Synthetic products are more present in our lives than we would like to imagine. If you did a quick inspection around your home, you’d be surprised at how many synthetic items you own.
Well, synthetic fabrics are cost effective, are highly durable, and possess features that make them better candidates for certain things than their natural counterparts.
Polyester and polypropylene are the two most common synthetic materials. You might be familiar with one or the other and perhaps can’t tell the difference.
So, what’s the difference between polyester and polypropylene? The primary difference between polyester and polypropylene is that polypropylene is non-absorbent and better at wicking moisture than polyester.
There are more chemical and physical differences, but our intention for this post today is to explain how the differences effect those of you who wish to craft with either material. We’ll tell you the difference at a household use level so that you’ll be able to understand which is better if you had to make a choice.
Let’s jump right in.
What Is Polypropylene?
Polypropylene is a petroleum-derived compound that is typically plastic. It has found more relevance in the textile industry, accounting for 21% of its use than its original purpose, manufacturing plastic items.
To understand polypropylene better, let’s briefly explain its history.
History Of Polypropylene
Polypropylene was invented in 1951 by two chemists working for an American corporation known as Phillips petroleum. It happened as an oops moment when J. Hogan and Robert Banks were experimenting before accidentally creating it.
Three years later, an Italian chemist, Giulio Natta, transformed the compound into fibers. So, from a complete accident, the fabric was born and is now massively used worldwide.
Just like polyester, polypropylene is among the world’s largest produced and globally used synthetic fibers. It is second to polyethylene, which is number one.
The primary reason polypropylene is so popular is that it is cheap to produce in bulk. Manufacturers can create tonnes of it within a short time to meet the rising market demands quickly without spending much.
Features Of Polypropylene
Polypropylene fibers are super strong and resilient too, which makes long-lasting products. Polypropylene is lightweight yet incredibly strong and abrasion-resistant. Unless you use tools, it will take some serious muscle work to rip it apart with bare hands.
Another great feature about polypropylene is its good moisture-wicking ability. It is hydrophobic in nature and will repel moisture. It is non-absorbent but has air and liquid permeability without getting wet.
It is these inherent features that make it preferred for lining diapers and sanitary pads. It is breathable and permits the body fluids to pass through while leaving the skin dry.
The fabric also has high heat retention, which makes it perfect for warmth. It is ideal for the lining of warm wear due to its low thermal conductivity.
Polypropylene is chemically inert. The compound has solid and stable carbon and oxygen bonds, and its molecular structure is not polar, or non-reactive. Consequently, the fabric is chemical resistant.
For the same reason, polypropylene is stain-resistant. Any apparent stain you may see on polypropylene will just be superficial and not bound to the fibers.
On the flip side, that feature renders dyeing polypropylene impossible to dye unless you use toxic disperse dyes, and the results may be dismal. The lack of active dye sites means dyes have nothing to react with.
Now to the not-so-rosy aspects of polypropylene. The fabric is highly flammable. It has a low tolerance to extreme heat and melts at only 329°F.
In addition, it is weakened and fades with long-term UV exposure. Therefore, you wouldn’t want to get it in direct sunlight.
These qualities make polypropylene a tricky fabric to launder. You could easily damage it in a hot cycle washing machine or tumble drier. Also, it cannot be ironed nor hung in the line outside under direct sunlight.
However, because it is stain, rot, odor, mildew, and bacteria resistant, a mild cool hand wash will do to make it clean.
Lastly is the elephant in the room, and that is the environmental impact of polypropylene. Being a type of plastic, polypropylene is non-biodegradable.
Its production and disposal negatively impact the environment. However, there are many efforts to recycle waste polypropylene into other usable items.
Key features of polypropylene:
- Excellent moisture wicking
- Fast drying
- Low thermal conductivity
- Chemical resistant
- UV damage sensitive
- Highly flammable
Uses Of Polypropylene
Because of its cost-effectiveness in production, which gives rise to affordable end products, and durable nature, polypropylene has found its way into multiple industries. Polypropylene films are the most popular form and make packaging.
