Olefin is the generic name for polypropylene, a synthetic fiber used to make many different products, including carpet. In the carpet industry, the terms olefin and polypropylene are typically used interchangeably, as they both mean the same thing. You may hear the fiber referred to by either name.
Characteristics of Olefin
Olefin has several distinct characteristics as compared to other synthetic carpet fibers.
Olefin is valued in the carpeting industry for its wool-like appearance. For this reason, it is often used in looped berber styles and in area rugs, both of which are commonly made from wool. Olefin’s finish can range from low lustre (matte) to a high sheen.
Olefin fiber is not as resilient as other fibers, meaning that it does not have the same ability to “bounce back” after being compressed by foot traffic. Because of this, it is typically used in looped styles of broadloom, such as berbers and level-loop commercial carpets. Specifically, low-pile, tightly looped styles of olefin offer the best durability.
In residential applications, olefin is best suited for lower-traffic areas. When used in a commercial carpet, it is usually recommended for light to medium commercial applications.
Staining vs. Soiling
The issue of stain resistance can be a bit confusing when it comes to olefin, because to truly understand how an olefin carpet will perform under certain conditions, you have to first understand the difference between staining and soiling.
- Staining occurs when a substance comes into contact with the fiber, and attaches to open dye sites in the fiber, thereby altering the fiber’s appearance. For example, a glass of red wine spilled on a carpet could leave a stain.
- Soiling is caused by a residue left on the fiber, either from a cleaning solution that was not fully removed or from oils on the bottom of your feet. The residue coats the fiber and attracts and traps dirt. The build-up of dirt leaves the appearance of a stain.
Olefin is highly stain-resistant but unfortunately is not very soil-resistant.
Stain Resistance of Olefin - Good
Olefin is hydrophobic, meaning that it does not absorb liquid. Due to this, olefin must be solution dyed (the color is added into the fiber during production, instead of dyeing the fiber after it's made).
Because solution-dyed fibers have no open dye sites (since they are technically not dyed) there is nowhere for stains to attach themselves to, so these fibers are highly resistant to staining. In fact, even bleach would not affect the color of the fiber.
Soil Resistance of Olefin - Poor
However, olefin is also oleophilic, meaning that it attracts oils. In fact, polypropylene is often used to help clean up oil spills in lakes and oceans, by skimming a polypropylene net across the surface of the water to soak up the oil.
Unfortunately, olefin’s weakness for oils means that any oil-based spill or residue will not easily be cleaned from the carpet’s fibers. Because of this, olefin is not recommended in areas susceptible to spills of oily substances, such as kitchens or dining rooms.
If you have an olefin carpet, wearing socks or slippers can reduce the transfer of oil from the bottoms of your feet. (This is good advice for all types of carpet.)
Outdoor Applications for Olefin Carpeting
Because it is hydrophobic, olefin is often used for outdoor and marine carpet. The fiber dries quickly when wet, and is not prone to mold or mildew as a result of the moisture. Additionally, being solution-dyed makes the fiber extremely fade-resistant, so exposure to sunlight and UV rays will not discolor the carpet.
Use in Basements
Many homeowners choose olefin for damp basements, because of its quick-drying and mold-resisting qualities noted above. In exceptionally moist basements where the threat of mold is high, an outdoor carpet made from olefin is the best option. See more about choosing the best carpet for the basement.
Cost of Olefin Carpets
The cost to produce olefin is lower than the cost to produce many other fiber types, so overall, olefin carpet will be considerably less expensive than carpets made of nylon or even polyester.
Of course, an olefin carpet will generally not last as long as a nylon carpet (depending, as always, on the other factors that affect performance) so the immediate savings in the cost of olefin may not be true long-term savings. However, for renovations in which budget is the primary consideration, olefin can typically offer the lowest price point in residential carpet.
Olefin Carpet Fiber Overall
In general, olefin is used in low- to mid-level qualities of residential carpet, and will not perform as well as, or for as long as, other fibers. As long as you realize this, and don't have any unrealistic expectations about the carpet, then a heavy olefin berber for a basement or kids' playroom would be appropriate. But it isn't ideal for high-traffic areas such as stairs, hallways, or your family's main living space.