Polyester vs Cotton. Which Is Better?

I’m having a great discussion with Peter in the comments section of this Uniqlo Undershirts article. He had a great question about polyester vs cotton, or rather natural fabrics vs man made.

I have recently purchased the AIRism v-neck undershirt in beige from Uniqlo. It feels really lightweight and comfortable but I’ve heard that man made materials like polyester are inferior to natural materials like cotton in regards to undershirts?

Instead of replying to him in the comments, I decided to write an article on the topic.

Polyester vs Cotton

Heya Peter,

From my experience, and in my opinion, natural yarns/fabrics are not superior to fabrics made from man made fibers like polyester or nylon. Nor are they inferior.

As it pertains to durability/longevity, they’re all about the same as well — with one major exception.

Each fiber/yarn/fabric comes in different quality levels.

Because of this, it may leave people with the impression that one type of fiber may be worse than another.

Not All Fibers Are Created Equal

But, the reality is, it’s not the fiber type that is better or worse than another. It’s the quality in which it was made, and from what it was made.

In other words, there can be poor-quality cotton that doesn’t last very long, or amazing cotton that has a long life. Same holds true with every other fabric, regardless of whether it’s natural or man made.

For example, the value brand undershirts, like the ones from Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, etc, can easily cost less them than $1 to make.

Knowing that is true, what do you think the quality of the cotton is that is used in that type of undershirt? Probably not very good.

Of course, the other variable is personal preference and/or how one person reacts to a particular fabric or yarn type.

For example, you may put on a particular polyester shirt and hate it, or it may make you sweaty or even hot. As a result, you may convince yourself that you don’t like polyester.

But, that experience was related to that particular shirt, the particular polyester that was used in that shirt, and the particular weave & weight of the particular polyester.

The truth is, it is very likely and quite possible, that you may absolutely fall in love with another shirt made entirely differently with polyester.

So, my recommendation would be to not only try different fabric types, but also to try different fabric blends, of different weights, even with different knit constructions, from different brands, and different price points.

Experimentation is crucial, so you can find an undershirt (or underwear) that you love (:

Polyester vs Cotton Articles

There are tons of comparison articles online about cotton vs polyester.

I did a “cotton fiber vs polyester” image search on Google, and it returned a boat-load of search results.

If you search for polyester vs cotton on Google, you will come across many, many results.

In my opinion, many of these articles could have a particular bias, so keep that in mind when reading them.

That said, it wouldn’t hurt to have multiple points of view on the subject matter. However, I believe it all boils down to personal preference.

My Favorite Undershirt Fabrics

I’m a huge fan of super lightweight undershirts — the lighter and thinner, the better.

My definition of super lightweight fabrics is in the range of 80gsm – 135gsm.

In polyester, I generally prefer the mesh weave fabrics over the typical jersey weave, because I feel those meshed weave polyester fabrics breathe better.

In TENCEL or Viscose (Rayons like MicroModal, Modal, “Bamboo”, or generic Rayon), most of my experience is with jersey knits, and I’m very happy with that style. Of the three, my personal preference is TENCEL. It simply feels cooler on the skin to me than the other two.

In Nylon, I like jersey knit and mesh weaves about equally.

In 100% Cotton, if it’s really lightweight (under 100gsm), I like jersey knits. If it’s over 100gsm, I like cellular construction which is basically the same as mesh weaves.

In blends like Cotton/Polyester or Cotton/Polyester/Rayon, I prefer a gauze-like weave (a very loose knit jersey).

What about you? What is your opinion on polyester vs cotton? Do you agree with my take? Let me know in the comments below!

10 thoughts on “Polyester vs Cotton. Which Is Better?”

  1. I was directed here by a search engine, started reading with interest, and then, only a few lines in, the first swearword appeared. I did not search for the next one – clicking on that little cross at the top as soon as I’m done typing. Such a shame my friend… I know anyone can write on the internet these days, especially if you’re your own copywriter, but make a little effort and respect your readers – it’s just basic manners.

