Elastane vs Spandex: Suitable For A Sustainable Stretch?
Even if elastane is the last thing on your mind, it’s probably on your body.
Socks, underwear, bras, or activewear—elastane is in all of them.
But what is elastane fabric?
It’s a synthetic fabric that is best known for its stretchiness, which is why you’ll often find it in even the most sustainable yoga clothes.
Speaking of stretch, there’s another flexible fabric you may see on garment care tags: spandex.
What is spandex fabric?
Same thing, different name.
You read that right: spandex and elastane (and Lycra, for that matter) are the same material.
The properties of spandex (AKA elastane) are great for movement, but are they moving our planet’s health in the right direction?
Not so much. The problem though is that it requires quite a stretch of the imagination to consider a world without it.
Let’s flex our way to addressing this elastane vs spandex confusion and figure out why, regardless of the name, it’s found in so many garments.
WHAT IS ELASTANE/SPANDEX FABRIC?
Elastane, also known as spandex or Lycra, is an elastic (obviously) synthetic fabric.
Technically speaking, it’s a general term for any polyether-polyurea copolymer fabric.
Just what is elastane made of?
It’s composed of a human-made blend of about 85% polyurethane (PU) and polyethylene glycol.
In 1937 Nazi Germany, Otto Bayer invented polyurethane, a long-chain, petroleum-based polymer completely devoid of organic materials.
First used as an elastomer in German fighter planes for heat and shock insulation, the substance quickly found a way into many of the plastics we still rely on today.
Think of polyurethane as a lab-grown rubber alternative. It’s a material that doesn’t require forestry experts or harvesting.
While textile use wasn’t the first priority for polyurethane, it was the DuPont Corporation that decided it would make a fabric with stretch.
In the late 1950s, a decade of DuPont research later, elastane fabric was born.
ELASTANE VS SPANDEX VS LYCRA
Polyurethane became popularized by the DuPont Corporation as a helpful elastic fabric. They branded their elastane with the name ‘Lycra’ and used it for not just apparel, but also industrial applications.
So, what’s the difference between elastane vs spandex vs lycra?
Simply branding. They’re all the same.
It’s where you’ll hear the terms used that differs.
While not a hard and fast rule, elastane is typically uttered more in Europe while spandex is an Americanism.
While spandex and elastane are more generic terms, Lycra is typically only used when referring to the Lycra brand elastane.
WHAT ARE THE PROPERTIES OF ELASTANE/SPANDEX?
First found in bras, jockstraps, and activewear of the 1960s, this material is known for its stretch, no matter what it’s called.
Elastane = elastic.
Spandex = an anagram of “expands.”
Simply put, there’s just nothing as elastic as elastane—a fabric that can stretch up to 500% its original length!
Today, elastane is found in roughly 80% of the garments worn in America.
As evidenced by the YouTube sensation “Activewear” and the replacement of business casual pants with dress slack lookalike yoga pants, we have an insatiable hunger for elastane—one that is likely to continue to grow.
Last year, the global elastane market was valued at $6.9 billion. By 2027, it’s estimated to nearly double that amount, at $12.6 billion.
But it’s not just the stretch that’s stealing the show.
This fiber is also relatively durable, lightweight, adaptable, and resistant to oils, lotions, detergents, sweat, and damage from sewing. Yet another of the useful properties of spandex is the ability to retain its size and shape.
IS ELASTANE / SPANDEX FABRIC SUSTAINABLE?
Doing yoga in your elastane-happy leggings may make you feel closer to nature, but is elastane good for it?
Off the bat, spandex won’t be making it into our list of sustainable fabrics anytime soon.
It’s made from a range of synthetic components and requires a lot of toxic chemicals to produce.
Polyurethane, the main precursor for elastane, is not one of the most dangerous types of plastic (at least when compared to the likes of PVC). Still, it’s “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the NIH’s National Toxicology Program.
Isocyanates, another raw material required in order to make polyurethane, have been linked with respiratory issues like childhood asthma.
And for anyone who has leggings to match an event, cartoon, or day of the week, you’re probably aware of the dyes that are typically used to process the fabric.
While Milky Way yoga pants look cool, they may also be releasing hazardous chemicals into work environments, soil, and waterways.
Then, after that pesky thigh hole takes over, and the leggings are discarded, the non-biodegradable elastane ends up in the landfill.
But, when we approach it with a more holistic understanding, there are some ways spandex can be used responsibly. As you’ll see below, some brands are doing it right.
For starters, while elastane is a synthetic fabric, it’s not like nylon, which releases nitrous oxide – ~300x more potent than CO2 at warming our planet. It also doesn’t shed microplastics as vociferously as polyester fleece.
The properties of elastane are also unique. It simply can’t be found elsewhere. Short of ditching our underwear, socks, and other comfy clothes, we’re stuck with this form of stretch—for now.
