Microfiber Cloths: Green Cleaning or Plastic Pollution?

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When I first switched to more natural and green cleaning products, microfiber cloths seemed like a panacea. They cleaned almost all surfaces with little or no additional products, were reusable, and seemed really sustainable. I found myself using them more and more and many sources recommended them as a natural cleaning alternative.

From a no-waste perspective, they seem great! They’re reusable and pretty close to zero-waste if you take care of them.

Fast forward almost a decade and science and technology have advanced, bringing up some potential concerns with microfiber.

In this post, I tackle the updated research on microfiber and share what I’m using now. I often think of the quote from Maya Angelou that “When you know better, do better.” This post is an example of that progression for me.

I should also mention here that while I’ve been anti-plastic for years, I can thank my 12-year-old for bringing this issue to my attention. He’s on a mission to end plastic pollution and I’m so proud of how dedicated he is.

What Is Microfiber?

Generally speaking, the microfiber used in cleaning cloths is made from a combination of two synthetic polymers — polyester and polyamide (nylon). In the highest quality microfiber cloths, these fibers are approximately 1/100 of a human hair in diameter. This makes the fibers barely visible to the naked eye. The fibers are bundled together and spun into thread which is then woven into cloth.

Some microfiber cleaning materials also have silver or other substances spun into them and claim to be antibacterial as a result.

Unfortunately, while they may feel like cloth, microfiber is essentially made of plastic. Petroleum products are used to create plastic polymers that are spun into a cloth. On the one hand, this high-tech process produces a product that is really, really good at picking up dirt and dust. Unfortunately, recent research shines light on a dark side of microfiber as well… more on that below.

Why Microfiber Cloths Became So Popular for Cleaning

When examined under magnification, an individual microfiber has a split or spoke-like appearance. The area between the spokes creates a larger surface on the fiber itself. When the individual fibers are joined together into thread, and then woven into cloth, the result is a product that has an amazing ability to pick up and trap dirt coupled with superior absorbency and scrubbing power.

In comparison, a traditional fiber, such as a cotton fiber, is larger and smooth. Cloths made from these fibers require a cleaning agent (detergents, soaps and other chemical cleaners) to dissolve the dirt, which is then absorbed into the cloth in order to be removed from the surface. If dirt isn’t easily dissolved, it isn’t easily picked up and can be left behind. While the split fibers of the microfiber cloths are able to pick up and hold dirt, traditional fibers tend to push dirt and moisture around a surface. So essentially, if you want a cleaner surface, choose microfiber!


Is Microfiber Bad for the Environment?

Short answer: yes.

The longer answer? We may not even fully know the extended impact of microfiber use yet.

Emerging evidence shows that synthetic materials like microfiber cloths may release these tiny fibers into the water supply during washing. Scientists are finding tiny microfibers in our oceans and lakes and trace these back to our home washing machines.

It turns out that a single piece of synthetic material may release thousands of fibers into the water supply in each wash!

Yet when we talk about the potential environmental downfalls, we aren’t just referring to microfiber mops and cleaning towels. All synthetic material and clothing may have an environmental impact by releasing microfibers into the water supply.

Microplastics Affect Us All

A few years ago, news outlets were abuzz with reports of how microbeads in beauty products were making their way into the water supply and harming ocean life. Microfibers belong to the same classification of microplastics as microbeads, and the new research in the last few years is shedding light on just how bad they are.

While our oceans literally fill up with floating islands of plastic that are as big as the state of Texas, these tiny fibers may be much more problematic.

Since they are so small, they can be more easily ingested by marine life. Over the long term, they make their way into our food supply in larger and larger amounts and cause problems for the ocean in the process.

Microfibers Are Not Recyclable

The materials used in microfiber towels and cleaning clothes are technically recyclable, but when woven into these types of materials they become non-recyclable microplastics. Not only that, they can contaminate the recycling process if we even try to recycle them.

