Natural vs. Synthetic Carpet Fibers Compared

Fibers come in two categories

Natural fiber carpet swatches

Tim Ridley / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Carpet fiber is the type of material from which the strands of carpet are made. All carpet fibers fall into one of two categories: natural fibers or synthetic fibers. Within each category there are types of fibers that have specific characteristics, including certain strengths and weaknesses. To be sure that you choose the right carpet for your home, you need to understand the pros and cons of the fiber types and how they will affect the carpet’s performance. Read on to learn the traits of natural and synthetic fiber types.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic materials are those not found in nature. They are machine-made from various chemical compounds. Synthetic fibers represent the vast majority of carpet fibers sold today.

There are four major types of synthetic fiber used in carpeting: nylon, polyester, polypropylene (olefin), and the newest synthetic carpet fiber, triexta.

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers are comprised of materials that grow in nature that are harvested and processed into fibers. While natural fibers make up a relatively small percentage of broadloom in today’s market, they still have a place in the carpet industry.

There are many natural materials but only several that are commonly used in carpets. Wool is by far the most common natural fiber in carpeting and is virtually the only natural fiber used in broadloom (wall-to-wall carpet). Other natural fibers are more often made into area rugs, including sisal, cotton, seagrass, jute, silk, and coir. Most of these fibers are either too weak or too rough to be made into broadloom.

Differences Between Natural and Synthetic Fibers

While each fiber type has specific traits and differences, there are some general characteristics of natural and synthetic fibers that can be observed.

Eco-Friendliness

Natural fibers are generally more environmentally friendly than synthetics because they are made from more sustainable resources. In addition, synthetic fibers will release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are gasses emitted from the fibers. Natural fibers themselves will not release VOCs, however, if the fibers are attached to a synthetic backing, then it is still possible for VOCs to occur. Inhaling VOCs can potentially cause respiratory problems.

Stain Resistance

Synthetic fibers are generally much more stain-resistant than natural fibers. Although wool has a fairly good protective barrier thanks to the microscopic scales that cover the fiber, once a substance penetrates the barrier and gets into the fiber’s core, it is almost impossible to remove the stain.

In addition to being more stain-resistant, synthetic fibers are generally easier to maintain. They are easily cleaned with common spot treatment products found on grocery store shelves and can be deep cleaned through hot water extraction (commonly referred to as steam cleaning). By contrast, natural fibers require specialty cleaning products and professional cleaners specially trained in dealing with the particular fiber type.

Durability

Durability is one area in which it is difficult to make an overall comparison between naturals and synthetics because of the individuality of each fiber type. For example, wool is extremely durable and resilient to foot traffic. On the other hand, cotton—another natural fiber—is not very durable by comparison. Similarly, in synthetics, nylon and olefin are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of durability—nylon is one of the most durable carpet fibers available, and olefin is often better suited for low-traffic areas.

Tip

Carpets made from either natural or synthetic spun fibers are prone to shedding after installation but will subside after a year or so. The carpet will lose tiny bits of fiber left from the manufacturing process. This is normal but it does not affect the quality of the carpet. The fibers are not a health risk; they are too large to get into the air and cannot be breathed into the lungs.

Cost

In general, natural fibers are more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. Pricing out broadloom per square foot or square yard, or pricing out a specific size of an area rug, will likely reveal that the natural fiber has a higher cost over the synthetic option. Carpets made from natural fibers require special products that make them typically more costly to maintain. But it also helps to know that synthetic carpets made of nylon fibers are more expensive than polyester fibers since nylon is usually more durable.

Practicality

For many, installing a carpet made of synthetic fibers is more practical than installing one of natural fibers. For example, if you have a busy household, you may not want the added responsibility of a natural fiber carpet that requires more maintenance.

Article Sources
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  1. Volatile Organic Compounds. American Lung Association.

  2. Installation tips. The Carpet & Rug Institute.