Just as the clothes make the person, the sheets make the bed. Having the softest sheets is a no brainer. But have you considered sheets that are healthier for you? When you sleep, your sheets are close to your skin. Sheets that react to your skin have either been washed in something that you are allergic to or the material the sheets are made of are causing some reaction. When you sleep, your sheets are also close to your nose and mouth. You want to breathe in good quality air as you sleep each night. You don’t want to get up close and personal with cheap sheets that are off-gassing formaldehyde and other chemicals into the air that you are breathing in. What are bamboo sheets? Are bamboo sheets good for you? What are the pros and cons of bamboo sheets? Let’s find out.
Bamboo. Exotic, poetic, fast-growing grass beloved by pandas and environmentalists alike. By now, we’ve all heard that bamboo is highly sustainable and its fabrics are not only ultra eco-friendly, but they also have antibacterial, moisture-wicking, and cooling properties as well.
What are bamboo sheets? People who sell bamboo sheets will never fail to mention the amazing, near-magical benefits of bamboo, but is that just a ploy to charge you more, cashing on the popularity of all-things-eco-friendly? In this article, I will explore what are bamboo sheets made of as well as the pros and cons of bamboo sheets so you can make a decision whether bamboo sheets are good for you and your lifestyle.
The answer to all of these questions depends entirely on what kind of bamboo sheets we’re talking about. If you think that all bamboo sheets are eco-friendly. think again!
What Are Bamboo Sheets Made Of?
There are four main types of bamboo fabrics used to make sheets:
- Bamboo rayon
- Natural bamboo
- Bamboo lyocell, and
- Bamboo blends.
To understand the what are bamboo sheets as well as their pros and cons, you’ve got to know who’s who and what’s what in the world of bamboo textiles.
My handy guide will sort it all out for you so that you don’t pay for luxury and get nothin’ but heartache in return.
Mechanical vs Chemical Processing of Bamboo
When you crush natural product from the cotton, flax and bamboo plants down into the stringy and fibrous mess, this mess is called cellulose. The cellulose is the insoluble part of the plant cell walls. Cellulose is used to make the textiles we recognize as cotton, linen and bamboo sheets.
As I mentioned in my Savvy Shoppers Guide to Bamboo Mattresses, there are 2 ways that cellulose is manipulated to produce a fabric from the bamboo fiber.
- The mechanical process is considered more green and eco-friendly. A combination of a machine and natural enzymes creates a yarn. Bamboo linen or fabrics made with “100% bamboo” are the result of the mechanical process.
- As you can imagine, the chemical process converts a natural fiber into a less natural fiber because of the chemicals used. Bamboo rayon and bamboo lyocell are produced using the chemical process. Bamboo sheets made from rayon results in a more synthetic fiber than lyocell.
Let’s get into some more detail about what are bamboo sheets made of.
1. Rayon Bamboo Sheets
Rayon is regenerated cellulose fiber. Cellulose is reformed into rayon by adding chemicals to it.
Bamboo rayon, also called bamboo viscose, accounts for the majority of bamboo fabrics—and bamboo sheets—on the market today. Most rayon fabric is made using the viscose process, which involves dissolving the bamboo cellulose in a strong solvent. This creates a thick, pulpy solution that’s forced through a spinneret and into another solvent that solidifies the cellulose strands into fibers that are then used to make the thread and fabric.
Some of the chemicals used to manufacture bamboo rayon include:
- Chlorine bleach
- Sodium hydroxide (a.k.a. lye)
- Sulfuric acid, and
- Carbon disulfide.
All of these chemicals are toxic to the environment and cause serious health problems in humans. Only 50 percent of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process can be recovered and recycled. The remaining 50 percent, along with a huge amount of wastewater, is returned to the environment.
Now, on top of all that, it makes logical sense that bamboo treated to such a toxic bath of chemicals wouldn’t retain many of its original properties. Indeed, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) stresses that the most-celebrated qualities of bamboo are undermined by the chemically intensive manufacturing process of bamboo rayon.
You’ll notice that bamboo rayon sheets are always labeled as “rayon made from bamboo.” That’s because, in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) put the kibosh on the rash of false and misleading green claims concerning bamboo fabric. They cited research that shows rayon made from bamboo doesn’t retain any of the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, its manufacture isn’t even remotely eco-friendly no matter how you slice it, and it’s not biodegradable in a reasonably short time after disposal.
The pros and cons of bamboo sheets: Rayon
Pros: Bamboo rayon is super soft and silky, in many cases even more-so than rayon made from other fibers.
Cons: The chemicals used to produce bamboo rayon are highly toxic to humans and to the environment, and the manufacturing process is very chemical- and water-intensive. Rayon bamboo sheets don’t retain the beneficial properties of the bamboo plant.
The bottom line on rayon bamboo sheets
If your primary concern is comfort, bamboo rayon sheets are said to be even softer and silkier than rayon made from other fibers.
