Polyester vs Cotton: Which Material is Best for Traveling?

Last Updated on June 14, 2021

Cotton plant split screen vs a polyester textile machine

Polyester vs Cotton: Which Should You Wear Traveling?

 

Each day we’re faced with the choice of what to wear to best suit our needs, and this decision becomes even more magnified when we’re traveling.  Catching trains, navigating airports, exploring crowded city streets – the movement of life on the go requires comfort, functionality, and confidence.  

If you’re reading this article, then you likely already have an active lifestyle, so why not ensure that the clothes you bring traveling — and the fabric they’re made of — meet your expectations every step of the way?  

Polyester and cotton are the most common textile fabrics in the clothing industry and choosing between the two is important for travelers who crave efficiency and functionality in their wardrobe.  In this article, I’ll discuss the main differences, comfort, travelability, and environmental impact between polyester vs cotton, and hope to help you make an informed decision as to what type of clothing is best for your next adventure.

All About Polyester

Up-close photo of blue polyester material with a tag

Polyester fabric is lightweight, breathable, and packable

 

Polyester is one of the most common textiles used throughout the world today.  It’s a man-made, synthetic fabric derived from chemical compounds related to petroleum.  Essentially, it’s… plastic!  

As a result, it tends to retain its overall size and shape quite well. The polyester fibers that make up the core of the fabric are strong, yet remain light and breathable throughout activewear and use. Because of its durability, polyester is used frequently in manufacturing athletic apparel, like jerseys, running shorts, skiing gear, and ultralight backpacking gear

If a given garment is made from quality polyester, you’re looking at a resilient fabric that’ll hold up to the wear and tear and temperature extremes of a wide variety of outdoor adventures. Let’s dive into some of the pros and cons of polyester clothing in the travel realm, beginning with comfort.   

Comfort

Being a lightweight, less restrictive fabric, polyester offers free-movement motion with ease. People sometimes wonder, is polyester stretchy? The quick answer is, yes, most polyester travel clothing does have a bit of stretch to it, but shouldn’t stretch out permanently, sag, or shrink noticeably in the long run. Because of its characteristics, you can bank on quality polyester clothing to keep its shape and overall fit, even after heavy use. 

The material feels smooth and silky, and rests gently against the skin, allowing moisture to evaporate quickly keeping the wearer dry and well-vented during the hustle and bustle of travel.

Travelability

Polyester clothing is excellent for traveling.  The material is lightweight, breathable, and odor-resistant (a big bonus for your travel companions!). Tend to sweat a lot? No problem; ‘moisture wicking’ polyester is designed to pull perspiration off of the skin and onto the surface of the garment, where it dries much more quickly. This makes it a great option for high-intensity travel, outdoor trips, and multi-day backpacking endeavors and means it will dry faster after a wash or an unexpected rain shower.

Have you noticed that every hotel room is stocked with a clothing iron?  It’s because hotel management knows that travelers’ apparel can get quite disheveled when stowed for hours in backpacks, suitcases, and duffel bags. Fortunately, polyester clothing is resistant to wrinkles, so by all means fold it and pack it away in your bag and take advantage of its fresh, low-maintenance look when you’re ready to spring it into action on your trip. 

It’s also lightweight, compact, and should take up minimal space in your bag. A lighter, more compact bag means that you’ll be more agile as you travel and spend less effort lugging your belongings around as you hop from destination to destination.

Environmental Impact

A polyester production machine producing fabric inside a factory

Polyester is generally more environmentally taxing to produce

 

The production of polyester textiles from their raw materials isn’t at all good for the environment, requiring significant energy and water consumption to manufacture. In the debate over cotton vs polyester, polyester is usually worse for environmental sustainability, as it requires up to twice the amount of raw materials than conventional cotton to produce.

Being a synthetic fiber, polyester’s production involves the use of chemicals such as carcinogens that, if left unmitigated, can cause significant negative impacts in the form of both air and water pollutants.  Polyester that is cheaply made has the highest risk of causing damage to the environment; however, the same is true for cheaply made cotton.

Perhaps the most significant impact for good is that polyester is a completely recyclable material. As demand for sustainable textiles grows, environmentally-conscious businesses, such as Patagonia, will seek to produce polyester from recycled polyester clothing and recycled plastics, as opposed to harvesting the raw, synthetic petroleum needed to produce the material from scratch.

