When it comes to mop heads, buyers face two choices: cotton string or microfiber. Both products come with their own set of benefits and drawbacks. Choosing the right material depends on the task, but “in general, microfiber does a better job of trapping and removing soils,” according to Schneringer.

The synthetic material does this by design. Made from polyester and polyamide, the fibers are split and split again until they are much finer than a human hair. This tangle of material increases surface area, allowing the fibers to absorb up to eight times their weight in liquid. The material also generates a static electric charge when moved across a surface. These charged fibers act like a magnet, picking up and containing dust and dirt instead of spreading it around.

The material can also cut down on chemical use. “There are Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies that demonstrate that microfiber picks up about 95 percent of soils without any added chemical,” says Schneringer. This means microfiber cloths and mops can save time, money and help eliminate any risks associated with cleaning chemicals.

Microfiber also lasts a long time. The tool can be washed “between 200 and 500 times as compared to a cotton mop — which only holds up for 15 to 30 washes,” says Silverman. There are a few caveats, however. Microfiber should be dried at low temperatures to avoid melting the fibers and fabric softeners will ruin the tool. Cleaning crews should also avoid using bleach or other acidic chemicals with microfiber products.

The material is so long-lived that it may be hard to keep track of all the washings. Workers will know their microfiber needs replacement when the mop or cloth no longer grabs particles, if the edges begin to fray or the tool no longer works as well as it used to.

It may take some careful observation to determine if microfiber needs replacing. Meanwhile, figuring out if a cotton mop has reached the end of its usefulness is not nearly as nuanced. If the strings appear frayed or break off during use, it is time for a replacement. Teach end users to also use their nose. A mop that smells bad, even after laundering, is ready for the landfill.

Despite all of microfiber’s benefits, there is still a place for the good old cotton mop. Available with cut ends or looped and banded fibers, a cotton or other natural fiber mop is a solid choice for picking up a big spill, “like a dropped bottle of soda in a grocery store,” says Silverman. They are also the recommended tool for stripping floors.

However, cotton or other natural textiles should not be used with disinfectants that contain quaternary ammonium chloride, also known as quats. “Over time the quats get bound up in the material and don’t make it to the surface,” explains Schneringer. This means the mop isn’t delivering enough pathogen-killing quats to the job.

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