But if you’re buying bamboo rayon sheets—and paying more for them—because you’ve been led to believe that they’re eco-friendly and have beneficial properties, you’re being bamboozled.
Now you know what rayon bamboo sheets are made of, let’s see if we can find the less synthetic alternatives.
2. Natural Bamboo (a.k.a. Bamboo Linen, 100% Bamboo)
Natural bamboo, also known as bamboo linen or 100% bamboo, is manufactured using the same process that’s used to make linen from flax or hemp. The woody parts of the bamboo plant are crushed, and natural enzymes are added to break down the bamboo and turn it into a big pile of mush. The natural fibers of the bamboo are then combed out mechanically, rather than chemically, and turned into yarn.
Natural bamboo sheets are truly eco-friendly.
But does a gentler manufacturing process mean that the fabric retains the beneficial properties of the plant? One comprehensive study of natural bamboo fibers found that they had no natural antibacterial properties when compared with other textiles. Another study of bamboo, soybean, and flax fibers—and blends of these—found that the more natural bamboo fibers were in a blended fabric, the more antibacterial properties the fabric had.
So it looks like the jury may still be out on this one. Either way, a solid weekly washing of your bamboo sheets should keep bacterial infestations at bay, just as it always has. Nothing new here.
The pros and cons of bamboo sheets: Natural Bamboo
Pros: Natural bamboo sheets are truly eco-friendly, according to the NRDC. They may also have antibacterial properties, according to some studies.
Cons: Natural bamboo sheets are hard to find, since producing them is expensive. When you do find them, they’re gonna set you back some cash. Bamboo linen isn’t generally as soft as bamboo rayon, and in some cases, it’s not even as soft as cotton. It also wrinkles dreadfully after washing, as any linen is wont to do.
The bottom line on natural bamboo sheets
If it’s eco-friendly bed sheets you’re looking for, natural bamboo is a truly green choice.
But natural bamboo sheets may not deliver the ultra-soft and silky feel you’re looking for. And if you’re not the kind of person to diligently iron your sheets after you wash them (and if you are, I want some of what you’re having,) you’ll probably want to pass on bamboo linen.
3. Bamboo Lyocell
Bamboo Lyocell is made using less-toxic chemicals, chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and a class of weak alkalines known as amine oxides.
Lyocell is manufactured in a closed-loop process. This means that the chemicals used are continuously recycled back into the manufacturing process, keeping them out of the environment. Lyocell also requires less water to manufacture, compared to other textiles.
As with bamboo linen, there seems to be contradictory information about whether bamboo lyocell retains the anti-bacterial properties of bamboo. Either way, the manufacturer is pretty much guaranteed to claim as much, and they may or may not be right.
What is Tencel®?
Tencel is a branded name of Lyocell. While Tencel made from bamboo is becoming more popular, bamboo Tencel sheets are still pretty hard to come by. But if you can get your hands on them, the NRDC recommends them as the most eco-friendly bamboo fabric of them all.
The pros and cons of bamboo sheets: Lyocell
Pros: Bamboo Lyocell is softer and more durable than both bamboo rayon and natural bamboo, and it’s the most eco-friendly choice for bamboo sheets.
Cons: Bamboo Lyocell sheets aren’t easy to find, and they’re expensive.
The bottom line on bamboo lyocell sheets
If you can invest in them, you can’t go wrong with bamboo lyocell sheets based on all the pros.
4. Bamboo Blends
Bamboo is often blended with other textiles, like cotton, polyester, and microfiber. Bamboo blends are generally stronger and softer than other bamboo fabrics, but the vast majority of blends involve bamboo rayon and aren’t even remotely eco-friendly, although they’ll probably be billed as such.
Bamboo blends are generally stronger and softer than other bamboo fabrics, but the vast majority of blends involve bamboo rayon and aren’t even remotely eco-friendly, although they’ll probably be billed as such.
My Verdict – Are Bamboo Sheets Good?
Bamboo is an amazing plant, there’s no doubt about it. But just because a product is derived from it doesn’t mean the product is healthy or green. Ethanol is derived from corn, but that doesn’t mean you’re gonna serve it up at your next picnic.
What are bamboo sheets? As we’ve learned, the pros and cons of bamboo sheets depends entirely on the type of bamboo fabric they’re made of.
The bottom line on bamboo is this: If you’re looking for healthy, eco-friendly sheets for your bed, bamboo lyocell and natural bamboo are excellent choices.
Don’t waste your time or money on bamboo rayon or bamboo rayon blends, which are neither eco-friendly nor particularly healthy.
When people say all bamboo sheets are natural and wonderful, don’t believe them. Not all bamboo sheets are created equal.
When people say that all bamboo sheets suck, don’t believe them either, they’re probably trying to sell you cotton sheets.
Neither bamboo or cotton sheets are perfect.
It’s a decision and choice you need to make.