The decision between microfiber sheets vs cotton sheets can seem like a tough one. Luckily the reality is not that gloomy, as long as you keep a few key things in mind. In order to make the decision between microfiber sheets vs cotton, let’s first get to know the two materials separately. We’ll then give a thorough overview of their differences to help you make the right choice for you.
What Is Cotton
Cotton is the most common fabric for bed sheets. It’s also a highly used fabric in the textile world in general. I’m sure you own at least a few cotton T-shirts, cotton socks, tablecloths and towels. The thing to remember is that not all cotton is the same quality. So if you’re looking for bed sheets – keep in mind that you’ll be spending around one third of your life on top of these – it’s best to make sure you’re getting the best quality.
It’s easy to distinguish cotton from other plants. It grows in a particular manner, cotton bolls. The plant prefers warmer climates. The biggest producers of cotton are China, India, and the US.
Coming back to the quality of a cotton sheet, this depends on the type of cotton that is used for producing the sheet. The big names in the game are Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton (with its trademark name Supima cotton), and American upland cotton. The first three are higher quality. American upland cotton is often just labelled 100% cotton and is a more low quality product.
Staple aka fiber length
The thing that determines the sheet quality is the staple, or length of the fiber. The key rule is this: the longer the fiber, the better the quality.
Short and medium fiber are mostly used in sheets made from American upland cotton. Egyptian cotton is mostly long staple (LS) or extra long staple (ELS). Pima and Supima cotton are extra long staple cotton types. As extra long staples have the biggest length, they are also of a superior quality.
The reason why the staple length plays such a big role, has to do with the number of fibers that are needed to be spun into a yard. Each fiber has two ends, and these ends will be sticking out of the yarn. They’re too small to be seen when you just glance at a sheet. But you definitely feel it. Since sheets made from short and medium staple fibers simply have more fiber ends sticking out of them, they feel more rough against the skin. Sheets made from short and medium fibers are also prone to tearing and pilling.
Even though cotton can come in varying qualities, the plant still has underlying characteristics that are present in all cotton sheets. Just keep in mind that if you have the choice between different cotton types, it’s wise to go with either Egyptian, Pima or Supima cotton sheets that have long or extra long fibers. We’ll bring out the general qualities of cotton in the below sections, when comparing microfiber sheets vs cotton.
What Is Microfiber
Microfiber is not a natural fabric, like cotton. This means that it does not naturally grow in a large field of lilac microfiber. It’s a man-made fiber. Microfiber bed sheets are mostly made from polyesters, polyamides, or wood pulp.
What makes a fiber microfiber is its thickness. In order to qualify as such, the fiber has to have a thickness of less than one denier. Denier is a measure that characterizes the fiber’s linear mass density. It is the mass in grams per 9000 meters of the fiber. To get a better grasp of how fine a microfiber sheet really is, compare it to the human hair which is 20 denier, or light summer stockings which are 8 denier, or even silk which is 1.25 denier.
Microfibers are used in a variety of ways – for making mats, upholstery, cleaning products, clothes, bedding, backpacks, wallets, shoes, thermal insulation, basketballs, whiteboard cleaners.
Polyester is one of the most common microfiber for making bed sheets. The name is made up from two parts: poly means “many” in Greek and ester is a basic organic compound. It is made from coal, petroleum, water, and air. As polyester is the most popular microfiber when it comes to bedding, we will focus on the qualities of this particular microfiber in the below sections about microfiber sheets vs cotton.
Microfiber Sheets vs Cotton – Durability
Good quality cotton sheets, such as Pima, Supima and most Egyptian cotton sheets are know for their durability. As are quality microfiber sheets. The funny thing about microfibers is that the individual fiber is really frail. But the fibers are woven together so tightly that the sheet is actually very strong. Of course it depends on the quality of the microfiber as well, so keep an eye on that. The best way to do that is by checking the price tag – if it seems too good to be true, it most probably is. Just keep away from really cheap stuff as they will fail you in a short while.
Microfiber sheets with low quality tend to fail at once, ripping or tearing. Whereas low quality cotton sheets tend to start pilling and wearing over time. So they can still be used, even if you see the first signs of failing. But we’d suggest to keep away from bad quality sheets in the first place.