As my son has explained to me, in order for plastics to be recycled effectively, they have to be correctly sorted by type. Microplastics melt at a different temperature than other types. This early melt causes a clump and turns the entire batch of recycling plastic into an unusable clump that cannot be made into a new plastic.

How to Reduce the Environmental Impact

Sadly, this means that microfiber cleaning cloths are not the best environmental option but they aren’t the worst either. While I wouldn’t suggest buying new cleaning cloths or microfiber mops as a green choice, if you already have them, I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water either.

We can still use microfiber to effectively clean viruses and bacteria from surfaces. They are a more sustainable option than paper towels or single use disinfecting wipes and throwing them in a landfill is just going to create more waste.

If you’re just starting with green cleaning, check out the recommendations at the bottom of this post for my top options but if you already have microfiber in your home, here are some tips for reducing its environmental impact:

Wash Microfiber Sparingly

With any synthetic cloth, most microplastics are released in the washing machine. Personally, I’m trying to just use microfiber when I’m dealing with mirrors or light cleaning so they can be washed as infrequently as possible.

The less I we wash them, the less we release into the water supply. Also, use cool or warm water instead of hot water when washing them, as higher temperatures seem to release more microplastics into the water.

Keep Using Them As Long As Possible

While I’m not buying any new microfiber cleaning products, I’m trying to use the ones I have as long and carefully as possibly since they can’t be recycled. I can’t turn back time and not buy them so I’m starting from here and reducing my impact going forward. Again, when we know better, we do better.

Use a Special Bag to Catch Microplastics

I’ve also started using a special bag called a Guppy Friend to catch microplastics in the wash. I use this especially for microfiber products but also for any synthetic clothing. There is evidence that this step greatly reduces the amount of plastics that make their way from washing machine into water supply.

I haven’t found any great options yet, but several companies are also working on special washing machine filters that would help filter out these plastics before they hit the water supply. I’m hopeful that increasing awareness about this problem will lead to continued innovation in filtration.

Better Alternatives to Microfiber for Natural Cleaning

When it comes to natural cleaning options, you’re hopefully convinced that microfiber isn’t the best option. If you’re here looking for the most natural way to clean your home, I have some other suggestions that have less environmental impact:

Reuse Cotton Cloth

Instead of buying any cloth for natural cleaning, reuse some that you have if possible. Things like old cotton t-shirts and socks make great cleaning rags. Old burp cloths and baby blankets also work and can be used as-is or cut into smaller pieces.

Rather than pitching or donating natural fiber clothing like cotton, hemp, and wool, turn these into reusable cleaning cloths for your home. We now keep a hamper of these in our laundry room as use them as paper towels, cleaning rags, and to mop up spills. When they eventually become too worn out to use they can be used as natural weed block in the garden and will naturally break down over time.

Eco-Friendly Cleaning Concentrate

Many cleaning products contain some pretty toxic junk. Microfiber cleaning cloths do let us avoid many of these products and this is one reason for the surge in popularity.

Thankfully, there are now some great natural cleaning alternatives that work just as well with lower environmental impact!

I personally use Branch Basics for almost all cleaning in our home now. It’s a natural, biodegradable, non-GMO plant and mineral based cleaner. Use it to make all purpose cleaner, on laundry, to clean countertops and on almost any surface in your home. It’s so non-toxic and safe that it can be used as a baby wash and I even use it to remove eye makeup!

Also, as a concentrate, it has a lower environmental impact. One bottle can last for months and months and leave only one recyclable bottle as a result. I recommend keeping some glass spray bottles on hand for mixing up various concentrations for natural cleaning.

Final Verdict on Microfiber

These types of cleaning cloths are not the green cleaning powerhouse we once thought they were. As we learn more about microplastics, we all have an obligation to prevent plastic pollution by using it sparingly and consciously. At the same time, if microfiber is already part of your cleaning routine, use them as long as possible to keep them out of the landfill and replace with better options when the time comes.

