Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber that’s incredibly versatile and used in numerous industries. The light and breathable fabric akin to silk has been popular for nearly a hundred years and still is today.
But apart from the features (price point, versatility) that make rayon such a popular fabric, what is rayon, really?
Essentially, rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric made from different materials, most often wood. Despite this, rayon isn’t the sustainable fabric it is often misconstrued to be.
Let’s take a 360-view of what rayon is, how it’s made, and its sustainability factor.
Note: The words Lenzing and Tencel are used repeatedly in this article. Lenzing refers to a group of companies that produce different fabrics and is the parent company of Tencel. Tencel, on the other hand, is a brand best known for its trademarked product Lyocell.
Rayon: AKA Artificial Silk
To understand the entirety of rayon fabric, it will help to go back to its very roots, more than a century ago in the late 1800s.
In the 1880s, Count Hillaire de Chardonnet discovered that cellulose from natural materials (i.e., wood pulp) could be processed and turned into fabric. The result was a material akin to silk, which gave rayon its moniker: artificial silk.
Rayon was the first-ever manufactured fiber.
Like naturally occurring cellulose fibers such as cotton and linen, rayon could be used for a wide variety of applications in the textile industry. However, while it was invented late into the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920s when it really got popular in fashion.
The popularity of rayon in this time period was due in part to both its versatility and affordable price point. Since silk (and similar) fabrics were quite expensive, rayon was the perfect fabric to act as a cheaper substitute.
When the 1930s came to a close, rayon clothes were already six times more prevalent than silk in American clothing .
Today, there are now several iterations of rayon, with different methods of production and function. We’ll take a look at some types further in this article.
What is Rayon Fabric Made Of?
Rayon is most often made from the cellulose fiber of wood pulp, but it could also be made from cotton. Yes, rayon actually comes from natural sources! But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The material is technically made from regenerated cellulose because the pure cellulose is heavily processed before it’s transformed into cellulose again—more on this in a bit.
Rayon can be made from wood pulp like those coming from beech trees and pine trees. It can even be made from bamboo and cotton. Some versions of rayon are made from eucalyptus, birch, and even oak!
How is Rayon Made?
The way rayon is made is integral to how it works as a fabric. And to a greater extent, it’s essential to determine whether the material is sustainable or not.
We already know rayon fibers are produced from wood pulp.
But the process itself of turning the plant material into cellulose and then into viscose and then back into cellulose is a chemically-intensive process that’s nowhere near ‘natural.’
The wood pulp is first dissolved in sodium hydroxide, otherwise called caustic soda. This process transforms the pulp into alkali cellulose and readies it for the next step—creating cellulose xanthate.
The resulting alkali is then combined with carbon disulfide to create the xanthate. Once it has been combined with carbon disulfide and further dissolved in more caustic soda, it becomes a viscous liquid, hence the name viscose rayon.
The viscous solution is then extruded through a spinneret, which results in the creation of cellulose filaments. After this process, the filaments are treated in an acid bath (sulfuric acid) to solidify them and finally create the rayon fibers.
Once the fibers are created, the rayon can then be spun into fabric.
Of course, rayon produced this way is only one of the different types of rayon. Not all processes use chemicals like carbon disulfide or caustic soda.
Lyocell, for example, utilizes nontoxic solvents like amine oxide , which are then recycled after use. Though it still results in regenerated cellulose, it is a considerably more sustainable process than constantly using different harsh chemicals to treat the fibers.
Is Rayon Production Harmful?
But what’s the deal with those chemicals anyway? Are they really that harmful?
The answer is yes. The viscose process is harmful to both the environment and the workers in rayon factories.
Workers dealing with these chemicals regularly have to take necessary precautions to prevent injuries. Some of these chemicals can have devastating effects on the human body, especially if production isn’t done with the right protection.
According to the CDC, carbon disulfide, used in dissolving cellulose, can cause injury to the eyes, blood, skin, kidneys, heart, and more. The more the workers are exposed, the higher their likelihood of getting hurt.
For this reason, carbon sulfide-based rayon is no longer made in the United States. Similarly, cuprammonium rayon or Cupra rayon (made with a solvent of copper and ammonia) is no longer produced in the country because it failed to meet air and water quality standards .
Regardless, these processes are still used in other countries. If something is so harmful that production is banned in an entire country, you probably shouldn’t brush it off that easily.