    • heya disappointed — so sorry you took offence to a minor swearword.

      i try to write as i think, and hopefully others find value in the information in this article even if there may be a word or two they don’t care for.

  2. What about the smell? don’t the nylon, polyester or other synthetic ones smell worse more quickly than the cotton undershirts?

    • polyester tends to smell after repeated use. nylon does not hold odors like polyester, so it’s more rare for nylon to smell.

      please let me know if you have any other questions (:

  3. Heya Tug,
    it’s been a while since we shared similar technicalities ;-)

    I agree with your man-made vs. natural fiber assessment and would add two important aspects to consider. First, it’s like asking if a screw was better than a nail, meaning it really depends on the use (or activity) of the garment.

    Remember, Under Armour’s founder Kevin Plank started his man-made athletic (!) apparel line with the slogan “Cotton is the Enemy”. Today though, UA is selling tons of Cotton garments . . .

    Secondly (and as you pointed out), everyone’s skin is different. I can not wear wool, not even the finest Merino, it simply itches. But many of my friends have no problem with that.

    So, you may find that cotton undershirt very comfy and less smelly for a long day at work but the Poly shirt is just as perfect for your work-out session since it dries faster . . .

    Cheers, Ruedi

    • heya ruedi!

      wow, good to hear from you — it’s been a minute or two (:

      thanks so much for your input & thoughts. great stuff there!

      couple of additional clarifications:

      1. i totally agree with you regarding wool. i don’t like it because i find it incredibly itchy as well. i’ve also tried some of the finest wool undershirts available, and they are just as itchy as some of the less expensive ones.

      for warmth / insulation, i much prefer acrylic over wool. i have some “heating” undershirt from 32 degrees and uniqlo (made with acrylic yarns), and those are far better (and way less expensive) than any wool undershirt i have ever tried.

      2. when i’m talking about undershirts, i generally am referring to their use in normal daily-wear activities, unless i specify otherwise.

      there’s no doubt special circumstances (i.e. cold weather active use, active/performance use) can benefit from wearing specialty undershirt products.

      for example, when i go to the gym or go hiking, i normally wear a compression undershirt as my base layer, and then either wear a cotton t-shirt or performance (polyester or nylon) over it.

      if i’m traveling to cold climates, where i’ll be outdoors a lot, i normally wear an acrylic undershirt.

      thanks again!

  4. Hey Tug!

    Just finished reading your article and honestly, I do not know why I didn’t think of that!

    It’s like eating a Mcdonald’s hamburger, not liking it and saying I hate all hamburgers!

    I know you spoke about the different qualities of material, fibers and weaves but do you have a systematic way to determine the quality of the shirt itself besides the weight just by looking at it or feeling it and disregarding the price and brand?

    For example, do you rate the quality partially on the softness of the shirt or maybe smell?

    I would definitely like to try a bunch of different brands and materials but I am content with the Uniqlo AIRism line (for now at least). Also it doesn’t break the bank buying a few of them :)

    Thanks again Tug!

    P.S. Have you thought about making your own line of undershirts? Given your experience with them, I don’t think it would be difficult for you to create 2-3 different undershirts for every guy out there.

    • heya peter!

      glad you found the article helpful.

      to your questions:

      1. no, i have not found a way to systemically identify the quality of an undershirt in advance, or even after i get it upon an initial visual inspection.

      i suspect it would require at least microscope and some deep yarn expertise to be able to have a reasonably good way to determine an estimated quality/durability & life-span.

      2. atm, i have no interest in creating an “undershirtguy” brand of undershirts, though i am approached with similar proposals on a regular basis. my preference is to keep this site about education, and then refer visitors over to products that may be worth looking at.

      glad you’re enjoying your airism undershirts!

      hope they continued to work out well for you (:

  5. I really like Nylon Tricot undershirts boxers briefs because it is very lightweight and fast drying when you travel.

    I have to order them online since they aren’t sold in stores

    • heya jon, thanks for that info!

      how would you describe tricot fabric and how its different from other types of fabrics?

      tricot can have different weave styles, with some versions looking like mesh or cellular weaves.


Leave a Comment

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.