Fleece can be made from different materials. I’ve been wondering if there was any actual difference between cotton fleece and polyester fleece and decided to do some research.
Cotton fleece and polyester fleece differ in warmth, breathability, durability, and comfort. Generally, polyester and poly-blend fleeces will be warmer more durable, and better at wicking moisture but cotton fleece is more breathable while cotton itself is generally considered comfortable.
There are several advantages and disadvantages to cotton and polyester fleece. Read on and I’ll explain the differences and why you might choose one material for your fleece over another.
If you’re wondering what fleece even is, jump to this section of the article.
Cotton vs. Polyester Fleece
Choosing between cotton or polyester fleece may seem like a challenge, so I’ve put together a table to summarize some general facts about the differences between polyester and cotton fleece. Of course, this is just a brief summary and there is plenty more to learn about when making the decision between polyester and cotton fleece.
|Polyester||Maintains heat and provides good insulation.||Usually soft, but cheaper polyester can be coarse. Not very breathable.||Does not retain moisture; dries quickly.|
|Cotton||More porous, loses heat more easily||Soft fabric, and light to wear in hot weather. Breathable.||Does not wick moisture; takes a while to dry.|
Now that you know a few key differences regarding cotton fleece and polyester fleece, read on to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of each as well as more in-depth comparisons.
Which Is Warmer? Cotton Fleece or Polyester Fleece?
A lot of factors go into deciding which fleece fabric is warmer. When researching this subject, some common terms you may come across could be:
- Air permeability
- Thermal conductivity
- Thermal resistance
- Moisture vapor permeability
These terms are a little technical. So, I’m going to break it down and go through each of these terms and figure out just which fleece fabric can help keep you the warmest during the winter season.
In simple terms, air permeability is how much air passes through a fabric. Air permeability is one factor that affects the overall warmth of a fabric because the more air that’s allowed through, the more likely the cold air can get to your body.
The density, thickness, structure, and number of pores of the fabric will determine how much air can pass through. Generally, fabric that’s less dense, thin, and has more/wider pores (gaps between each stitch) will be MORE permeable to air and thus allows more air to penetrate the fabric.
100% cotton is the most permeable to air, but a combination of 80% cotton and 20% polyester may be the most impenetrable to air (Saha et. al., 2019). This study compared three similar fabric types except they had a different ratio of cotton and polyester.
This makes cotton fleece the best choice for summer wear, because you might feel clammy and uncomfortable when wearing polyester. However, that makes polyester fleece or a poly/cotton blend the warmer choice for winter weather.
As a note, fabric thickness and whether it’s knit or woven also makes a difference in air permeability, so even though material type appears to make an impact, a thick cotton fleece will likely be less air permeable than a very thin polyester fleece.
Thermal conductivity pertains to heat transfer across materials by means of conduction. Conduction is a fancy way to describe heat going from one place to the next, usually from something hot to something cold (it never goes from cold to hot).
For example, heat is transferred away from your body (warm) to the ground of a tent (cold) when you don’t have a proper sleeping pad. Want to learn more about sleeping pads and how to find the right one? Click here!
While cotton material has a thermal conductivity of around 0.04 W/(m K), polyester has a thermal conductivity of around 0.05 W/(m K) (you can find more information about the thermal conductivity of various materials from this source).
Generally, you want to find a fabric with lower thermal conductivity, as this means that less heat will be transferred away from your body. So for the case between cotton and polyester, cotton does have a slightly lower thermal conductivity. Yet, when you combine cotton and polyester, you get even lower thermal conductivity (Alay, Gode, Alkan, 2012).
TL;DR: Polyester conducts heat better (less ideal) than cotton in their pure forms. Cotton/Poly blends are the best for thermal conductivity.
Thermal Resistance has the opposite effect of thermal conductivity; when thermal resistance increases, heat loss goes down.
