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Tencel vs. Cotton Sheets: What’s the Difference?

Tyler Joseph (TJ) Thomas

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Finding a new set of sheets can be a chore when you have endless options and, with only slight differences between types of bed sheets, don’t know what fabrics are long-lasting and comfortable. The classic fabric cotton has been available for centuries, loved by many for its versatility and accessibility. Although cotton is widely used, other fabrics, including Tencel, are silky and sustainable options providing a fresh twist on traditional bed sheets.

Cotton and Tencel sheets share some similarities: both are breathable, durable, and soft, but they have different finishes, environmental impact, and maintenance needs. In this article, we compare the two popular fabrics and go over what makes each one a great bedding choice.

What is Tencel?

Tencel is the name brand of a lyocell or rayon fabric sourced from eucalyptus trees. Developed in 1972, Tencel is created by extracting cellulose from eucalyptus wood and processing it to become a textile. The product is remarkable for its sustainably sourced materials and eco-friendly production process.

While Tencel is engineered using natural materials, it is considered a synthetic fiber because the actual textile is produced within a lab. It is a fledgling product in the textile industry, namely in comparison to cotton, but the smooth fabric is quickly rising in popularity for its sustainability.

Advantages of Tencel

Tencel’s production is efficient and sustainable, requiring less water and land irrigation than cotton in order to be constructed. Tencel sheets are made via “closed-loop production,” meaning all materials and chemicals used during production are recycled, limiting waste.

Tencel is quite durable, as it’s resistant to pilling and tears. It is hypoallergenic and silky smooth, faring well for individuals with sensitive skin or allergies. Additionally, the lightweight, slick material is moisture-wicking, leading to a cooler and more comfortable night sleep for those prone to overheating—if you’re looking for cooling sheets for hot sleepers, you’ll love Tencel.

The actual feel of Tencel is soft and luxurious, and it has a slight sheen resembling silk. Over time and multiple washes, it becomes even softer, feeling gentle on the skin. For added convenience, Tencel fabric is designed to resist wrinkling, unlike cotton.

Drawbacks of Tencel

Tencel is occasionally a tad finicky maintenance-wise. Although many Tencel sheets are machine washable, others require specific washing instructions, such as colder temperatures, tumble drying on the lowest setting, or line drying. Some Tencel sheets simply need to be dry cleaned, which can become costly and add an extra step to your weekly errands.

While Tencel is a good value, it is often pricier than typical cotton bed sheets—even the highest quality cotton sheet sets. This is due to the demanding and expensive production process. After all the work put into producing Tencel, its ecological footprint is arguably similar to organic cotton.

Some shoppers looking for organic products may be turned away from Tencel due to its semi-synthetic nature. Despite Tencel’s composition of natural materials, it requires lab-processing in order to become a functional fabric.

What is Cotton?

Cotton is soft and fluffy, made of nearly pure cellulose. Originating in India, the natural fiber has been used since approximately 6000 BC and is standard in the fashion industry. Cotton has endless uses and is found in products such as dollar bills, oils, paper products, and clothing. You’ve most definitely felt cotton products at some point, as it is the most widely-used textile globally.

Cotton comes in many varieties, so you can find a few different types of cotton bed sheets including Egyptian, Pima, and Upland cotton sheets. The quality of cotton varies based on its type and specific thread count.

Advantages of Cotton

Cotton is praised as a low maintenance fabric offering great value and is easily machine washable. The material initially feels crisp, cool, and matte, but after every wash, cotton gets softer to the touch.

The quality of cotton depends on the length of the fiber, also known as staples. The longer the fibers, the stronger and smoother the fabric feels. Examples of long-staple cotton include Egyptian and Pima.

The most common short-staple cotton is Upland; however, this weave is also available in medium and long-staple forms. Long-staple fiber is resistant to pilling and is long-lasting, even challenging Tencel’s lengthy lifespan—making cotton fabric a popular bed sheet choice for its durability.

Cotton is made in an assortment of styles and features to suit the needs of nearly any sleeper. Not to mention, cotton sheets are available in a range of prices, making the fabric easily accessible to anyone.

Drawbacks of Cotton

Despite its popularity, cotton has a sizable environmental footprint. In order to produce just one pound of cotton, the equivalent of one t-shirt, it takes about ten thousand liters of water. Keep in mind, roughly 75 percent of textiles contain some form of cotton, so millions of liters of water are used annually to keep up production.

Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are often used when growing cotton, harming the surrounding area and causing soil degradation and erosion. Organic cotton doesn’t contain pesticides or chemicals, but its manufacturing process still has a negative environmental impact. Furthermore, many natural habitats are destroyed to make room to grow cotton plants, leaving wildlife homeless.