And even if workers are entirely safe, which they aren’t, we can’t ignore the environmental impacts of these toxic chemicals. So long as industrial amounts of these chemicals end up in our waterways and ecosystem, rayon is considered harmful.
The Three Generations of Rayon Fabrics
Rayon is an umbrella term for a variety of cellulose-based fabrics made using different methods of production. These different types of rayon also vary in sustainability and function.
Note that these three generations aren’t the only kinds of rayon. There are other more specific types like bamboo rayon, cotton rayon, and more. However, we can see how the fabric has developed and evolved throughout the years through these three generations.
Viscose rayon refers to the first and least eco friendly kind of rayon. The process used to make viscose rayon is the one we detailed above.
It is also the most popular type of rayon, presumably because viscose rayon is the cheapest to make, and hence, the cheapest type of rayon available.
This kind of material can be used in anything from tire cord to fabrics like fake silk. However, although viscose can resemble silk, it’s closer in feel and structure to cotton, making it a very comfortable fabric.
Viscose gets weaker when wet, which is why it’s generally recommended to dry clean the material. But if you do wash rayon, never squeeze or wring water out of it since this might damage the fabric. It’s not a very strong fabric when wet, but it is easily dyed and will hold color quite nicely.
Out of the three generations, the viscose process is the most environmentally harmful due to the toxic chemicals and the inefficient recycling of said components.
Modal is what is recognized as a high wet modulus rayon or HWM rayon. This type of rayon is much stronger when it is wet due to a slightly different manufacturing process.
There are additional processes to making modal that make it a more robust and flexible textile. But even with further processing, modal is still more environmentally friendly than viscose.
Modal is made using purified cellulose from beech trees in a similar regeneration process we previously mentioned.
HWM rayon is often combined with other fibers like elastane/spandex to make it stronger and more durable. On its own, modal’s semi-synthetic fibers are still quite durable because of how the textile is woven.
There are even different types of modal. Tencel, for example, produces Modal micro and micro air.
Unlike viscose, modal is primarily used in clothing and household textiles. Some examples are bed sheets and underwear. Modal is somewhat of a luxury fabric with a higher price point than both cotton and viscose.
For a full view on modal fabric, check out our guide on it here.
Lyocell has a different method of chemical processing than its precursors. While it is still similar in how the plant cellulose is still dissolved and then regenerated, Lyocell uses a different kind of solvent.
Lyocell production involves the amine oxide NMMO instead of the usual solvents in viscose production. As it is an organic solvent, it is a far better alternative than those used in both viscose and modal.
The downside is that this process gets pretty expensive. Out of the three generations, lyocell is the most costly rayon—unfortunate since it’s also the most eco friendly choice.
Tencel lyocell even recycles up to 99% of their solvent. This is a great thing as it virtually guarantees that the chemicals used to process the raw material won’t be released into the environment.
Lyocell production utilizes a dry jet-wet spinning process in extruding the material into the fiber.
This type of rayon is pretty close to other fabrics like cotton and linen, and it’s often mixed with those textiles, especially cotton.
Like modal, lyocell can also be made from beech. But it is predominantly made from eucalyptus, which is pretty sustainable given certain conditions.
Lyocell is used in a wide variety of items from sheets and underwear to denim and activewear. You can read our full guide on it for more information.
Is Rayon Vegan?
Yes! Rayon(and all its versions) is vegan. As it’s often utilized as an alternative to silk, it’s great for those who want clothes with the feel and function of silk without the animal component involved.
Nevertheless, there’s more to the eye than the raw materials used to make the fabric. It’s a case-to-case basis, but veganism also involves caring for the environment as much as it does caring for animals.
While rayon is technically vegan and plant-based, it might not be a fabric you’re comfortable with using as a vegan.
Is Rayon Sustainable?
Rayon, because it is primarily made from natural sources, is often touted as a natural fabric. However, although it is made from natural fibers, calling it an entirely natural fabric would be a stretch.
Recall the section above on how rayon is made. Rayon production involves tons of chemicals that are neither natural nor are good for you and the environment.
Because these processes are not natural, rayon falls in the grey area between natural and synthetic fabrics.
But is it sustainable?
Regular rayon fiber is not sustainable at all. The way it is made negates many of its promising qualities (i.e., made from natural sources, biodegradable). Because the process is so chemically intensive, it doesn’t make sense to call rayon sustainable.
However, there have been recent developments where newer generations of rayon (as mentioned above) are now produced in a more eco friendly manner.
