Differences Between Microfiber and Cotton
In the last decade, microfiber has become the cloth of choice for much of the custodial cleaning industry. Manufacturers of the high-tech fabric say it offers a host of benefits over traditional cotton, but many facility and housekeeping managers still stock their janitorial closets with both cotton and microfiber cleaning cloths.

“You want the best outcome for every space,” says Marita Nash, director of environmental services and linen at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, New Jersey. “To get the cleanest surface possible, you have to find the appropriate product, make it available to cleaning staff, and be sure they know how to use it correctly.”


Before purchasing new cloths and mops for the department though, it’s important to understand the differences between cotton and microfiber, and the benefits of reusable and disposable products.


Microfiber vs. Cotton

While cotton is a natural fiber, microfiber is made from synthetic materials, typically a polyester-nylon blend. Microfiber is very fine — as much as 1/100th the diameter of a human hair — and about one-third the diameter of a cotton fiber.


Cotton is breathable, gentle enough that it won’t scratch surfaces and very inexpensive to purchase. Unfortunately, it has a lot of drawbacks: It pushes dirt and debris rather than picking it up, and it is made of organic materials that can harbor odor or bacteria. It also requires a break-in period to disperse the cotton seed oil, dries slowly and leaves lint behind.


Microfiber is highly absorbent (it can hold up to seven times its weight in water), making it very effective at actually picking up and removing soil from a surface. It also has a long lifespan when properly used and maintained, and is lint-free. Microfiber has only a few limitations — it comes with a much higher upfront cost than cotton, and it requires special laundering.

But cleaning experts say, when compared side-by-side, microfiber is clearly superior to cotton. So why do so many users continue to cling to cotton?


“People are resistant to change,” says Darrel Hicks, industry consultant and author of Infection Prevention for Dummies. “I can’t believe people are still holding onto cotton as being a viable product when it just doesn’t stand up to microfiber.”


Choosing Between Cotton and Microfiber
Cotton advocates say the material is a good choice when bleach or acidic chemicals are required, because they can break down and destroy microfiber cloths. They also prefer to use cotton on rough surfaces such as concrete, which could tear up a microfiber pad. Finally, they say cotton is helpful for mopping up large amounts of liquid because its fibers are longer and able to hold more than microfiber.

“We use a traditional closed-loop cotton-blend mop if there’s a heavy bioburden,” Nash says. “Microfiber would push around a big mess of bodily fluids, but it wouldn’t pick it up. You don’t want to stand there and use 10 microfiber cloths versus one traditional mop head. Of course, we go back over the surface with microfiber once the debris is removed.”

Hicks argues that there’s no situation where cotton outperforms microfiber. Even in the scenarios above, he says, microfiber would be a better choice than cotton, which only spreads soil and bacteria around, rather than picking up and removing it.

“Until microfiber, cotton was the only option,” Hicks says. “Microfiber came along 15 years ago and completely changed the old rag-and-bucket way of doing things. Microfiber has improved the cleaning process in a revolutionary way.”


Better With Microfiber

Most argue that nine out of 10 times, microfiber will outperform cotton. When it comes to window cleaning, microfiber can trap dirt to prevent smearing and doesn’t leave lint behind. For floor finish, lightweight microfiber allows a user to more easily apply thin, smooth coats. Microfiber dusts without leaving lint and polishes without scratching or streaking.
Microfiber is also a more ergonomic choice than cotton. That’s because it requires less water. Using 10 to 30 times less liquid means microfiber weighs significantly less than cotton, which helps reduce the likelihood of injuries from lifting, moving, and wringing out a mop. Some argue it also means there are fewer slip-and-fall accidents because floors dry faster.

Reduced water usage, as well as less need for chemicals in the cleaning process, also makes microfiber the cloth of choice for facilities concerned with environmental sustainability. In fact, microfiber rags and mops contribute to credits toward the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance program.

The biggest benefit of microfiber, however, is for healthcare, schools and other markets that put a high priority on infection control. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that extremely fine microfiber removes up to 98 percent of bacteria and 93 percent of viruses from a surface using only water. Cotton, on the other hand, removes only 30 percent of bacteria and 23 percent of viruses.
“Microfiber is most effective at removing germs and bacteria when you’re disinfecting,” says Jonathan Cooper, director of environmental and linen services at Orlando Health Central Hospital, Ocoee, Florida. “We’ve done ATP tests with both microfiber and cotton and we verified we were doing much better removal of bacterial with microfiber.”

Cooper says the hospital has seen a reduction in its overall infection rates since it dumped cotton in favor of microfiber products four years ago.

Microfiber also eliminates the problem of quat binding, which occurs when fabrics attract the active ingredients in quat-based disinfectants and reduce their efficacy. Experts comment that this is a big problem with cotton.