’ is the preferred term in Europe. For this reason, many bedding manufacturers use both terms interchangeably. Bedding products made from bamboo rayon are naturally hypoallergenic and thermoregulating, soft, moisture-wicking, and resist odor and bacteria. Bamboo rayon is very absorbent and takes dye very easily, allowing for a variety of color options.
Sounds great, but there’s a dirty side to the bamboo rayon/viscose production process. Bamboo rayon requires chemically-intensive processes that have harmful impacts on the environment, workers, and local communities. Fabricated in countries where environmental regulations are loose or non-existent, a common solvent used in the production is carbon disulfide. This toxic chemical has been linked to widespread severe and often lethal illness among factory workers, and can cause reproductive harm and damage to the nervous system. Moreover, the recovery of this solvent in most viscose factories is around 50%, which means that the other half goes into the environment–contaminating waterways and endangering aquatic life. With all the negative impacts, it’s no wonder that carbon-disulfide-based viscose manufacturing is no longer permitted in the U.S.
Out of all the bamboo fabrics, bamboo viscose/rayon is generally considered the most toxic and polluting. If you decide to go for bamboo rayon sheets, look for manufacturers with strict effluent treatment protocols and bamboo rayon treated without chlorine-containing bleach and zinc sulphate.
2. 100% Bamboo Modal: Bamboo modal is made with the same chemical process as viscose; however, modal fabrics are put through an extra process to stretch them. This makes modal lighter and finer than viscose and increases the strength of the fibers. Modal is ideal for athletic clothing or uses where the fabric is going to be treated a little more harshly. You can also tumble dry modal, which is something you should avoid with viscose/rayon. Modal’s distinguishing characteristics are its high-wet strength and extra softness. It is sometimes referred to “as soft as a feather” and “the softest fiber in the world.” That said, the modal fabric is usually a little too thin and airy to make for good bedding products.
3. 100% Bamboo Lyocell (CleanBamboo™): ettitude is the first and only company to make CleanBamboo, one of the most sustainable and innovative textile materials of the 21st century. In the lyocell process, raw bamboo pulp is dissolved using a non-toxic solvent, producing non-hazardous effluent. The fiber is created using a closed-loop system that recycles 98% of the water. The result is a first-of-it’s-kind bamboo lyocell fabric that is stronger and softer than bamboo rayon, free from harmful chemicals and requires less energy and water to produce.
4. Bamboo Linen Fiber: Unlike bamboo viscose, modal and lyocell, which use a chemical process to produce fibers, bamboo linen (also known as bast bamboo fiber), is produced mechanically, without chemicals. The process is very similar to the production of common linen fabrics made from hemp or flax. The wooden parts of the bamboo are crushed mechanically before an enzyme retting and washing processes its walls. After the extraction of the bast bamboo fiber (the long, strong, flexible fibers in the inner bark of the plant), it is spun into yarn. The result is a very sustainable fabric that is slightly coarse and wrinkles easily, making it not very suitable for soft and intimate bedding products. A lot of maintenance is involved when buying bamboo linen bedding, as it requires continuous ironing after washing. It’s important to note that bamboo linen makes up a tiny amount of bamboo fabric on the market due to its more labor-intensive and costly process. As bamboo linen requires a lot of human labor, it is important to verify that the manufacturers use good, fair and safe labor practices.
5. Bamboo Cotton Blend: Bamboo can be blended—the most common blends are 60% bamboo rayon, 40% cotton or 70% bamboo rayon, 30% cotton. Blending makes the fabric slightly stronger than 100% pure bamboo. But while stronger, the softness of the material is compromised. And if a cotton component is added, a bamboo blend becomes a less sustainable choice for your bedding. The cotton production industry is labor intensive and involves a lot of chemicals and waste of fresh water. Learn more about how bamboo stacks up to cotton in our Impact Report.
We know how important it is to find the perfect sheets. So, here are our top tips to consider when choosing bamboo bedding:
- Always look at the material label to confirm that you are buying bamboo lyocell or CleanBamboo. In the United States, by law, manufacturers can’t simply mark their products as “100% bamboo.” They have to specify if it’s “bamboo rayon/viscose”, “bamboo linen” or “bamboo lyocell”. In Australia, the regulation is looser, so if the label says “100% bamboo,” ask the manufacturer what exactly it is. Bamboo lyocell and bamboo linen are the more eco-friendly choices.
- We do not recommend bamboo blends as it’s not as sustainable as the three other types of bamboo fabrics.
- Many manufacturers offer a trial period, this is a great option for those who want to feel the fabric and make sure the color matches your decor before committing. We offer a 30-night risk-free sleep trial on eligible bedding items.
Bamboo is a magical plant. It is effective at reducing greenhouse gases and it can morph into many types of products. However, the production process of bamboo beddings will determine the carbon footprint and toxicity of the final product.
Did you also know that not all comforters are created equal? Down alternatives are gaining popularity as a more sustainable option.
Originally published on: Aug 1, 2017. Updated on Nov 12, 2021.