The R-value is one way to measure thermal resistance. In general, higher R values have better insulation, so the same is found with thermal resistance. Additionally, thicker fabrics also have better insulation and the sought-after higher thermal resistance.
Polyester is a good insulator and is known to be one warmer for colder weather. However, polyester is the thinner of the two fabrics, which may be why the poly/cotton combinations are becoming increasingly popular.
While 100% cotton has lower thermal resistance (and thus loses more heat), cotton and polyester combinations are better at keeping the heat in. So, cotton may be better for cool summer nights, but polyester or poly blends may be better suited for cold weather.
Moisture Vapor Permeability
Moisture vapor permeability refers to a fabric’s ability to allow water vapor (water in its gas form) to go through the fabric. Oftentimes, vapor permeability is discussed in terms of breathability because, like air permeability, it’s related to how porous a fabric is.
Polyester, in general, does not absorb water, but with particular weaves, polyester has moisture-wicking properties. This allows you to stay dry, and in the winter, this is a life-saving thing.
Cotton, on the other hand, has higher water vapor permeability, meaning it allows more moisture through.
Since Cotton is hydrophilic (loves water), it sucks in the water and holds onto it. Cotton is like the ex-boyfriend that just won’t quit texting! “I love you, water, I think we go great together”
Furthermore, because cotton doesn’t wick water away from your body and takes forever to dry, that means that water is going to be against your body for a long time. In the summer, this may be a desirable feature, as it can even cool you off. But in the winter, you don’t want water vapor or sweat on your body.
Further, wearing cotton in cold and wet winter conditions can be dangerous. Because the cotton absorbs water instead of wicking it away, the fabric loses its ability to insulate your body. This causes you to become even colder, and because cotton takes so long to dry, it continues to get colder and could even lead to hypothermia. For this reason, the old saying is that “cotton kills.”
Now, I’ll be the first to say… I wear cotton in the wintertime. If you’re out in the wilderness I really recommend finding other fabrics because you can’t just go inside and change–but around the house or going for a quick jog you can get away with cotton because you can avoid getting your clothes wet.
So, just be careful with cotton and that will go a long way.
So, Which Is Warmer?
In general, polyester or polyester/cotton blends are the better choice when it comes to winter clothing in terms of thermal conductivity and comfort. 100% Cotton has lower thermal resistance and is also a porous material that lets too much air and moisture in.
Regardless of what you decide to wear while you’re hitting the slopes or hiking in the winter, you should know when it’s too cold to hike for your own skill level. We wrote an article about how cold is too cold for the average person and what you can do to hike in colder weather. Check it out, here.
Which Is More Comfortable? Cotton Fleece Or Polyester Fleece?
Many people like cotton because of its soft texture. Cotton fleece is usually smooth on its outer layer and plush on the inner layer. It’s generally more breathable and feels light when you wear it. Plus, very few people have reported skin irritation when wearing cotton, making it a good choice for young children or those with sensitive skin.
However, because cotton doesn’t dry quickly, you may be uncomfortable in wet clothing if you sweat or get wet. Additionally, cotton doesn’t hold heat well, so you may be cold when the temperature drops. So, there’s a tradeoff between the comfort of the fabric and how comfortable it is in cold and wet conditions.
Most of the time, polyester can be very comfortable. It’s a light, synthetic fabric that has a somewhat silky feel to the touch, but polyester fleece can also be soft and fuzzy. Like cotton fleece, it’s smooth on the outside but typically has some more shine to it. Sometimes, polyester fleece can even appear shiny. However, when you put something made from cheap polyester, the fabric may be coarse against your skin.
You can usually find cotton fleece in sweatpants and sweatshirts, but 100% polyester fleece can be used for sweaters, sweatshirts, jackets, mittens, hats, blankets, and other warm outdoor gear because of its insulation abilities.
So, between cotton and polyester fleece, which is more comfortable? Cotton fleece is more comfortable in cool conditions and is safe to use. Polyester fleece will be more comfortable and safe in cold winter conditions.
