When it comes to new sheets, the type of fabric can be the difference between a cooling and comfortable or a sweaty and miserable night’s sleep. However, there are so many different materials out there that it can be frustrating just thinking about sifting through them all.
Do you need synthetic fibers or natural fibers? Is polyester better than nylon? Is wool better than plant-based natural materials? And how are you supposed to decide which of the laundry list of plant-based natural fibers out there is the best? Is it bamboo? Linen? Hemp? Tencel? Cotton?
We won’t go over all these questions in this post. Rather, we’ll narrow our focus to talk about two fantastic plant-based fibers: Tencel and cotton. We’ll talk about what each one of these is and discuss some of the advantages and drawbacks of both.
What is Tencel?
Tencel is a fabric made from wood cellulose, and it’s a brand name specific to Lenzing Fibers. To make Tencel, the manufacturer takes wood pulp, most commonly harvested from eucalyptus trees. Manufacturers dissolve the pulp and spin it into lyocell fibers.
These fibers can then be woven just like any other thread to make textiles for all kinds of cloth items, including bed sheets.
Tencel’s classification is a little confusing because it can be considered both natural and synthetic. It’s natural because it’s made from wood pulp and synthetic because it’s regenerated into a human-made fiber.
What is Cotton?
Cotton fabric is made from the fibers of cotton bolls. Cotton plants produce seed pods with fluffy fibers surrounding the seeds. When the pod breaks open, it exposes these fluffy, white fibers, whose job is to protect the developing seeds and eventually disperse them to propagate the cotton plant.
Humans have been making textiles from cotton bolls for at least 7,000 years. This lengthy history is primarily due to the fact that it takes comparatively little work to process cotton into weavable threads.
You don’t have to fundamentally alter the structure of the cotton to make a thread. You just have to clean it, separate it, comb it, and wind it into thread.
There are a few types of cotton, but two of the most popular on today’s market are Pima and Egyptian. These fabrics can be used to make high-quality percale sheets that stand up to years of use.
Of all the cotton types, Egyptian is probably the most famous. That’s because it’s firmly established as one of the best quality cotton fabrics. Its long fibers create a silky soft, durable, and wrinkle-resistant cotton fabric.
Contrary to popular belief, Egyptian cotton isn’t only grown in Egypt (at least not anymore). Rather, this is a specific species of cotton, and it’s called Egyptian cotton regardless of where it’s grown.
Like Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton is also a long-staple cotton used to weave soft and smooth fabric that boasts a more luxurious feel than shorter fiber cotton fabrics, but Pima is a little more affordable than Egyptian cotton.
Tencel Vs. Cotton
As we’ve seen, Tencel and cotton are distinct fibers. Though they’re both plant-based, they’re manufactured from very different plants in very different ways. That means these two types of sheets have significant differences in feel, temperature regulating ability, and more.
Tencel and cotton sheets can vary in feel even from one sheet set to the next, depending on the thread count, quality, and other factors. Tencel bedding tends to be softer than cotton, and it won’t pill as quickly, meaning its smooth feel will last longer.
Cotton varies a lot more in feel. Long fiber cotton fabrics like Egyptian and Pima are less prone to pilling than short fiber cotton and can get softer over time. That means Tencel will probably have a superior feel to cheaper cotton fibers, but it might not as easily outcompete more expensive ones.
If you wake up all the time with night sweats, Tencel may be for you. Tencel is hydrophilic, meaning it’s absorbent and encourages evaporation. This not only can keep you nice and dry at night, but it can translate into a cooler night’s sleep.
Cotton also makes for cooling sheets because it’s super breathable. It’s not as hydrophilic as Tencel, but it’s so breathable it can help distribute your body heat away from you.
The manufacturing process for Tencel is a more arduous and expensive process than cotton production. The added production costs can translate into a more expensive sheet.
To put it in perspective, Tencel is often costlier than even the more expensive cotton varieties like Pima and Egyptian. If you’re on a budget, simple cotton sheets are a good choice.
If you’re seeking bedding on a budget, you could find some of the best bed sheets on Amazon.
In our busy day-to-day lives, machine washable sheets are almost a must. Luckily, both Tencel and cotton can usually be tossed in the washing machine. They both also dry quickly and typically can be tumble-dried on low or medium heat.
It’s also fairly simple to restore the white color of cotton sheets. If you see signs of yellowing, you have a few different ways to make your sheets white again.
One issue with cotton is it is not naturally wrinkle-resistant unless treated with special chemicals. Cotton also tends to shrink on higher heat settings. With both Tencel and cotton, check your care labels to see washing and drying instructions.
Both cotton and Tencel fibers can stand the test of time, but in this category, Tencel has the edge. Tencel won’t shrink or wrinkle, and it’s less prone to pilling and thinning than cotton, so it will likely outlast cotton.
The one advantage cotton has over Tencel is that it tends to soften over time. This is especially true of long fiber cotton fabrics because they’re less likely to pill than their shorter fiber cousins.
