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

Comfortable sheets are essential for a good night’s sleep. They can help you relax, fall asleep quickly, and keep you cool and dry throughout the night. But, with so many different types of sheets on the market, it can be difficult to determine which is right for you.

As you shop for the perfect new set of sheets, you will find plenty made with cotton. Due to its softness and durability, cotton has been a staple in the bedding industry for many years. However, you will also come across sheets made with Tencel, also referred to as lyocell or modal. This is a newer bedding fabric that has become popular thanks to its eco-friendly manufacturing process, luxurious feel, and versatility.

Through this article, we explain the differences between Tencel sheets and cotton sheets. We also review the pros and cons of both fabrics to help you find the perfect new sheets.

What is Tencel Lyocell?

Tencel is the brand name given to lyocell and modal, two fabrics commonly used in bedding and clothing. Modal and lyocell fibers are made with wood pulp (wood cellulose) from beech, birch, spruce, and eucalyptus trees.

This pulp is treated with a chemical solvent called N-Meteo Morpholine N-oxide and then pushed through an extruder to form fibers. Once the fibers are formed, they go through a specific drying process called spinning before being woven into cloth.

These fibers are what the textile industry refers to as “regenerated cellulosic fibers” because while this process starts with a natural product, the result is a human-made or “regenerated” fiber. While Tencel is not completely natural, it is not synthetic either. Instead, it is known as a semi-synthetic, viscous fiber.

However, Tencel fibers are more eco-friendly than many natural and synthetic fibers because the solvent used to produce Tencel fabric is recycled throughout the manufacturing process. This is called a “closed-loop process” because it creates less waste and uses less energy and water.

What is Cotton?

Cotton is a natural fiber harvested from the seedpod of the cotton plant. For many years, countries worldwide have relied on this fluffy fiber to produce clothing, bedding, and other household textiles.

The length of cotton fibers, also referred to as their “staple,” determines the quality, softness, and strength. Long-staple cotton fibers, such as Egyptian cotton and Pima cotton, have a super soft, smooth surface and are extremely durable. Short-staple cotton varieties are not as soft and tend to pill and break down quickly.

Cotton fabrics also come in many different weaves, including flannel, twill, linen, percale, and sateen weaves. The weave of the cotton fibers will affect its warmth and overall feel.

Differences Between Tencel and Cotton

While Tencel is not a completely natural fiber like cotton, both fabrics have many similarities. The following chart compares these two fabrics using eight of the qualities frequently considered when shopping for bed sheets.

 

QualityTencelCotton
FeelTencel has a smooth, soft feel from the first day of useCotton often feels crisp and stiff at first but softens with washing
PriceHas a higher price point than cottonVaries depending on thread count but tends to be less expensive than Tencel
DurabilityDurable and holds color well but requires careful washingLong-staple cotton is durable and requires less careful washing than Tencel
Resistance to pillingLess likely to pill than cottonShort-staple cotton can pill and break down quickly
WashingMachine washable on a delicate cycle with mild detergent

Low heat and low tumble dry

Can be safely machine-washed and dried on most cycles
CoolingBreathable and moisture-wickingBreathable and absorbent, but will not wick away moisture
WrinklingWrinkle-resistantNot wrinkle-resistant
Eco-FriendlyRequires less energy and water to produce

Produces less waste

Wood pulp is sustainably harvested

Requires more energy and water to produce than Tencel

Organic varieties are available

Advantages of Tencel Sheets

It’s no surprise that Tencel sheets have become so popular in recent years. This material has a soft, smooth, luxurious feel and a clean look thanks to its wrinkle-resistant quality. Below, we outline the advantages and disadvantages of Tencel sheets.

Breathable

Tencel materials are naturally cooling and moisture-wicking, so they will keep you cool and dry throughout the night. In fact, Tencel’s leading manufacturers in the United States, Lenzing AG, notes that Tencel is 50 percent more breathable than cotton. Plus, Tencel is more resistant to bacterial growth than cotton.

Eco-friendly and Sustainable

The closed-loop production process used to produce Tencel ensures the chemical solvent that dissolves the wood pulp is recycled with a 99.5 percent recovery rate. This produces minimal manufacturing waste and is easier on the environment. Production of Tencel also uses less water and energy than conventional cotton production.

Tencel is derived from wood pulp, typically pulp of eucalyptus wood. To ensure their harvesting practices are eco-friendly and approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Tencel manufacturers harvest wood pulp from land that is not irrigated or treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Wrinkle-Resistant

Tencel’s manufacturing process ensures that every fiber is long and strong. When woven into yard and cloth, Tencel has a super smooth texture that is less likely to wrinkle than cotton. This silky soft and smooth finish gives Tencel bedding a clean, inviting look even without ironing.

Hypoallergenic

Tencel’s moisture-wicking abilities allow the fabric to retain less heat and moisture. Therefore, it is less likely to attract dust mites or develop bacteria, viruses, or other allergens. This hypoallergenic quality makes Tencel sheets a good choice for those with skin disorders, such as eczema or psoriasis, or those with sensitive skin.