How do you handle this in your home? Were you aware of the issues with microplastics? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


234 responses to “Microfiber Cloths: Green Cleaning or Plastic Pollution?”

  1. Kathleen D McLynn Avatar
    Kathleen D McLynn

    Thank you for exposing the eco-friendly myth that micro fiber towels are “green.”

    Now if we can just clear up the green myths about agave and single-use plates are ok if they are made from bagasse!

    Have you tried Three Bluebird dishcloths? They work very well and claim (don’t have a testing lab) to have only wood fiber and cotton. They last a long time and are compostable.

    Really compostable, not those unstable plastics marketed as “compostable.” My take is that just because something falls apart doesn’t mean it is good for the land.

    I steer clear of bamboo fabrics too, sourcing the fiber isn’t the most planet damaging part, processing the fiber into fabric is much more toxin- heavy. ?

  2. Paris Parsons Avatar
    Paris Parsons

    Just wanted to thank you for being a responsible blogger.

    Too many bloggers are out there publishing incorrect, and even harmful, information because they failed to do their research.

    And everytime i come across a post with harmful, non factual information, i call them out.

    To that end, it seems only fair that I relay my appreciation to responsible and intentional bloggers such as yourself!

  3. Dianne Sahakian Avatar
    Dianne Sahakian

    I don’t like microfiber cloth or towels for cleaning as they spread the dirt around no matter what you use to clean with them, and they also aren’t good for drying dishes. I will use old bath towels for cleaning for rags and they do a great job. I will use cotton towels for drying dishes as they do a great job. I know people who buy brand new diapers and use them for dish rags, dish towels and cleaning and they are great for the purpose of any kind of cleaning and do a great job and they last a long time.

  4. Julie Avatar

    I’m very interested in the guppy bag. However, what is the correct way to dispose of the microplastics?

    1. Jamie Larrison Avatar

      According to the manufacturer: “Please dispose of the collected microfibers in the residual waste. It is best to collect and dispose of the collected fibers in a closed container. This reduces the chance of the small and very light synthetic fibers being blown away during waste collection and to end up in the environment.

      Microfibers do not belong in recyclable waste (yellow bin, yellow bag, green dot) because they cannot be recycled.”

  5. Chelsea Avatar

    I love microfibres but not enough to pollute water ways and buy plastic. I have discovered some wonderful 100% bamboo microfibres on the market though! So these are my go-to now, as they are home-compostable when I’ve cleaned until they’re threadbare.

    1. Paris Parsons Avatar
      Paris Parsons

      Guess what lovely piece of info i just found out?

      Bamboo fabric (made from bamboo fiber) is apparently not as environmentally friendly as its made out to be

      Short version:
      Bamboo fabrics are most often viscous & rayon. The process to make these materials are HIGHLY toxic to the environment. Also, the natural antibacterial properties are destroyed in the process.

      However, bamboo lyocell and bamboo linen are both extremely sustainable non-toxic materials. But, the manufacturing process is labor intensive and the end result is sort of rough like linen so its rarely manufactured.

      Next up on my research list- hemp.

  6. Deanna Avatar

    I was looking at the guppy bag and I see that it is made of polyamide 6.6 untreated. I’m not sure what the numbers mean nor how important it is to be untreated. However, polyamide is the same stuff used in microfiber cloths, if I’m not mistaken. It is the scientific name for nylon and other synthetics. How does this bag protect our cloths and clothes from shedding microplastics when it is made with the same or similar material. I hope you can clarify this. I want to do the best I can for our world but it seems it’s always one step forward, 5 or more steps back. Thanks for your efforts and for listening.

    1. Jen Jackson Avatar
      Jen Jackson

      Yes, my thought exactly about both Guppy and microfiber washing machine filters that are made with nylon or other synthetic material. There is a DIY washing machine filter called the Lint LuvR that has a filter made from stainless steel. We may spring for it and install so as to save my conscience. I have a lot of polyester workout clothes and I do love my microfiber cloths.