Both cotton and Tencel can vary in their environmental impact, but Tencel is a good option if you want an eco-friendly product.
Tencel is typically sourced from the pulp of eucalyptus wood. Eucalyptus trees don’t need much water or pesticides and are considered sustainable. The production of Tencel also doesn’t create as much waste because Tencel is manufactured using a closed-loop process.
Cotton, meanwhile, requires a lot of water to grow and needs many agrochemicals (especially pesticides) to grow properly. Habitat destruction is also a problem with cotton production since cotton growth requires tons of land.
Natural fibers are typically hypoallergenic for sensitive skin, and this goes for Tencel and cotton too. Since Tencel is hydrophilic, it will wick away sweat and dry out faster, discouraging mold and mildew development as well as bacterial growth. However, cotton is so breathable it also creates a hostile growth environment for mold and mildew.
Both cotton and Tencel are considered hypoallergenic. Tencel contains few chemicals compared to other comparable fabrics like generic rayon and lyocell. If you’re seeking a hypoallergenic sheet, certified organic cotton is probably the way to go, as it will have few to no harsh chemicals or unnecessary extra ingredients.
It’s also important to pair hypoallergenic sheets with the best mattresses for allergies. This combination ensures you are sleeping on a pristine surface.
If neither Tencel nor cotton is right for you, there are a few alternative materials, both synthetic and natural, that make excellent sheets.
Microfiber is a synthetic fiber made of polyester and polyamide. Microfiber sheets are great if you want low maintenance, budget-friendly sheets, but they’re not as breathable as other fabrics. For an in-depth comparison between microfiber and cotton, see our cotton vs microfiber sheets guide.
Bamboo rayon makes a great sheet for those who want coolness and breathability. Like Tencel, bamboo viscose is put through a chemical process to create rayon or lyocell fabric. This makes bamboo sheets both moisture-wicking and temperature regulating.
Made from flax, linen is another natural fiber that offers a lot of breathability and durability. Linen is excellent because it’s strong and can last through a lot of washes. It normally doesn’t provide the same smooth surface as cotton, but linen sheets are less prone to pilling and thinning.
Does thread count really matter and what’s the ideal thread count?
Thread count does matter. It can impact the softness, durability, and quality of your sheets. Like just about everything else, there is a sort of Goldilocks Zone for the ideal thread count. There’s an overly low thread count, an overly high thread count, and ones that are just right.
If the thread count is too low, your sheets won’t be very soft, and they won’t last all that long. If the count is too high, it won’t make much difference in feel or durability—but it will give sheet makers an excuse to overcharge for their products. For these reasons, the ideal thread count for your bed sheets is between 300 and 500.
Can Tencel get rid of sweat?
Tencel sheets are highly breathable because Tencel fabric is woven from tiny fibers, making it conducive to evaporation. This means Tencel sheets can help wick away sweat from your body at night, allowing them to keep you cool and dry, which can be especially helpful to hot sleepers who wake up feeling moist during the night.
How often should I wash my cotton or Tencel sheets?
Sheets pick up all kinds of icky things when we sleep on them, including sweat, dead skin cells, bacteria, dirt, and even pests like dust mites and bed bugs. If you want to avoid all these repulsive things, you’ll need to wash your sheets at least once a week, regardless of whether they’re Tencel, cotton, or something else.
If you do certain things, you may need to wash your sheets even more frequently. For instance, if you shower in the morning rather than at night, eat in bed, or tend to sweat a lot while you sleep, you might want to increase your washing frequency.
Do Tencel and cotton look different?
Tencel and cotton are very different fibers, and as a result, they can have very different looks. Tencel tends to be smoother and more vibrant than cotton because it can hold dye better, meaning it will retain its color longer. Some Tencel sheets can have a shiny look, almost like satin/sateen.
Meanwhile, cotton is crisper and has a more matte finish than most Tencel. Cotton will also retain its dye for a long time, but it may be more prone to color fade than Tencel, especially after multiple washes.
Is it possible to be allergic to Tencel or cotton?
Technically, yes. You can develop allergies to anything. However, neither Tencel nor cotton are common allergens. Both of these fabrics are naturally hypoallergenic and they’re resistant to secondary allergens like pollen, mold, mildew, dust, etc.
If you’re having allergy symptoms (rash, hives, itching, sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose) when in contact with your sheets, you may be allergic to the fabric. However, it’s more likely you’re allergic to the allergens trapped in the fibers. Try washing your sheets more often before swapping them out for new ones.
Both cotton and Tencel have their advantages and drawbacks, so neither can be considered the “best.” Tencel and high-quality long fiber cotton are similar in nearly all categories. Plus, there’s no “most important factor” that always makes or breaks a set of sheets.
Different people have different sleep priorities, after all. That means the best choice of material is just whatever is best for you. Either fabric may be a suitable choice for some sleepers. Other people may prefer an entirely different material, such as linen.