When comparing polyester vs cotton, the positive and negative impacts of each textile on the environment should be factored into the decision, so do your research and purchase responsibly.

The Case for Polyester

Polyester is a very functional material for travel clothing due to its long-lasting and low-maintenance attributes.  It’s durable, easy to wash and maintain, quick-drying, and lightweight.  This high level of convenience makes it more suitable for outdoor activities, regardless of weather, terrain, elevation, and mode of transport. Travelers can enjoy wearing their clothing longer on account of it being odor-resistant and wrinkle-free.

Polyester clothing also maintains its size and shape better than cotton fabric, increasing its lifespan while reducing harmful impacts on the environment. High-quality polyester clothing can easily be worn in a variety of different environments while maintaining a successful mix of comfort and style

Polyester Travel Clothing We Recommend

All About Cotton

Close-up of grey cotton fabric with a tag

Cotton fabric is durable, comfortable, and stylish

 

Eli Whitney sprung the textile world into the future when he invented the cotton gin in 1793. His invention mechanized the production of cotton, making it easier, faster, and cheaper to produce. To this day, cotton is the most common fabric used in clothing worldwide, and modern manufacturers have successfully used cotton in the production of a variety of other materials.  

Cotton crops are grown in warm climates and are harvested for their natural fibers existing within the plant’s seeds. Needing to be separated from the seeds themselves, in a process aptly known as “ginning”, these fibers are strong and very absorbent. At textile mills, the fibers are spun into cotton yarn which when woven together become what is commonly referred to as cotton fabric.

The fabric is quite comfortable, easy to wash, and is an affordable option for a wide variety of clothing, linens, blankets, and other common household items. Cotton cloth does shrink, is slow to dry, and wrinkles easily, but its soft and comfortable texture has made cotton a very viable choice for travelers.  

Comfort

So, why exactly is cotton the most commonly used fabric in the world? For starters, it’s extremely comfortable to wear. Simply put, cotton is naturally soft and is composed of hollow fibers which allow air to pass through them with little resistance. This is one of the reasons that you can feel fresh air flow around you when traveling in a classic cotton t-shirt. 

It’s a fairly breathable material that works well during travel in a wide array of environments, though we would recommend the more breathable polyester if you’re visiting a particularly hot or humid destination. Cotton also has some natural stretch to it and tends to fit more naturally to each individual’s unique frame than polyester. For this reason, cotton is used extensively in socks, underwear, and undershirts – the articles of clothing that are closest to the core and sensitive parts of our body.  

Cotton feels great against your skin and adds an element of softness, warmth, and breathability. The comfort factor alone makes cotton clothing an excellent choice for traveling. After all, if we’re going to embark on a journey to see the world, why wouldn’t we want to be comfortable and confident while doing so?

Travelability

In addition to being an extremely comfortable fabric, cotton makes for quite stylish travel apparel as well. It is versatile enough to work for active daytime adventures or but can also be worn for more dressy, formal events.

When compared to polyester, cotton is the heavier and more bulky fabric of the two. Cotton clothing weighs more and will take up more space in your bag, which is why many minimalist travelers and lightweight packers tend to gravitate towards synthetic materials. Cotton doesn’t dry as fast as polyester either and tends to get stinky quicker, which makes exercising in it and washing it less ideal.

Cotton fabric works great for certain types of travelers, but pay close attention to the kind of adventure you’re embarking on, as not all trips are created equal. Cotton tends to suit the more fashion-minded traveler, whereas polyester will cater to the more active, outdoor-focused traveler. Which kind of traveler are you? What kind of trip are you taking?

Environmental Impact

Mass raw cotton in pre-production

Cotton, especially if produced organically, is better on the environment than polyester

 

Cotton is natural while polyester is synthetic, so consumers who care deeply for the environment tend to lean towards cotton, the product that is made from a plant, not plastic. And being a natural substance, cotton is completely biodegradable too, but is “natural” always better for the environment? Even though cotton production has less of an impact on the environment than polyester, the issue is not all cut and dry.

Cotton crops require large amounts of water. According to the World Resources Institute and National Geographic, it takes about 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton shirt, which is equivalent to enough water for one person to drink for about 2.5 years! Irrigation of cotton plants adds to the depletion of water sources for nearby communities, and it’s common for pesticides to be used in cotton production, as well.