Staple fibers are usually sought after by textile industries for rugs, carpets, and blankets. Polypropylene filaments and monofilaments make the fabrics, netting, ropes, and cables.
The uses it can be put to are numerous, but here is a non-exhaustive list: clothing, textile, upholstery, food containers, food packaging, reusable tote bags, bottling, stationery, baggage, ropes, nets, electric cabling, diapers, military uniforms, masks, and PPE, etc.
What Is Polyester?
Like polypropylene, polyester is a petroleum-based compound. Its scientific name is PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate.
History Of Polyester
Polyester was here first, about two and a half decades earlier than polypropylene. It was invented by WH Carothers in the UK and later taken up by DuPont Corporation for improvement and mass production.
Initially, polyester was integral in manufacturing war items such as parachutes, tents, and uniforms. Later, after the first World War ended, it was diverted to being the raw material for clothing, textile, and upholstery as a means of restoring an economy crippled by war.
It quickly grew to demand more uses and global acceptance as the cheaper alternative to dress a population hungry for fast fashion.
Features Of Polyester
As a fabric, polyester is enduring thanks to its high tensile strength. It is a hypoallergenic fabric with medium thermal properties. Polyester is UV, wrinkle, chemical, and stain-resistant. The latter means it is difficult to dye as well.
Though earlier forms (100%polyester) were not very breathable nor excellent absorbers, polyester fabric today has some great breathability and absorbent features thanks to technology and a bit of blending with natural fibers like cotton.
Like polypropylene, it is also very heat sensitive, but this has been changed. Current manufacturers produce more heat-tolerant polyester fabric by adding a little bit of other natural fibers.
Polyester today is very comfortable and not the sweaty clingy fabric it once was at its conception. It is also absorbent and less fussy with regards to heat and sunlight making it easier to care for than polypropylene.
Unfortunately, it is a non-biodegradable fiber which should be a significant concern due to its widespread and ingrained use in society. It takes anything from 5-20 years to start breaking down, without factoring in the number of years it will take to get to the bottom of the already overflowing landfills.
The good thing is, fashion giants like GAP, H&M, and Adidas, among others, have taken up the use of rPET on their clothing lines, which is a significant step in the green direction.
Key features of polyester:
- High strength
- UV resistant
- Wrinkle resistant
- Good moisture wicking
- Hard to dye
- Heat sensitive
Uses Of Polyester
Polyester has overtaken cotton and other previously preferred fibers to be the largest produced and utilized clothing fiber.
Almost all types of clothing and household linen today have some polyester content ranging from 100% to as low as 5%: clothes, uniforms, bedding, cushion covers, curtains, socks, sweaters, innerwear, soft toys, and upholstery, to mention a few.
Polyester is also used in marine vessels and water safety equipment, food containers and packaging, furniture, textiles, luggage, etc.
How Is Polypropylene Different From Polyester?
Being a kind of plastic, polypropylene and polyester share so many similar qualities. It may be hard to decide which one to pick.
However, each of these fabrics has distinct features that make it more suitable for a particular use than the other. That’s because they are not exactly the same physically and chemically despite both being polymer fibers. Let’s go over the differences.
We promised not to get into lots of chemistry jargon, so we’ll keep the explanation very simple. Polyester and polypropylene fibers are produced through a similar polymerization process and extrusion through a spinneret, just like other types of plastic fibers.
But there’s a difference in their chemical composition. The compound polypropylene is produced by additional polymerization, in which propylene is the monomer.
Polyester, on the other hand, is a thermoplastic created by condensation polymerization. It starts with the reaction of an acid and alcohol, namely Terephthalic acid and Ethylene glycol.
While this may not be relevant when you have the end fabric in your hands, it’s good to know a little about it. Let’s move to the differences that may be more relevant to you.
2. Hydrophobic Ability
Polypropylene and polyester react a bit differently when introduced to water or fluids.
