Microfiber 101: The Science of Tiny Threads
Until a few years ago, mop yarn and cloth fiber were pretty straightforward — large, cotton or rayon threads woven or twisted into usable form. Building service contractors often purchased the same cloths, pads and mop heads their predecessors bought. Then, microfiber made its way out of Europe and into American cleaning operations, and with it came more questions. What is microfiber, exactly? How is it made? And will it really do what vendors say it’s going to do?
“There is a lot of confusion on the market regarding microfiber. However, there is no black magic about it,” says Bernard Bensussan, vice president of research and development for Unger Enterprises Inc. in Bridgeport, Conn. “Microfiber is the name given to fabric with very fine threads.”
“What defines a microfiber is its size — a microfiber must be smaller than one denier,” adds Shawn Strouse, director of sales, Tuway American Group, Troy, Mich. A denier is a unit of linear measurement equal to the mass in grams of 9,000 meters of the fiber.
However, in cleaning, microfiber has a narrower definition.
“[Cleaning] microfiber is a very thin filament that has been extruded with two synthetic polymers — polyester and nylon,” explains Judy Klein,director of microfiber cleaning, Rubbermaid Commercial Products, Winchester, Va. “After it’s extruded, it’s processed mechanically and chemically to be broken into finer parts, 1/100th the diameter of a human hair.”
There are other processes and compositions of microfiber available, including a polyester-only thread that isn’t broken down chemically, says Ralph Jones III, president and CEO of Jones Yarn in Humboldt, Tenn. But, overall, the polyester-nylon blend is by far the most common for cleaning. The fibers are woven or knitted into cloths, mops and other materials for the jan/san market.
How it works
Microfiber is considered superior to standard fibers for many cleaning applications because it has more surface area, and the smaller fibers can get into cracks and crevices too small for other materials. Also, the split fibers add cleaning power.
“The spaces between the splits collect dirt and dust rather than just pushing it around,” says Tom Peglowski, marketing communications manager for the do-it-yourself/contractor market at Norton Abrasives, Stephenville, Texas. “The microfiber cloths can then be rinsed or washed to remove the embedded particles and reused hundreds of times.”
“Traditional cleaning textiles work by absorbing,” adds Strouse. “A standard cotton mop works by absorbing the cleaning chemical and water, which emulsifies the soil.”
Microfiber, which is a highly absorbent material, can often do the work without chemicals. The microfibers create a mechanical action that removes soils from surfaces. That said, cleaners will still need chemicals for certain applications, says Strouse, including when the soil is bonded onto the surface. But, he says, the majority of soils can be removed with a microfiber product and water alone.
“The main advantage to the microfiber products is that less time is spent cleaning because the material works more efficiently,” says Peglowski. “And it can be reused so it saves money.”
It also has antimicrobial properties, says Klein.
“Microfiber is so small it can pick up bacteria, whereas rayon or cotton is a large, round fiber and it can’t,” she explains.
What it’s good for
Different cloths can be used for different work, says Peglowski. There are dusting cloths designed to resist snagging and linting, soft polishing cloths that don’t scratch or streak, and cloths for general clean-up duties. Some companies color-code their microfiber cloths and mops for use in preventing cross-contamination, he adds.
For some cleaning tasks, microfiber is superior to regular cloths and mops.
“Cleaning grease from windows is hard because other types of fabrics just spread and smear the grease across the surface,” says Bensussan. “Microfiber has the ability to trap the dirt in its many filaments so it does not smear. Wiping a glass window usually leaves behind lint that the cleaner tries to eliminate by blowing on it. Microfiber cloths usually have very little or no lint so they clean glass very well. No lint left behind.”
Another area where microfiber excels is floor finish.
“Microfiber is very absorbent, so if you have a flat floor pad, submerge it into the finish,” Klein instructs. “Since the tools are ergonomic and lightweight, you can swing and apply a thin coat and end up with a smoother finish.
In fact, because microfiber tools are generally much lighter than their traditional counterparts, they can be considered appropriate for light-duty work when injured employees return from workers’-compensation leave, says Klein. While a string mop might be eight or 10 pounds when wet, a microfiber flat mop will weigh less than three pounds wet.
A word of caution
There are, however, some applications where microfiber isn’t appropriate. For instance, some chemicals are incompatible with microfiber, especially bleach or acidic chemicals, says Bensussan. These chemicals can attack and break down the fabric material itself.
“Microfiber doesn’t work as well for heavy, liquid soils,” adds Jones. Even though microfiber is highly absorbent, it’s not recommended for mopping up big spills or other transfer of large amounts of liquid.
Another job where microfiber isn’t appropriate is high-speed floor work, even though microfiber floor pads are on the horizon, says Jones.
“You have to be careful. It won’t work on an ultra-high-speed machine because microfiber has a lot of surface area, and will build friction, which can burn a surface,” he says.
In other cases, it’s the surface that’s incompatible with the cloth itself.
“Microfiber does best on smoother surfaces,” says Klein. “Rough concrete, which is almost too hard to mop with standard equipment, isn’t the best surface for microfiber because it’ll tear up the pad.”
When considering microfiber, BSCs do need to be cautious, says Bensussan.
“There is a lot of bad information in the market. Sometimes I think that the supply side is creating confusion to ‘unload’ any quality microfiber at any price,” he says. “End users do not yet know enough about this fabric to make sense of the arguments presented on a sales pitch. They are vulnerable to buying inferior products and over-paying for them”
Not all microfibers are identical, Bensussan says, and there isn’t always a correlation between price and quality.
“Do your research. Ask questions,” he says.