Which Is More Breathable? Cotton Fleece Or Polyester Fleece?
Because cotton is so porous and allows air to pass through, it’s considered to be a very light, breathable fabric when you wear it for daily living. However, if you plan on sweating or accidentally get caught in some summer rain, the cotton will absorb the water, leaving you uncomfortable and wet.
But, some people love cotton for the water it absorbs and will purposefully douse themselves in water to cool off. When the water eventually evaporates, it can actually have a cooling effect.
Because polyester is hydrophobic, it doesn’t absorb water, making it a not so breathable fabric. However, it’s a great fabric for moisture-wicking and will dry you quickly if you sweat from any rigorous activity. But because of its moisture-wicking properties, polyester is not ideal for wearing in the summer.
Many people have reported feeling uncomfortable in the summer because instead of absorbing the sweat, it will trap your sweat and make you hotter. So, save your polyester clothing for winter when you need extra warmth.
From my own experience this is the case. I have a thick polyester fleece that I love, and if the weather gets too warm (60s), it becomes pretty sweaty and uncomfortable.
Yet, breathability can vary depending on yarn size and whether it’s knitted or woven. Generally, the thinner the fabric and the finer the yarn, the more breathable the fabric. Even though it’s not the most scientific of experiments, you can try holding your fabric up against the light. With a thinner fabric, more light should pass through.
When the polyester is knitted or woven lightly, the fabric will breathe easier; when the stitches are closer together (tighter), then the fabric won’t be as breathable.
So, which fabric is more breathable? While polyester may be a better choice for winter wear, cotton seems to be the most breathable fabric for staying cool in the summer.
I have an entire article on this topic, so if you want to learn all about fleece breathability as well as the difference between heavy and lightweight fleece, click here!
Which Is More Durable? Cotton or Polyester Fleece?
Polyester is a durable fabric that is resistant to most wear and tear, is relatively resistant to insects and other micro-critters, has lasting color, and doesn’t wrinkle easily. Regardless of whether it’s wet or dry, polyester will remain durable and abrasion-resistant.
Cotton, on the other hand, is not as durable of a fabric. Along with being susceptible to stains and wrinkles, cotton loses its fiber strength as the temperature decreases.
Cotton is organic, which means it’s more susceptible to being eaten by micro-critters. Polyester isn’t indescructible, but it isn’t as tasty to tiny critters.
But, it turns out cotton is durable in higher temperatures, making it a good choice for sweating in the summer heat. The fabric also increases in strength when it gets wet which is a unique feature of cotton.
Which Is Cheaper? Cotton Or Polyester Fleece?
At REI, cotton and cotton blend fleece sweatshirts and outdoor wear can be anywhere from $50 to well over $100. However, REI‘s polyester and poly blend fleeces were consistently $100 or over. But, you may find some discounted pieces for less.
But on Amazon, you can find 100% polyester fleece jackets for $50 and under, so the prices may not be that different depending on where you shop. The cotton/polyester blended fabrics were a little cheaper at Amazon and were between $20 and $30.
As far as prices go, you can find a decently priced fleece, cotton, or cotton/polyester blend for similar prices. But, the 100% polyester fleece garments may be a little more pricy.
What Are The Advantages and Disadvantages of Cotton Fleece?
Now that we’ve gone through the differences between cotton and polyester, let’s take some time to summarize everything and look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Breathable and light to wear.
- Absorbs water, keeping your body cool in the summer.
- Hypoallergenic and good for those with sensitive skin.
- Soft fabric that is comfortable on the skin.
- Sustainable and comes from natural resources.
- Dries slowly, which can be dangerous in the winter.
- Does not insulate well, leaving you cold in cooler temperatures.
- Not as durable as synthetic fabrics.
- Wrinkles easily and shrinks in the wash.
- Color may fade quickly.
What Are The Advantages and Disadvantages of Polyester Fleece?
