A Full Comparison: Elastane vs Spandex, Is There A Difference?

Both elastane and spandex need no introduction. They’re present in nearly every pair of underwear, your newest yoga pants, the latest athletic wear, your intimates, jeans, socks, and basically any material that requires some stretch.

So, what’s the deal with elastane vs spandex? As it stands, the two terms are often confused for one another, or in this case, alike.

The truth is quite simple. Elastane and spandex are essentially the same material. If you want to, you can even use them interchangeably!

However, although the differences between the term elastane vs spandex are simple enough to explain, the material’s contributions to environmental impact tend to be more nuanced.

Spandex Fibers vs Elastane Fibers

Elastane Fabric
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Photo by Divazus Fabric Store on Unsplash

Generally, spandex is the term more often used in North America, while the word elastane tends to be used more in Europe. Both of these are general terms, and there’s really no difference between the two.

Nevertheless, the term elastane was first used for the material in question. Spandex then emerged as a play on words relating to what the material does, which is to expand or stretch.

For all intents and purposes, elastane vs spandex is an empty comparison. While they might have slight differences depending on the manufacturer, they aren’t meant to be two different things.

The Origin of Elastane Fabric

Spandex being sewed
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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Like many of the synthetic fabrics we use today, the discovery of elastic fibers such as elastane only occurred in the last century or so.

The stretchy material can be traced back to the 1950s when DuPont began developing a synthetic fiber that could replace rubber.

Company chemist Joseph Shivers was experimenting with polyester modifications in hopes of creating a resilient synthetic fabric that would stretch.

After nearly ten years of research, spandex was born!

Today, we use it in nearly everything requiring stretch. From your stretch denim jeans and leggings to your cotton underwear and socks, the term spandex appears on clothing tags more often than we realize.

Is Lycra the Same Material as Spandex?

Lycra fabric
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Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Another word that’s popular in the elastane vs. spandex conversation is Lycra. You’ll often see brands in the clothing industry attributing the stretch in their clothing to Lycra.

However, Lycra is no different from elastane or spandex and is made of the same material. Lycra fiber is just a brand name referring to the same material.

As we’ve mentioned before, there might be slight differences in the manufacturing process. Lycra, for example, markets its elastane as a step up from other brands. But on the fundamental level, they’re no different from each other.

When talking about Lycra vs. spandex vs. elastane, think Chapstick to lip balm or Sharpie to permanent marker. Lycra is the household brand name for spandex, but it’s by no means the only brand name in existence!

Other brands for spandex are Elaspan, Creora, INVIYA, and a couple of others. Any of your elastane material can come from these select brands.

How Is Elastane Made?

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Elastane is a synthetic fiber. This means that it’s created through a series of material chemical reactions that give the fabric its ability and function.

The two materials mainly required to make elastane are a long-chain polymer and a short-chain polymer: a macroglycol and a diisocyanate. The macroglycol can be polyester or other long-chain prepolymers.

There are a couple of ways to manufacture spandex. The one we’ll be describing is called solution dry spinning and is the most commonly used method.

These two prepolymers are combined to create polyurethane, which is the main component in elastane. However, to initiate this polymerization, there need to be catalysts and amines to control the molecular weight of the fiber.

On top of all that, certain additives are integrated into the elastane fiber to give it all of the properties for which it is popular.

Stabilizers such as monomeric and polymeric hindered phenols, UV screeners, mildew-protecting compounds, and others are added to the mix. These help the fabric stay water resistant and unaffected by heat.

Once this solution is achieved, the resulting material can then be run through the spinneret. Here, the solution is extruded through several small holes and treated with additional solvents and chemicals to make it solid.

The resulting fibers are then spun and twisted together until the desired thickness is achieved. The result is further treated with a finishing agent before being woven together with other fibers like cotton or polyester.

The fabric may also then be dyed to the manufacturer’s liking.

That’s what making elastane is. It’s a chemically inclined process that could involve toxic chemicals that need to be completely removed from the product before it’s safe for use.

In other words, spandex material is created through a chain of chemical reactions that eventually result in a piece of stretchy fabric.

What Is Elastane Used For?

Fabric made from elastane
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Elastane is a polyether-polyurea copolymer. It can be stretched up to 5x more than its original shape and size. Elastane fabric, or spandex, is used for any garment that might need a stretch factor.

Additionally, spandex is incredibly lightweight, abrasion-resistant, and isn’t affected by body odor and body fluids.

You’ll find it in yoga pants, sports bras, athletic wear, intimates, leggings, denim, and all other sorts of men’s and women’s clothing.

But most of these fabrics are not made of 100% elastane fiber. In fact, most of them probably contain just a small percentage of it.

Natural fibers like cotton or synthetic materials like polyester are often combined with spandex to make them stretchier and more durable.

The higher the percentage of elastane, the more elastic the clothing piece will be.

A higher percentage may be required for more performance-oriented pieces like athletic clothing, where the user needs optimum pressure comfort.

But essentially, elastane is used for everything that needs to be form-fitting. And if you scour your closet for the material, you’re likely to find it in at least some of your clothing.

Is Elastane Sustainable?

Texture fabric
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Although spandex/elastane may have remarkable properties, there’s one aspect we can’t ignore. Spandex is not biodegradable, not recyclable most of the time, and is made with a host of harsh chemicals that may negatively impact the environment.

It isn’t a sustainable material, here’s why:

The Base Material

A significant portion of elastane comes from polyurethane, which we aren’t a fan of. Polyurethane is used in various fashion items, including vegan leather, but it isn’t a very sustainable material either.