When talking about durability, there’s not much match for Pima cotton. One of our all time favorite is this sheet set by Peru Pima, which is made from extra-long staple (ELS) cotton fibers that come from Peru. ELS means that the quality is truly the highest and this shines through in the strength of the fiber.
Sizes: California King, King, Queen, Full, Twin
Colors: White, Ivory, Sky Blue, and more
Price: Starting at $100
The Empyrean microfiber sheets are made from an extra strong fabric. So you won’t have to worry about it tearing after the first wash or a rough night. What we love about these sheets is that in addition to the all around elastic on the fitted sheet, they also have corner straps. This gives you extra security on the sheet staying put during the night, even if you toss and turn.
Sizes: California King, King, Split King, Queen, Full, Twin, Twin XL
Colors: Black, White, Sage, and more
Price: Starting at $32
Microfiber Sheets vs Cotton – Breathability
There is quite a difference between microfiber sheets vs cotton sheets when it comes to how well they breathe. And this is often a deciding factor when buying sheets.
Cotton breathes well
As a natural fabric, cotton is known for its good airflow. This means that cotton sheets breathe well and you won’t ahve to worry about running hot during the night. The key factor that plays into this is thread count – the number of horizontal and vertical threads in one square inch of the fabric. The higher the thread count, the more threads there are in the square inch and the more tightly together they are. As a result, air does not have room to freely move between the threads and the fabric holds heat. What you want to go for is a good quality cotton sheet with a lower thread count, around 200-500.
Microfiber sheets retain heat
Microfiber sheets, on the other hand, tend to retain heat. If you’re looking for a breathable microfiber sheet, there may just be a handful of such sheets out there. Keep in mind that microfiber sheets are not characterized by thread count. You will often seem being described with a number like 1500 or 1800. But this is mostly just a series number. Or, the number describes the thread count of a cotton sheet that would the same feel as that particular microfiber sheet.
The thickness or weight of microfiber sheets is expressed in GSM, which means grams per square meter. But this is not a very well known term and is rarely used when describing a microfiber sheet. Probably because cotton is the most common fabric for bed sheets and thread count is simply just a widely spread term. When it comes to GSM, remember that the higher this number is, there more fibers there are in the sheet. As a result, the sheet is heavier. Usually the GSM of microfiber bed sheets falls between 55 and 120.
Microfiber Sheets vs Cotton – Feel
For many people, the feel of a bed sheet is the defining factor. And there’s good news on both fronts. Although slightly different to the touch, both microfiber and cotton sheets feel great against the skin.
Cotton sheets are known to be soft and usually a bit crisp. The softness of a cotton sheet depends on the fiber staple, as we discussed above. To quickly recap – the longer the fiber, the less fiber ends stick out to the fabric surface. These ends are what make the fabric seem more rough. So for that extra soft feel, make sure you go with extra long staple (ELS) cotton sheets. You can choose from Pima or Supima cotton. Egyptian cotton is also often ELS cotton but not always, so definitely double check.
Another great thing about cotton sheets is that the more you wash them, the softer they get. So even if you buy a cotton sheet set that seems a bit rough in the beginning, you’ll know that the future is much softer. All it takes is for you to regularly wash the sheet. What a great result – clean sheets that are also softer than before.
Microfiber sheets are especially known for their smoothness. There’s really not much match to them in this area. Some microfiber sheets are also brushed on one of both sides. This treatment leaves the sheet extremely soft as a result. Depending on the sheet, you may also get a more slippery feel. Some love the ability to move easily on the sheets while others dislike that their bed has turned into a slip and slide. Ultimately, it’s a personal preference.
Softening stiff sheets
There’s a super easy and low cost trick that will help you make stiff sheets super soft. All you need is baking soda and vinegar. You likely already have them in your cupboard but if not, they will cost you only $3. So if you ever get a set of stiff sheets that you want to liven up and make soft, follow these steps:
- Remove the sheets from their package and put them in the washing machine. Add 1 cup of baking soda and wash the sheets with warm water on a regular cycle. Don’t add any detergents, only the cup of baking soda.
- Now add a cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle. Set the temperature to cold.
- Once the cycle is finished, hang them up to dry naturally. This works best for new sheets, adding softness to them.
- When the sheets are dry, wash them once more. This time with detergent and regular temperature.
- When the cycle is over, dry them in the dryer.