Cotton has its advantages and disadvantages, so what about polyester?
- Durable and abrasion resistant.
- Resistant to wrinkles and shrinking.
- Colors are resistant to fading.
- Stretchable fabric.
- Because it doesn’t absorb water, you might be hot in warmer temperatures depending on the weave or knit of the fabric
- Not very breathable, and has been known to stick to the skin.
- Some fabrics may feel coarse.
- Polyester fleeces shed microplastics during washing or drying. These microplastics have been found in bodies of water and can be damaging to plants and animals.
What Even Is Fleece?
Fleece isn’t a type of material like cotton or polyester, so what is it?
Fleece is a fuzzy fabric that’s meant to resemble a sheep’s coat (thus the name, fleece). The term “fleece” used for the synthetic fabric first came into the market in the 1970s from Patagonia (source), and since then has become very popular due to its inexpensive creation and also that it’s a durable, yet lightweight fabric.
Fleece is not a particular material like cotton or polyester, instead, it’s a knitted fabric that has at least one “brushed side,” aka, the fuzzy side. The brushed side creates a raised surface, which gives it that soft, plushy feeling. Many fleece fabrics, like cotton fleece sweat pants and sweatshirts, have just one brushed side–usually the inside–so that the wearer can feel the comfortable, fuzzy fabric. When a fabric is “double-brushed,” you get the fuzzy fabric on both the outside and inside. Fleece can be knitted or woven fabric and has many varieties, such as:
- Cotton/cotton blends
- Polyester/poly blends
- Lycra spandex fleece
- Polar fleece
- Sherpa fleece
Interestingly enough, fleece is man-made, synthetic fabric and was originally derived from plastic, like plastic bottles. While it’s a big plus that used plastic such as plastic from the plastic bottles do make this fabric a bit easier on the environment, there still is a big concern about microplastic shedding.
Consequently, nowadays you can find more natural materials used for fleeces such as wool, cotton, hemp or rayon.
Does Fleece Shrink?
One of the worst feelings is putting on some of your brand new clothing only to find that it shrunk in the wash. Any fleece will shrink if it’s made from 100% cotton. Even if the shrinkage is minimal, your cotton fleece may not fit right, causing you to be uncomfortable and likely frustrated.
So, your best bet will be to buy fabric that is either a mixture of cotton and another fabric (such as polyester). Or, you could always plan to buy your cotton fleece one size larger, but this seems a little extreme and is a bit of a gamble.
While polyester fleece is less likely to shrink, you should still be careful of washing and drying your fleece at hot temperatures. To make sure you avoid shrinkage altogether, wash your polyester fleece in warm (not hot) water and either set it to medium or low heat or even tumble or hang dry instead of subjecting it to the hottest temperatures of the dryer.
Advantage of Cotton/Polyester Fabric Blends
Both cotton and polyester have their advantages and disadvantages, so by combining the two, you get the best of both worlds. The combination of cotton and polyester will create a fleece fabric that’s breathable, durable, and abrasion resistant. Cotton/polyester blends are fairly common combinations, with 60%/40% and 80%/20% cotton/polyester and 100% cotton fleece being the most common according to Saha et al., (2019).
Which Is Better: Cotton Or Fleece?
You’re now armed with vast knowledge a out both cotton and fleece fabric. But, which one is the better option? As you’ve read from the sections above, there are some pros and cons to each, and each material performs differently depending on the weather. So, if you’re deciding on which fleece to buy, you may want to consider the purpose of your purchase.
- Are you trying to find outdoor gear for winter hiking? Go with polyester.
- Are you looking for something light for summer nights by the campfire? Go with cotton.
- Do you need something that’s going to last longer? Go with polyester.
- Do you want something more comfortable for daily chores around the house? Go with cotton.
Of course, your decision is ultimately up to you and your lifestyle, so I hope this guide on the differences between cotton and polyester fleece helped!