The environmental impacts of cotton do not end at production, either. Cotton clothing needs to be washed more and might not last as long as polyester, so the use of water and energy over time to clean and care for cotton fabric will be greater.  Environmentally-conscious travelers ought to consider the entire life-cycle of an article of clothing before coming to any conclusions about which is better for reducing one’s carbon footprint.

The Case for Cotton

By the numbers alone, we see at least some amount of cotton in about 75% of the world’s clothing, making it the most widely used textile fabric worldwide. Can that many people be wrong? Cotton clothing is more stylish and is softer and arguably more comfortable than polyester to wear. There is an element of durability and strength to cotton, as it is able to withstand heat, bleaching chemicals, and other cleaning detergents more so than polyester. 

Since cotton is natural, it’s usually more environmentally friendly to produce.  We associate cotton clothing with comfort, and rightly so: think of your favorite pair of pajamas, loungewear, underwear, even towels and bed linens. Our guess is that they’re made up mostly (or entirely) of cotton.

Stylish, breathable, and versatile cotton is the no-brainer choice for certain types of travelers who prefer its comfort and easy care. And because we invest so much time and money planning our next big voyage, why not go with tried-and-true cotton and look good and feel good along the way.

Cotton Travel Clothing We Recommend

What About a Polyester/Cotton Blend?

Photo of three buttons on a blue shirt made of a cotton vs polyester blend

A polyester/cotton blend brings out the best characteristics of both fabrics

 

Hopefully, I’ve helped you understand the main differences between cotton vs polyester, but what about a cotton-polyester blend?  This might be a good choice for travelers as well, but before declaring a poly-cotton blend as the ultimate happy medium, let’s look at a few of the details.

In these blended fabrics, textile manufacturers extract the best qualities of both polyester and cotton and weave them together into a super fabric that is quite functional for travelers. Pinpoint fabric, for example, consists of about 60% cotton and 40% polyester, although this ratio can vary. Cotton and polyester blends combine the warmth, style, and comfort of cotton with the breathability, durability, and packability of polyester.  

The polyester components add a wrinkle-resistant property to the fabric, which makes them a nice choice for anything from dress shirts to activewear. This blend of fabric typically doesn’t shrink, maintains its shape and color, and is a ‘best of both worlds’ option worth considering for travelers.

Polyester/Cotton Blend Travel Clothing We Recommend

Polyester vs Cotton: Which is Best for You?

Split screen of blue polyester vs grey cotton material

Polyester vs cotton: the choice is yours

 

Here at The Packable Life, we prefer polyester. Why, you ask? For our active style of travel spent backpacking, hiking, jogging, cycling, walking, and all other varieties of outdoor exploring, polyester remains the lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying best option. Polyester is both odor-resistant and wrinkle-resistant and is an affordable, low-maintenance material that offers travelers convenience and flexibility when on the move.  

Furthermore, if you buy ethically sourced, quality-made, long-lasting polyester clothing, it should have a far lower environmental impact than cheaply-made polyester or cotton clothing.

What Works for Us Might Not for Work for You

Even though we love polyester clothing for travel, it might not suit you as it does us. Travelers that value comfort above all else may opt for cotton instead, the stylish option that feels great against the skin and is made from natural materials.  Air circulates through cotton fabric with ease, yet it remains a durable option. 

Travelers may also appreciate the familiarity and versatility of cotton, being able to wear it for just about any occasion on a trip’s itinerary.  Cotton is natural, too, as opposed to polyester’s synthetic composition, and is completely biodegradable.

And if You Still Can’t Make Up Your Mind…

Why not consider a cotton-polyester blend? On your next trip, try out one or two articles of clothing with a healthy ratio of each material, and enjoy the benefits that both materials combined have to offer. Here’s an exercise to help start you off on your journey, one where you need look no further than your closet:  

The labels on clothing you already own should display the percentages of each kind of fabric used to construct it. Take a look at some of your favorites, and read the tag to get an idea of what materials or blends you prefer on an everyday basis. These are likely the fabrics that will work best for you when putting together your wardrobe for your next trip into the great unknown.

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Do you prefer cotton, polyester, or blended clothing when you travel? Do you prefer to dress for function or style? What are you wearing on your next trip? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

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