Microfiber Sheets vs Cotton – Care
It’s fairly easy to take care of both cotton and microfiber sheets. Neither need special equipment for washing, your regular washer and dryer will do the job just fine.
Both cotton and microfiber sheets tend to shrink with the first wash. So the original size they come in may not be the actual size you get. However, some sheet sets are already sold pre-washed. That’s a good way to avoid the hassle of alternating sizes, so keep an eye out for those.
Cotton fibers are thicker than microfiber and as a result, it takes longer for them to dry. Microfiber sheets are thin and don’t need that much time.
What about stains?
Due to the tightness of microfiber sheets, and their resistance to water, they are less likely to stain. That is, if you act quickly. In case you do spill something on the sheet, just be sure to wipe it off as fast as you can. If you give the stain time to really soak into the fabric, it’s practically impossible to get it out. The resistance to stains means that you can also wash the sheets less frequently. A natural fabric like cotton is more prone to taking in stains, so it’s best to keep things like snacking in bed to a minimum. If you do get stains on the sheet, wash it according to the sheet instructions. And remember, Doctor Google is your good friend when it comes to stain removal.
Another practical aspect to consider is the amount of room you need to store the sheet. Since microfiber is such a thin fabric, it doesn’t require much space in your closet. And you can easily fit it in tight spaces. Cotton sheets, on the other hand, tend to fluff up a bit and will need slightly more room.
When it comes to wrinkles, as a general rule both fabrics tend to wrinkle to an extent. Cotton sheets a bit more than microfiber sheets. Some find it perfectly fine and don’t bother with ironing. But if you dislike wrinkles, you may need to whip out the iron every once in a while. There more good news on the microfiber front. Many microfiber sheets have finishing touches that make them practically wrinkle free.
Microfiber Sheets vs Cotton – Color
Here’s some great news – microfiber and cotton are both great in retaining color. Cotton sheets usually come in a smaller range of colors but they fade less than microfiber sheets. Microfiber, on the contrary, is know for its huge range of colors. So you can truly find whatever you desire. Just make sure that you get good quality microfiber sheets, as lower quality ones will fade quickly.
Microfiber Sheets vs Cotton – Pilling
Pilling is something that you probably don’t want to experience too much. In the most simple of terms, a pill is a small ball of fibers that forms on a piece of fabric. It’s also called a fuzzball, a lint, or a bobble. Pilling happens when loose fibers start pushing out from the surface of the fabric. Over time, as the fabric wears, these fibers develop into bundles that we call pills. They are stuck to the fabric, thanks to some protruding fibers that have not broken off.
Pilling happens with washing and wearing and a lot of fabrics tend to pill. Cotton and microfiber among them. But there are a few things that influence the amount of pilling, so it’s not a lost cause.
For cotton sheets, choose ones that have a longer fiber length. Sheets with longer fibers are better because (1) they have fewer fiber ends that can start sticking out and (2) the longer fibers do not work themselves out of the fabric as easily as short ones do. So go with Pima, Supima, or Egyptian cotton sheets that are either long or extra long staple.
Mircofiber can be a bit more prone to pilling than cotton. This is because the fibers are generally short. So it’s easier for them to start exiting the fabric, and there are more fiber ends that can start protruding.
Luckily there are a few processes that prevent sheets from pilling. One of them is singeing, which includes burning the loose fibers that are sticking out from the surface of the fabric. The second process is mercerizing, which improves the luster and strength of the sheets.
Microfiber Sheets vs Cotton – Price
For some this is the key element when it comes to deciding between microfiber sheets vs cotton. Microfiber sheets are mostly cheaper than cotton sheets. As with anything, beware of sheets that have a really low price. It may look tempting but there’s a reason why the cost is low.
We’d suggest you stay away from microfiber sheets that cost below $15. There’s little chance that they have something good to offer you. You won’t want to spend $15 on bedding, only to have to replace it after a month. In the end you’ll buy the cheap sheet AND the slightly more expensive one after the first one fails you after a few nights or washes.
Quality cotton sheets come at a significantly higher price and most of the time you’ll pay at least $60 for them. They’re a great investment, thanks to their breathability, softness and durability, so it’s definitely worth it. But if you want a natural cotton sheet and don’t have that kind of cash at the moment, there are also very decent cotton sheets that come at are more affordable price.