Functionally, cotton is notorious for being wrinkly and shrinking in the wash. It traps in moisture and is non-hypoallergenic, making it a potentially poor option for people with sensitive skin or allergies.

Still, much of the stated factors are dependent on the quality of cotton you purchase. Short-staple cotton, while inexpensive, is lower quality and more prone to shrinking, pilling, and wearing down.

Factors To Consider When Shopping

When deciding between Tencel and cotton bed sheets, it’s important to take into account how the sheets feel and the required upkeep before making a purchase.

Maintenance

Both Tencel and cotton are rather low maintenance, and you’re generally fine to clean most cotton and Tencel sheets in your washer and dryer at home. That said, we always suggest checking the specific care label before tossing your sheets in the wash. Tencel is quite wrinkle-resistant and long-lasting, so you won’t need to iron your sheets frequently. Cotton, while more wrinkle-prone, is still incredibly durable.

Feel

Tencel fabric has a smooth, silky feel and a mild sheen. Conversely, cotton is crisp-feeling and more matte, though this varies based on the weave of cotton you purchase. For example, percale cotton is more matte than sateen cotton due to its weave construction.

If you prefer a silky feel to your sheets, Tencel may appeal to you as it’s velvety and non-irritating from the first use, even when compared to slick kinds of cotton such as sateen. Cotton may not start as soft as Tencel, but the feels of the two fabrics are extremely comparable, and cotton softens with time and washes.

Both fabrics are rather breathable, but Tencel is more absorbent than cotton, making it the better option for sweaty sleepers who don’t want damp sheets in the morning.

Thread Count

The smoothness and strength of a sheet set can be determined by the thread count. Thread count is the number of horizontal and vertical threads per square inch of fabric. For example, sheets with 100 vertical threads and 100 horizontal threads are considered 200-count.

A high thread count typically makes for strong and soft sheets, though this is only true in certain situations. In an effort to intrigue buyers, manufacturers inflate thread count by combining strands of low-quality fabric and labeling it as a single thread. When sheets are made with low-quality fabric, they often are rough to the touch and less durable.

The length of cotton fibers is more important than the amount. Staple length—the length of the fibers—best determines the quality of fabric. Generally, high-quality sheets with thread counts between 300 and 500 rank the highest in customer reviews as they are soft, durable, and breathable.

FAQs

Can Tencel be tumble-dried?

Yes, Tencel sheets can be tumble-dried on low heat and low tumble settings, however always check the care instructions to be certain. To prevent wrinkling, remove the sheets from the dryer promptly after the cycle finishes and fold them. In case the sheets do wrinkle, lightly iron them on a low heat setting.

Does Tencel shrink when it’s washed?

Yes, Tencel does shrink by about 3 percent its first wash, but if you care for Tencel sheets properly, they should not shrink or thin out afterward. Always check the care instructions for your sheet set prior to any washing.

What type of cotton is best for bed sheets?

The best type of cotton for bed sheets is subjective and depends on your overall needs, such as prioritizing breathability or price. Generally, Egyptian and Pima are the most popular cotton styles as they are long-lasting, super soft, and durable. For colder winter months, cotton styles such as flannel are very warm and fuzzy to the touch.

Is Tencel worth the high price point?

Although Tencel is typically pricey, it’s worth the value if you’re looking for soft and luxurious bed sheets or have specific sleeping needs. If you’re a hot sleeper or someone with sensitive skin or allergies, you’ll probably like Tencel sheets since they’re hypoallergenic and breathable.

Part of the high cost of Tencel sheets is attributed to their extensive production, from extracting wax out of eucalyptus trees to assembling the textile in a lab. However, this process results in a long-lasting, recyclable, and sustainable fabric for sheets and other bedding.

How long does it take Tencel and cotton to biodegrade?

Both cotton and Tencel are biodegradable textiles. Once buried, Tencel takes roughly 94 days to biodegrade while cotton takes upwards of five months to biodegrade.

Conclusion

Choosing between cotton and Tencel may feel confusing since they are both soft and durable fabrics. Their differences, including their price points and feel, set them apart and can make it easier to decide what you prefer in a bed sheet.

If you have special sleeping concerns, including allergies or sleeping hot, Tencel may be better suited for you because it’s hypoallergenic and absorbent. At the same time, if you’re on a budget and searching for comfort, cotton makes for an outstandingly crisp and widely accessible bed sheet. Either way, both fabrics are valuable in unique ways and can help you get a good night’s sleep.

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