  7. Rebecca R Mohr Avatar
    Rebecca R Mohr

    Hi Katie!

    I started wrestling with this very issue recently as Norwex craze is going through my circles.
    I was on the verge of converting all my cleaning to Norwex and even selling it! It is going like hot cakes with the COVID19 issue. I own an Airbnb and wash literally LOADS of cotton cleaning cloths a month. I was rally looking forward to simplifying and down sizing as my rags are wearing down….which means lint! The thoughts you being up occurred to me and I decided to read up on this. Thank you for your article.

    Even more alarming to me is the issue of the hormone disrupters found in polyester and the stat that 100% of our polyester is now made from recycled drink bottles! A clear source of BPA and other hormone disrupters. Hormone disrupters or xenoestrogens in particular can PRFOUNDLY AFFECT OUR HEALTH, esp. affecting / changing sexual gene expression and throwing hormones out of whack.
    The other issue is that these fibers are so absorbent that they absorb and hold many times more toxins than the water around them when swallowed by marine life. I read that 80% of our planets water now contains these micro fibers. The more we use these synthetics the more this will accumulate or become concentrated. The fibers are so small they are thought to be an asthma trigger. Saveourshores,org has a consice summary of the issue and a nice video to demonstrate additional issues.
    Am so sad to lay my dream of Norwex to rest because they can’t be beat for picking up dirt and cleaning up messes of all kinds. So many pluses to them but the negatives are so alarming to me that I am refraining.
    Thanks for your integrity as well.
    Becky Mohr

    1. Aileen Avatar

      I had wondered about the danger fleece and other polyester fabrics might pose to the environment… I have been volunteering with a non-profit that makes dog and cat beds as well as toys out of fleece for animal shelters… I recently reported to the organi-zarion that I can no longer, in good conscience, help given the damage to the environment these fabrics create….
      Can you recommend another fabric that can be used to make the beds and toys…. the organizer asked me if “plush” fabric could be used, or if I have a suggestion… it appears to me plush fabric is just as bad…..
      Thank you

      1. Angelique Avatar

        Hi Aileen, you might want to check out cotton fleece. I mean, it’s not as ‘plush’ as plush lol but at least it’s not micro plastics. Also, from what I’ve noticed looking at labels some fleece is made from cotton and synthetic mix so just be sure to find one that’s 100% cotton.

    2. emilee Avatar

      Hi Becky .. ugh .. I know! I jumped on the Norwex bandwagon last month and have spent almost $1000 converting to this grand idea!! and then I asked myself .. wait .. what are they made from? Ugh!! you’ve got to be kidding me!! As a new consultant the spiel we give our customers is to avoid harmful chemicals we use norwex!! .. are you kidding .. use a harmful chemical to avoid using another harmful chemical. What a scam.

      1. Kelley Swartworth Avatar
        Kelley Swartworth

        I wanted to add that Norwex’s recycling program turns end-of-life microfiber cloths into renewable energy. Check out the sustainability section on their website ?

  8. Brinly Avatar

    Thanks so much, Katie! I have been wondering this same thing for some time. Very attracted to the E cloth and Norwex products, especially in wanting to start wiping everything due to CV-19 concerns. Still, I’d always thought…. isn’t anything “poly”… a kind of plastic? Not a chemical engineer. I like your summary. You bring up some really important points worth considering, and suggest some practical lifetime solutions for using and reusing what we own.

  9. Denise Jeremy Avatar
    Denise Jeremy

    Thank you for your posts. They are so helpful! I’d really like to know how to clean cloths that have been used to clean a toilet without using nasty chemicals whilst cleaning them well?

  10. Joselynn Avatar

    What kind of cloths do you use instead of microfiber for cleaning electronics screens that won’t scratch?

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