Microfiber is a synthetic fiber comprised of a blend of polyester and microfiber polymer, bundled together in a strand that is practically microscopic. These strands are then split into fibers and woven together to form towels, mops and other products.

Microfiber products often are superior to their cotton counterparts when it comes to picking up soil, dust and bacteria. Various studies show that a microfiber cloth can capture up to 99 percent of bacteria on many surfaces.

Despite these benefits and plenty of microfiber options to choose from, building service contractors have been slow to embrace the trend. Why?

“End-users are confused,” says Dave Frank, president of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences, Highlands Ranch, Colo. “What was lost in the launch of this whole thing was the application. The microfiber industry put a lot of products in the field and said, ‘This is good for everything.’ But one product doesn’t clean everything in our business. And it wasn’t enough just to tell the customer that the product was better, because in some cases it was and in some cases it wasn’t.”

Adding to the confusion is a bewildering array of options when it comes to microfiber. Is an 80 percent polyester/20 percent polyamide blend better than a 70/30 blend? Does the weave matter? Are there different grades of microfiber? What’s the best one for the job?

The answers to these questions depend, in part, on the answers contractors seek every time they select any type of cleaning product, says Frank.

“Users always want to make sure the product performs to their specifications,” he explains, “so they need to look at the type of area they’re cleaning, the worker’s preference, the type of soil that has to be removed, the types of finishes they’ll be cleaning, the amount of square footage they expect out of a single application.”

Making the grade
To help sort through the clutter, at least one major manufacturer has designed its own grading system, saying that its heaviest-duty microfiber cloth, for example, will tolerate extensive commercial washing and should be used to clean oils and embedded soils. Other manufacturers offer an array of microfiber cleaning cloths ranked, generally, as good, better or best.

As a rule, experts say, the higher-grade towels have three things in common: they’re thicker, can be used longer, and can be washed more times than lower-grade towels. The more times a fiber is split, and the more times those fibers are woven to create the completed fabric, the more likely a cloth will be considered high-grade.

BSCs should be mindful, though, that “thick” doesn’t mean “fluffy” when it comes to microfiber. A towel with a little bit of nap on it may feel softer, but will break down sooner.

“A towel that’s really, really fluffy may appear to be a better product, but it isn’t,” says Shelley Riley-Kraus, president of Phoenix-based Maintenance Mart Janitorial Supply. “The better microfiber cloths are actually tighter, more tightly woven, which makes them feel stiffer.”

Because thicker, heavier cloths have more depth, they’re good not only for heavy cleaning, but also for lighter jobs such as dry dusting; the deeper strands will capture and hold more dust. But thicker isn’t necessarily better for all cleaning tasks. Workers who clean glass or polish a surface will want to use a tightly woven, but thinner microfiber cloth. The same is true when it comes to cleaning and polishing floors. Mop-heads with a thicker microfiber do the best job of cleaning and scrubbing — some mop-heads even have synthetic bands stitched into the microfiber to provide extra scrubbing power. But microfiber mop-heads used to apply finishes to floor surfaces will be less thick and often feature a synthetic blended into the microfiber.

No matter the thickness of the cloth, though, experts say there are a few universal indicators for quality in microfiber cleaning cloths. Size is one. A microfiber cloth should be large enough to be folded four times, says Frank. Polyester piping around the perimeter of the cloth is another valuable feature, since it will help the fabric to withstand multiple washings, adds Frank.

There are a couple of other tests that contractors can perform on the spot.

“An unscientific method is to take hand lotion and rub it on a mirror,” says Frank. “Look at the number of passes it takes to remove the lotion — a high-end cloth will do it in one or two passes.”

Other experts note that, despite the fact the fibers themselves are microscopic, it’s still possible to get a general idea of the quality of the cloth.

“You can feel the difference,” explains Riley-Kraus. “Take a microfiber cloth and run it over the back of your hand and feel how it catches. That’s a good test.”

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer based in Rockford, Ill. She is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.