When it comes to absorbency, 100% polyester is not the most absorbent fabric. But when blended with natural fibers, polyester absorbs moisture even better.
Depending on how it is produced, polyester will have some degree of absorbency compared to polypropylene which has none. Fluid will pass through polypropylene without getting absorbed into the fibers.
Polypropylene is better at repelling water. Although polyester can wick moisture too, it is no match for polypropylene. Polypropylene will wick moisture very fast, resulting in speedier drying.
Both polyester and polypropylene have high tensile strength, which makes them very durable materials.
Because polypropylene is non-woven, it is slightly stronger than polyester, which can be knit or woven. Trying to tear through polypropylene would be a herculean task.
However, polypropylene doesn’t fare very well in certain conditions and can deteriorate really fast when subjected to them. One is extremely high temperatures, and the other is UV rays.
Polyester, on the other hand, can withstand higher temperatures than polypropylene and is UV resistant. Therefore it is more durable for outdoor uses and can be machine laundered without negatively impacting durability.
4. Heat Retention
Polypropylene performs exceedingly better as a warm fabric than polyester. It is a great insulator and retains a lot of body heat.
Polyester fabrics and blends are pretty breathable, so they aren’t very good heat insulators. Polypropylene is the go-to fabric for keeping extra warm.
Polypropylene fabric is almost always available in thin sheets and utilized that way unless layered. On the other hand, polyester fabric is available in an array of widths, from very sheer to heavy.
Polyester is the dominant fiber in the clothing sector. It is generally used to make all kinds of clothing you can think of.
Polypropylene is more dominant in the textile, upholstery, and packaging sectors. It is a good choice only for a specific clothing line.
Polyester Vs. Polypropylene – Key Differences
|Heat resistance||Low to medium||Low|
It is important to note that the stabilizers added during the manufacturing process of polypropylene and polyester can alter any of these features. Most frequently, it is to improve the fabric though.
Which One Is Better?
Suppose you check labels before purchasing clothing or make your own stuff using fabric. You may be faced with a dilemma between polyester and polypropylene at one time. Which one should you choose?
For everyday wear, clothing, bedding, curtains, and pillowcases, go with polyester or polyester blends. Polyester is more comfortable to wear, and it’s kind of all-weather.
You will be able to throw the laundry in a machine to wash and dry for hassle-free cleaning without compromising durability. Furthermore, they won’t fade in sunlight.
If you are sampling the two fabrics for athletics, tracksuits, sports uniforms, swimsuits, jogging pants, and tops or workout clothing, go with polypropylene.
When you are active, you tend to sweat a lot. You do not need a fabric that will get limp and heavy. Polypropylene is better suited for activewear.
It is ultra-light and will keep you dry and comfy thanks to its non-absorbent and exceptional moisture-wicking properties. It is also durable and abrasion-resistant; you’ll appreciate this if you know how rough and messy some sports can get.
And because of low thermal conductivity, polypropylene is also ideal for warm underwear. It provides extra warmth during cold seasons, whether you’re working out, hiking, or layering it under outer clothes.
For rugs, carpets, and fabric to upholster your seats, again, polypropylene is the best. These are items that tend to get dirty pretty quickly.
However, spills and dirt will no longer be a fuss because they’ll have no impact on polypropylene. It is resistant to stains, rot, bacteria, mildew, and chemicals. So you can clean the items with bleach and other solvents without fear of ruining them.
Polypropylene and polyester are so similar yet so different. But what makes them attractive is their cost effective prices and durability.
They may be nothing close to more luxurious fabrics, but both are heavily relied upon for making clothes thanks to their useful features.
While polyester is used generally for all types of clothing, polypropylene is more specific to active and warm gear. They have a myriad of other non-clothing uses.
So hopefully, what you’ve learned about the difference between polyester and polypropylene will be a great help in making future fabric choices.
Up Next: Can You Tie-Dye Polyester?