Generally, we would recommend staying away from polyurethane, considering there are so many alternatives!

Elastane, on the other hand, is a different story. Because of its unique properties, it doesn’t have nearly as many alternatives as other materials we know of.

It can also be stretched to multiple times its original length without breaking, and even then, it will still go back to its original form (up until a certain point).

What’s more, the fabric itself is resistant to the body’s fluids and many other substances that could come in contact with the body.

However, all those characteristics don’t make spandex sustainable. As such, it’s crucial to use spandex responsibly.

Production

We’ve already discussed one of the ways spandex can be made. From that, it’s pretty clear that making spandex isn’t really the most environmentally friendly process.

From the very beginning, there’s already the use of fossil fuels. Like other synthetics, elastane requires non-renewable resources (i.e., petrochemicals) to create [1], which is already a high environmental cost to pay.

Apart from that, solvents used in the production process could also prove harmful to humans. Di Methyl Formamide (DMF), dimethylacetamide, or dimethyl sulfaoxide are just some examples of the strong chemicals used to make spandex [2].

Those working in spandex factories also have to take the necessary health and safety precautions to prevent health-related consequences.

Sometimes, these chemicals could be released into the skin as the fabric is used, causing potential allergies.

End of Life

Its important to note that you can’t use spandex forever. Namely, it will break down over time.

Some items with elastane in them are guaranteed for a number of washes.

Previously we mentioned that elastane is, more often than not, not recycled because it’s frequently blended with other fabrics. Because blended materials are inhomogeneous, it can be a challenge to separate them.

Today, the recycling process for elastane isn’t really based on post-consumer materials—meaning, the recycled elastane that brands like Patagonia use don’t come from your socks or jeans.

Most forms of recycled spandex are actually pre-consumer derived. Companies like Spanflex divert spandex waste from the production process and reintegrate them into manufacturing instead of disposing of them.

It’s certainly slightly better than using virgin materials to make a spandex garment. But it still doesn’t solve the issue of what you’re supposed to do with your spandex once the stretch finally gives out.

To illustrate this, let’s take one of the ways spandex is ‘dealt with.’

One method of separating spandex from post-consumer blended fabrics (nylon in this case) is to degrade the spandex first and then extract the nylon [3]. This enables them to recycle the nylon, not the elastane.

So far, heat treatment of elastane seems to be more environmentally sound than using harsh solvents in the degradation process [4]. However, the primary purpose of this process isn’t really to take care of spandex waste but to ensure that the majority of material (e.g., nylon) is repurposed.

Do We Recommend Elastane?

It’s not really an issue of whether we recommend elastane or not. Spandex fiber is so pervasive across all types of clothing that it’s virtually impossible to avoid it.

And as we mentioned, elastane has some properties unique to it that can be a major challenge to replicate. And unlike other materials that aren’t really sustainable, elastane does not have many alternatives.

Overhauling your entire closet to get rid of elastane entirely is somewhat of a daunting task.

We have seen some clothes that go against the grain and use rubber instead of spandex. Some brands make stretch denim and bras this way.

However, there are also drawbacks to using rubber as an elastic agent, which is why they have to find a better alternative for it in the first place. One significant con of rubber is that it’s less durable and versatile compared to spandex.

Responsible Use

Elastane is one of those materials that have genuinely improved our way of life and dressing. But the same could be said for every other polymer in existence.

Though we don’t recommend plastic at all, the conversation on plastic should be expanded to include different industries like its application in medicine.

The same is true for spandex. As a synthetic fiber, it fits in the umbrella of plastics recognized as terrible for our environment.

Because it can be challenging to find other fabrics that operate similarly with elastane, we highly suggest you look into brands that use it responsibly.

There are now brands that use recycled elastane in their products or use the smallest percentage possible to limit their impact.

Moreover, it would help if you cared for your spandex clothing items properly so you can extend their life. Thus, buying from reputable brands that produce durable items is one of the ways you can use spandex responsibly.

Spandex and Elastane: What the Future Holds

Although we concede that elastane virtually seems like the only option right now, there has been recent progress in terms of elastane replacements.

Sorona, for example, is a brand-name alternative that’s just as stretchy as elastane but is partially plant-based.

Unlike elastane, which is a polyether-polyurea copolymer, Sorona is 37% bio-based. It uses fermentation as a replacement for the chemical process used in elastane. However, it’s still predominantly made of polyester.

Sorona is also USDA bio preferred and has an OEKO-TEX 100 certification.

While it is still made from polyester, we think this is a step in the right direction. Instead of just accepting spandex or Lycra as our only alternatives, we’re looking into better solutions.

Final Thoughts

In summary, spandex, elastane, and Lycra are all the same thing: a material of exceptional elasticity. The term spandex is just another way to say elastane and vice versa.

In reality, the conversation on elastane vs spandex isn’t relevant. They’re just two different words used to describe the same thing.

But that doesn’t mean talking about spandex isn’t important! Since it’s a material that’s pervasive across so many types of fabric that we wear.

At the same time, we also have to recognize that there are only a few alternatives already available.

Resources:

  1. https://www.simplyenviro.com/fossil-fuel
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316044390_Toxicity_of_Synthetic_Fibres_and_H uman_Health_OPEN_ACCESS
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1359836815001572
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270504000_Removal_of_spandex_from_nylonspa ndex_blended_fabrics_by_selective_polymer_degradation
Spandex being sewed
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