Disadvantages of Tencel Sheets

While Tencel is a great choice for most sleepers, it does have a higher price point and may require careful washing.

Require Special Care

Most Tencel items require special care for washing. When washing Tencel products, it is best to read the care instructions label first. However, most Tencel items can be cleaned on a gentle cycle with a mild detergent in a washing machine. Many Tencel sheet sets can also be machine dried on a low heat, delicate setting.

Higher Price Point

Since Tencel is produced with eco-friendly methods, Tencel sheet sets tend to be more expensive than cotton sheets. A queen size set of Tencel sheets will cost between $100 and $300.

Advantages of Cotton Sheets

Cotton has been the go-to fabric for bedding for many years, and with good reason. Cotton is lightweight, soft, and durable. Below, we outline the advantages and disadvantages of cotton sheets.

Durable

High-quality long-staple cotton varieties, such as Egyptian and Pima cotton, have excellent durability and withstand many washes before they begin to break down. However, short-staple cotton sheets may not last as long.

Low Maintenance

Unlike Tencel, cotton bed sheets can be washed and dried at high temperatures and on most machine cycles. Cotton sheets do not need to be treated delicately to maintain their durability.

Softness Increases Over Time

Brand new cotton sheets tend to feel crisp at first, especially those with a percale weave. However, cotton becomes softer and more breathable with each washing.

Disadvantages of Cotton Sheets

Cotton sheets are comfortable, breathable, and long-lasting. However, they do have a few drawbacks.

Not Environmentally Friendly

The main environmental criticism of cotton is that it requires a large amount of water to produce. Pus, conventional cotton plants are heavily treated with pesticides to prevent pests from damaging the crop. In fact, conventional cotton farming alone is responsible for 16 percent of the world’s pesticide use.

In addition to being harmful to the environment, pesticides also pose a health risk for humans. If you have sensitive skin or severe allergies, we suggest purchasing organic cotton sheets. As you shop, look for sheets with a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification. This certification ensures that the cotton crop used to produce the sheets was not treated with chemical pesticides.

Wrinkles Easily

The lightweight, airy quality of cotton sheets make them prone to wrinkling. Therefore, to achieve the same clean, crisp look of Tencel, many people prefer to iron their cotton sheet sets.

Difficult to Determine Quality

The quality of cotton sheets can often be difficult to determine. With different terms like “tread cotton” and “staple length,” you may not be sure what type of cotton sheets you are getting.

Brands often appeal to customers by claiming that their sheets have a high thread count. However, a cotton thread count higher than 600 does not indicate quality unless the sheets are made with extra-long-staple cotton, Pima or Egyptian cotton. Short-staple cotton with a high thread count will likely pill and deteriorate quickly.

The best quality cotton sheets are those with long-staple cotton threads and a thread count between 300 and 600.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Tencel made from bamboo?

Most Tencel/lyocell fabrics are made with the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees. However, some brands have started manufacturing lyocell fabrics using bamboo pulp. Lyocell bamboo sheets are strong and durable. Plus, because it is a rapidly growing crop, bamboo is also sustainable and has less environmental impact.  

Is Tencel good for hot weather?

Yes. Since Tencel is breathable and moisture-wicking, it is a good choice for hot weather and warm climates. If you are a hot sleeper, you can pair a set of Tencel sheets with a high-quality cooling mattress for a good night's sleep. 

Is Tencel lyocell toxic?

No. Tencel is manufactured with a non-toxic organic chemical compound that has gone through rigorous testing to prove that it is safe for human contact. Plus, testing also shows that the Tencel solvents do not remain in the fiber after production. 

Is 100 percent Tencel stretchy?

While 100 percent Tencel lyocell fabrics are not inherently stretchy, these fibers can be manipulated to have more give. Manufacturers who use Tencel to create activewear often use different chemical treatments to make this fabric stretchy.

Does lyocell shrink in the dryer? 

Tencel lyocell often shrinks about 3 percent with the first washing. However, the fabric should resist shrinking after the initial washing. To prevent excess shrinkage, you can wash your Tencel sheets on a low heat, delicate cycle and dry them at a low temperature. 

Conclusion

Both cotton and Tencel sheets are comfortable, breathable, durable, and available in most standard mattress sizes. The main differences between these two fabrics are cost, maintenance, environmental impact, and texture.

Tencel sheets have a higher price point than cotton and require a more specialized washing process. Tencel is an incredibly soft and luxurious fabric, which can create an inviting and relaxing sleep space. Plus, it is environmentally friendly. Cotton is less expensive than Tencel and easier to maintain, but it may not give you the same plush feel as Tencel fabrics.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

James Nguyen, Sleep Expert James Nguyen

James Nguyen is Zoma's resident sleep expert and staff writer. James enjoys learning about the newest technologies in the mattress industry and doing deep dives into the science of sleep. He's tried nearly every gadget and gizmo in an effort to determine which sleep-promoting accessories can truly enhance your shut-eye. Outside of work, James takes his dedication to get healthy sleep seriously, and has even declared himself an "expert napper." James' research has been featured on Thrive Global and other media.

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