Cotton advocates say the material is a good choice when bleach or acidic chemicals are required, because they can break down and destroy microfiber cloths. They also prefer to use cotton on rough surfaces such as concrete, which could tear up a microfiber pad. Finally, they say cotton is helpful for mopping up large amounts of liquid because its fibers are longer and able to hold more than microfiber.

“We use a traditional closed-loop cotton-blend mop if there’s a heavy bioburden,” Nash says. “Microfiber would push around a big mess of bodily fluids, but it wouldn’t pick it up. You don’t want to stand there and use 10 microfiber cloths versus one traditional mop head. Of course, we go back over the surface with microfiber once the debris is removed.”

Hicks argues that there’s no situation where cotton outperforms microfiber. Even in the scenarios above, he says, microfiber would be a better choice than cotton, which only spreads soil and bacteria around, rather than picking up and removing it.

“Until microfiber, cotton was the only option,” Hicks says. “Microfiber came along 15 years ago and completely changed the old rag-and-bucket way of doing things. Microfiber has improved the cleaning process in a revolutionary way.”

Better With Microfiber

Most argue that nine out of 10 times, microfiber will outperform cotton. When it comes to window cleaning, microfiber can trap dirt to prevent smearing and doesn’t leave lint behind. For floor finish, lightweight microfiber allows a user to more easily apply thin, smooth coats. Microfiber dusts without leaving lint and polishes without scratching or streaking.

Microfiber is also a more ergonomic choice than cotton. That’s because it requires less water. Using 10 to 30 times less liquid means microfiber weighs significantly less than cotton, which helps reduce the likelihood of injuries from lifting, moving, and wringing out a mop. Some argue it also means there are fewer slip-and-fall accidents because floors dry faster.

Reduced water usage, as well as less need for chemicals in the cleaning process, also makes microfiber the cloth of choice for facilities concerned with environmental sustainability. In fact, microfiber rags and mops contribute to credits toward the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance program.

The biggest benefit of microfiber, however, is for healthcare, schools and other markets that put a high priority on infection control. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that extremely fine microfiber (.38 micrometer diameter) removes up to 98 percent of bacteria and 93 percent of viruses from a surface using only water. Cotton, on the other hand, removes only 30 percent of bacteria and 23 percent of viruses.

“Microfiber is most effective at removing germs and bacteria when you’re disinfecting,” says Jonathan Cooper, director of environmental and linen services at Orlando Health Central Hospital, Ocoee, Florida. “We’ve done ATP tests with both microfiber and cotton and we verified we were doing much better removal of bacterial with microfiber.”

Cooper says the hospital has seen a reduction in its overall infection rates since it dumped cotton in favor of microfiber products four years ago.

Microfiber also eliminates the problem of quat binding, which occurs when fabrics attract the active ingredients in quat-based disinfectants and reduce their efficacy. Experts comment that this is a big problem with cotton.