Bamboo in textiles is an important topic for discussion as it is often misrepresented by the industry.
Bamboo itself is a very fast growing and renewable resource and does not require pesticides or fertilizers to grow. This is why it is often considered ‘eco-friendly’.
Bamboo, when used in textiles, is often in one of four forms. Bamboo Rayon, Bamboo Lyocell, Bamboo blended with cotton, or Bamboo Linen. It is very common for companies to boast bamboo in their products but each of these forms is very different.
Most Bamboo in bedding is likely Rayon from Bamboo. Although bamboo may be used initially, it is processed in a manner similar to rayon. Rayon, although made from cellulose harvested from wood pulp (in this case the pulp would be from bamboo),it is chemically converted into the final product. Although the bamboo itself may be considered eco-friendly, the production process is not. Although made from regenerated cellulose using bamboo pulp, the FTC fined four major retailers in 2013 for false advertising stating their products were made from bamboo when in fact they were made from “rayon made from bamboo.” (Commission, Bamboo Textiles, 2019)
Lyocell has become very popular in recent years given its soft feel and comfort. It is derived from regenerated cellulose using from bamboo pulp. 99% of the solvent used in production, N-methyl-morphine-N-oxide (NMMO), is recycled earning this textile a more favorable environmental rating.
Bamboo with cotton requires the use of chemicals and a significant amount of water. Many do not realize that over 250 gallons of water needed to grow the cotton required to produce just one cotton T shirt. Organic cotton has gained in popularity owing to the fact that it is grown without the use of toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. However, to be labelled as organic, the only criteria to meet is to utilize USDA certified organic crops in production. The word organic can still be ascribed to cotton that utilizes certified organic crops even if it has been chemically modified with finishes or dyes. (USDA, 2019)
Bamboo linen is produced in a manner similar to linen from flax. However, it is a durable and coarse textile and not as soft as Lyocell or Rayon from Bamboo.
There are studies that show that people with eczema or atopic dermatitis favor lyocell. It tends to cause less itching, it is softer and it can regulate temperature and moisture more effectively than cotton.
I have studied bamboo with regards to sun protection as many companies tout the natural UV blocking tendency of bamboo without backing up this claim. Bamboo is often even cited on skin cancer awareness sites for its “natural” tendency to block UV. However, the actual measured a UPF of undyed knit 100% bamboo has a UPF of 13.861. Bamboo is a natural fiber made up of cellulose, hemi-celluose, and lignin derived from bamboo culm. It is considered a bast fiber similar to jute or hemp. Bamboo manufacturing can be either mechanical or chemical. The mechanical process involves enzymatically breaking down bamboo and combing out its fibers but is not commonly used given its costly and labor intensive properties. The more common process of extracting bamboo fibers is via the chemical process which is almost identical to the production of rayon utilizing carbon disulfide.
The softness of rayon from bamboo and lyocell tends to give textiles a feel similar to silk making it very favorable for linens. I think its important to not assume that if a company states it uses bamboo is using it in the most eco-friendly manner. If your goal is to choose bamboo products for the environmental benefit, it would be worthwhile to review what type of bamboo product you are investing in to avoid a false sense of security in a buzzword.