HOW TO CARE FOR AND DISPOSE OF ELASTANE / SPANDEX FABRIC
Elastane has several benefits that make it suitable for ethical activewear and the like.
However, the fabric will need to be washed a little more frequently because of it’s low breathability and the tendency to trap moisture and odor.
Since elastane is synthetic with a relatively low melting point (450°F, though heat can start negatively affecting it at 350°F), that makes this task a little tricky.
To get around these sweaty setbacks, spandex is often combined with materials like polyester and cotton. This decreases elastane’s heat sensitivity, but special care should still be taken not to permanently damage the fabric.
- Wash elastane-containing garments in cold water (lukewarm if necessary)
- It’s best to hand wash, to avoid excessive stretching
- Never use chlorine bleach
- Opt for a mild, eco friendly laundry detergent
- If using a machine, use the delicates cycle
- Avoid using a machine dryer
- Do not iron
- Wash with a GuppyFriend bag to capture microplastics
Elastane garment disposal
However, keep in mind that the elastane itself (being an inorganic material) is not biodegradable and would need to be removed from the finished compost.
Depending on how long it’s left, it may also release microplastics while separating from its organic counterparts.
While elastane can be recycled in theory, the process is extremely difficult because it’s blended with other fibers.
That said, the best way to dispose of elastane is by simply not disposing of it. Get as much wear out of elastane-containing garments as possible.
When those eco friendly socks and ethical leggings finally give out, look for responsible disposal and upcycling ideas in our guides on what to do with old clothes, what to do with old socks, and what to do with old underwear.
BRANDS THAT USE ELASTANE / SPANDEX RESPONSIBLY
According to the Global Organic Textile Standard, elastane can still be used in small quantities (10%) and the finished garment can still be considered organic.
So while some stretch factor is necessary in certain types of garments, minimal content is optimal to make this not-so-sustainable fabric a toe-touch more eco friendly.
There are a few brands who don’t want to stretch out their use of spandex and so reduce its use as much as possible:
- Boody: Organic and closed-loop bamboo viscose is used in garments like ethical activewear, underwear, and organic bras—but it doesn’t provide stretchiness like spandex. The elastane here normally makes up around 6-7% of the garments.
- Organic Basics: The brand prioritizes the use of natural organic fibers and semi synthetics, but as they got their start in underwear, keeping bums covered would be nigh impossible without elastane. Expect to see about 5% blended into most garments, including their organic underwear.
- Threads 4 Thought: Providing sustainable and comfortable clothes for men, women, and kids, T4T uses organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Lenzing modal. They keep the percentage of spandex limited to 10% of all garments.
- ARO: Their sustainable swimwear contains 15% spandex, a little higher than the other brands, though admittedly swimwear is a special case. The other 85% is completely recycled synthetics so the higher spandex percentage doesn’t change its biodegradability.
THE FUTURE OF ELASTANE
The fact of the matter is, we need elastane, albeit a small amount.
Fortunately, the material is getting a little greener.
Spanflex was the first to make recycled elastane yarn from production waste. It combines elastane waste with recycled plastic bottle polyester.
Spanflex CF-Eco Fabric has an energy consumption rating and carbon footprint that’s less than half of its virgin counterpart. It’s Global Recycling Standard certified, too.
In 2016, researchers found that isocyanates (one of the precursors to make polyurethane) could be made from plant materials. While the finished fibers weren’t as strong as spandex, it’s a big step toward providing a better alternative.
In 2009, a San Diego-based startup made spandex from cane sugar.
They converted sugar cane or sugar beets into commercial-grade 1,4 butanediol (BDO), one of the types of plastics commonly used in spandex.
Unfortunately, after a few rounds of funding, not much has happened since the early 2010s.
Using dextrose derived from corn, this bio-based Lycra fiber also uses EcoMade technology.
All in all, more than 65% of the fiber is made with renewable or recycled materials (recycled PET)—and it still prevents bagging and sagging.
Natural dyes, which are traditionally difficult to use with synthetics, have been the subject of much research in recent years.
A few years ago this report found that plasma treatments can increase the longevity of the dyes. Hopefully, we’ll see more spandex leggings dyed with plant substances like saffron and curcumin in the future.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON ELASTANE VS SPANDEX
The elastane vs spandex confusion is an easy one to solve.
They’re the same!
But the spandex vs elastane vs our planet argument, well, this one’s not so easy.
When it comes down to it, elastane is made from fossil fuels and releases microplastics into our environment. Still, our wardrobes would be simply inflexible without it, especially considering there’s nothing else like it.
Given that elastane is so ubiquitous in our clothing, we’re admittedly holding out for a greener alternative hopefully in the near future.
In the meantime, keep your own consumption of elastane to a minimum and look for garments that do the same with 10% or less of the fiber.
If you’re in need of a new pair of yoga pants, consider keeping elastane out of landfills longer by shopping online thrift stores first.