Watch out, cotton: Tencel fibers are having a moment. If you’ve shopped for just about anything made of fabric lately – whether it’s clothing or bedding – chances are you’ve come across this fiber. You’ve probably also seen a bunch of claims tied to it, promising incredible softness and eco-friendly practices.
As fiber scientists and product experts in the Good Housekeeping Institute Textiles Lab, we often have people ask us about the different types of materials they come across when they shop. So here’s the scoop on this trendy fiber you’re seeing everywhere:
What is Tencel?
Tencel is a brand name for a set of fibers called lyocell and modal (think of it like Band-Aids are to bandages or Kleenex are to tissues). These fibers are known for feeling super soft and are widely used in sustainable fashion.
Tencel is somewhat similar to rayon (i.e. viscose) because they’re what the industry refers to as “regenerated cellulose” fibers. Manufacturers take wood pulp, dissolve it in a chemical solvent, then push it through an extruder to form the fibers.
The big difference is rayon requires more energy and chemicals to produce, which is both wasteful and toxic for the workers who make it. Tencel, on the other hand, uses chemicals that are less-toxic and get recycled in the process so there’s minimal waste. It also uses wood from trees in sustainably-harvested forests.
Why is Tencel so popular?
Tencel stands out mainly for its softness. Whenever we test bedding made with Tencel, our testers unanimously give it high softness scores. In Good Housekeeping’s 2022 Best Bedding Awards, we had several winners made of Tencel, including the Pottery Barn Tencel Tufted Quilt and the West Elm Silky Tencel Sheet Set.
Fabric made of Tencel lyocell also has excellent drape, doesn’t wrinkle easily, and holds dye well so it makes vibrant colors. It’s also breathable and manages moisture so it helps with temperature regulation. These features make it particularly popular for clothing and bedding brands. Tencel modal is incredibly soft, so it’s most common in intimate apparel and loungewear.
Tencel also gets blended with other fibers that are more recognizable (e.g. cotton or polyester) to help give the finished product (like denim, for example) some of the unique properties and increase softness.
Is Tencel natural?
Yes and no. It has a natural origin because it’s made from wood, but the finished fiber is technically man-made so it doesn’t qualify as a natural fiber. That’s why the textiles industry refers to it as regenerated cellulose instead of “natural” or “synthetic.”
As mentioned before, Tencel fibers do have some excellent sustainability features from its production process that make it a preferred choice for brands, including the fact that it recycles water and chemicals so there’s less waste and it traces the trees to sustainably-harvested forests.
A few things to keep in mind: we’ve seen some brands that use Tencel refer to it as “eucalyptus fiber” or “tree fiber.” These fibers don’t exist. Tencel fibers do come from trees – mainly beech, birch, eucalyptus and spruce – but again, the wood pulp has been manufactured into a fiber.
Also, Tencel fibers are biodegradable and compostable; however, Good Housekeeping’s environmental consultant explains that this isn’t necessarily a best practice because any dyes and finishes from the fabric would end up in the soil along with it. Plus, from a sustainability standpoint, it’s better to find ways to rewear, reuse, or recycle the fabrics.
Bottom line: Should I buy products with Tencel?
Yes, absolutely! Tencel fibers feel amazing, use sustainable practices, and have high-quality performance features that make it popular for both brands and consumers alike.
To find if a product is made with Tencel, check the product’s website (or labels if you’re shopping in store); most of the time Tencel is specified. You can also browse Tencel’s website for examples of brands that use it across all categories.