woman cleaning mirror with chemical and microfiber cloth

This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to reflect current information.

Microfiber cloths have been making headway in the cleaning industry for decades. Today, they are the cloth of choice for much of the custodial cleaning industry. But despite the fact this high-tech fabric offers a host of benefits over traditional cotton, many facility cleaning managers still stock their janitorial closets with a combination of cotton and microfiber cleaning cloths.

“You want the best outcome for every space,” says Marita Nash, former director of environmental services and linen at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, New Jersey. “To get the cleanest surface possible, you have to find the appropriate product, make it available to cleaning staff, and be sure they know how to use it correctly.”

Before purchasing new cloths and mops for the department though, it’s important to understand the differences between cotton and microfiber, and the benefits of reusable and disposable products.

Comparing Microfiber to Cotton

While cotton is a natural fiber, microfiber is made from synthetic materials, typically a polyester-nylon blend. Microfiber is very fine — as much as 1/100th the diameter of a human hair — and about one-third the diameter of a cotton fiber.

Cotton is breathable, gentle enough that it won’t scratch surfaces and very inexpensive to purchase. Unfortunately, it has a lot of drawbacks — it pushes dirt and debris rather than picking it up, and it is made of organic materials that can harbor odor or bacteria. It also requires a break-in period to disperse the cotton seed oil, dries slowly and leaves lint behind.

Microfiber is highly absorbent (it can hold up to seven times its weight in water), making it very effective at actually picking up and removing soil from a surface. It also has a long lifespan when properly used and maintained, and is lint-free. Microfiber has only a few limitations — it comes with a much higher upfront cost than cotton, and it requires special laundering.

But cleaning experts say, when compared side-by-side, microfiber is clearly superior to cotton. So why do so many users continue to cling to cotton?

“People are resistant to change,” says Darrel Hicks, industry consultant and author of Infection Prevention for Dummies. “I can’t believe people are still holding onto cotton as being a viable product when it just doesn’t stand up to microfiber.”

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Choosing Between Cotton And Microfiber