Modal and Lyocell use far fewer chemicals than regular rayon. They also have better systems of dealing with the chemicals that are used throughout the production process.
However, even the latest—and best—version still doesn’t fall in the category of natural fabrics. Lyocell is still a semi-synthetic fabric, all things considered.
Additionally, Modal, which is the sequel to the original rayon, isn’t always sustainable either. There could be certain exceptions like Tencel Modal, which is made in a closed-loop process.
Out of the three generations of this fabric, Lyocell is the only one we can consistently recommend. We would also like to emphasize making sure that the Lyocell comes from a reputable brand like Tencel.
Is There a Way to Make Rayon more Sustainable?
There are certain steps companies can take to make the process more sustainable. But generally, the basic fact that they’re using harmful chemicals is difficult to spin into something sustainable. This is why other, better variations have cropped up over the years.
Sustainable Wood Sourcing
One of the ways rayon affects the environment is in how irresponsible sourcing could lead to deforestation.
Annually, more than 200M trees are logged to make cellulosic fabric . Right from raw material sourcing, we’re already consuming so much more than we should be. And even worse, some of those trees are taken from endangered forests.
It’s not just the trees that are affected, though. Prevalent deforestation also has negative impacts on the ecosystem in general. Losing trees contributes to habitat loss, which so much of our biodiversity is suffering from.
One way to improve rayon production lies in the sourcing of wood pulp. Ideally, the material used should come from regulated forests and locations. This ensures that the wood pulp used to make the fabric is harvested sustainably and ethically.
Tencel Modal, for example, uses sustainably harvested beech trees for their modal. Further, Lenzing makes sure that more than 99% of the wood used in their processes is regulated or controlled.
As one of the largest rayon manufacturers in the world, such a big company advocating for and making the right choices sets a great example for other businesses.
Another way factories can make their process more environmentally friendly is to recycle their chemicals. Lenzing does this with their closed-loop system of processing chemicals.
If chemicals aren’t recycled, they’re highly likely to end up in our environment, causing even more damage. Chemicals like sulfuric acid and carbon disulfide leeching into our water and air are exactly what it sounds: a bad idea.
We’ve mentioned that Lenzing repurposes up to 99% of its solvent for lyocell. This isn’t something that all brands guarantee, so it’s essential to check where a brand sources its lyocell.
If you’re going to buy a demi synthetic fabric, it’s best to take the extra step and check.
Is Rayon Biodegradable?
Yes, rayon is a biodegradable fabric. Although we refer to it as semi-synthetic, it will still biodegrade since it’s made from natural fibers.
However, we wouldn’t recommend putting it in your compost area! We don’t know what will happen to the nasty chemicals used to process the fabric, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The fact that rayon is biodegradable is one of its more promising features. However, we still maintain that there are so many other fibers that you can use as an alternative, which leads us to the next point.
Do We Recommend Rayon?
It depends on what kind of rayon we’re talking about.
For viscose rayon fibers, it’s a hard no. The process is just too environmentally damaging to be worth it. Even if it is biodegradable, there’s no guarantee that the product’s end of life will be in ideal conditions for biodegrading.
To a certain extent, we could recommend lyocell, which is still a type of rayon. However, we suggest still looking into the company making the textile. Tencel is generally the best brand of lyocell in the market today.
After all this, rayon fabric is still semi-synthetic. There are plenty of other plant-based fabrics (made from natural fibers) out there that fare better environmentally. Hemp or organic cotton fabric are just some examples.
Check out our guide on vegan fabrics for some suggestions.
When buying rayon, always be wary of greenwashing. There are so many brands that have falsely marketed their rayon products as sustainable.
This is especially prevalent in bamboo rayon products like bamboo sheets and household textiles. Just because bamboo grows quickly and can be harvested sustainably doesn’t automatically make rayon sustainable.
So there you have it! Everything you could possibly know about the basics of rayon fabric.
Though it seems simple, rayon is a pretty complex material. There are different kinds, materials, processes, and it can be challenging to know everything.
But if there’s one thing you should know, it’s that rayon isn’t the best or most sustainable fabric choice you can make. When it is promoted as something ‘natural,’ you’re most likely being greenwashed to believe that it’s a great material when it’s not.
Regardless, not all types of rayon are that harmful! Some recent iterations (e.g., lyocell) are pretty decent, and we would even recommend them!
We hope this deep dive into rayon will help you make the best and most sustainable choice when buying your clothing items.