Microfibers: The Full Story


PHOTOS: Water treatment facility by “eutrophication&hypoxia” via Flickr |Yoga pants by Eli Christman via Flickr | Freshwater flea by Per Harald Olsen/NTNU via Flickr Creative Commons | Pile of plastic by Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr Creative Commons |  Oyesters by Denise Chan via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 | Fibers from Patagonia jacket by Shreya Sonar, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB | Other photos by: Mary Anderson or Pixabay
Voice: Dr. Carmen Keist

What is a microfiber?

Artboard 1

Want to know more about how a microfiber is made? click here

To understand microfibers, you first must understand fibers. There are two types: synthetic (man-made) and natural (found in nature).

Read more about the difference between natural and synthetic fibers.

Synthetic fibers are made chemically, so you can melt and mold them into any shape or size. This is where we get into the microfiber industry.

With deniers less than 1.0, microfibers are about 1/5 the diameter of a human hair.

“A yarn of microdenier fibers or microfibers may have as many as four times more fibers than regular fiber yarn of the same size,” Sara J. Kadolph wrote in the textbook, Textiles.

And the apparel industry loves them.

“Synthetic fibers account for about half of all fiber usage,” J E McIntyre, Professor Emeritus of Textile Industries at University of Leeds in the UK said.

Why choose a synthetic fiber over a natural? Natural fibers must be grown, picked and manufactured. Synthetic fibers can be easily mixed and melted. This makes them less expensive and more efficient. They also improve some characteristics of the fabric.

“They generally dry faster. It’s also more comfortable because it’s more form fitting and stretchy, ” Dr. Carmen Keist, Apparel and Textile Management professor at Western Illinois University said.

Synthetic fibers are stronger and more durable. It’s like plastic (synthetic fibers) versus a cotton ball (natural fibers). The small size also allows the fabric to have more drape, or a loose flow as they hang off the body.

Read more about the benefits of microfibers here. 

What’s the issue?

Video by The Story of Stuff Project

Why should you care?

Microfibers are in a lot of our clothes.

According to Stiv Wilson, campaign director of The Story of Stuff Project, 60% of all clothes on Earth are made of polyester. And that is just one of the many synthetic fibers. There’s still nylon, rayon and spandex as some of the most common. There’s also fibers companies like Lulu Lemon have trademarked. They make up that Dri-Fit shirt that keeps the sweat from sticking to your body when you work out. (Or that “higher quality” pair of leggings I mentioned in The Leggings Fad: Part 2)

See a full list of trademarked fibers and fabrics.

They are leaking into the ocean.

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They do not go away.

Microfibers contain up to 78% of persistent organic pollutants. This means they do not degrade or break down and thus have the ability to make their way up the food chain. They are so small they are not just accumulating in the guts of fish, they are making their way into the parts we actually eat. They also have been found in oysters, crabs and even table salt.

Some experts think microfiber pollution will decrease as the trend of athleisure makes it way out.

“Like with everything in fashion, the athleisure trend will come and go,” Keist said.

Others expect the pollution to increase.

According to a study done by the World Economic Forum, by 2050, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish.

The impact on the human body is unknown.

Nylon was introduced as the first synthetic fiber in 1928. Polyester came in 1950. But the boom in manufactured fibers is now. Just this week, engineers from Standford came out with a new plastic fiber that cools the skin.

The knowledge of the pollution these microfibers have created is also recent.

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click to enlarge                                                                             note: this article claims fleece jackets can release 6,500 to 28,000 fibers while this one claims there can be up to 250,000.

Okay, so what can we do?

Whether you simple skimmed this article or it had you wanting to bang down the door of major textile production companies, there is something we all can do to help reduce the pollution.

The small things


This is the easiest way to reduce microfiber pollution.

“As Americans, we tend to over-care for our products meaning that we wear it once and wash it. Most products do not need to be washed in between wears,” Keist said.

Change the way you wash your clothes.

  • Hand wash when you can.
  • Liquid detergent is better than powder. The small beads of the powder rub against the fabric causing more fibers to release.
  • Make sure your load is full of water. The more water, the less friction. The less friction, the smaller amounts of microfibers are shed from the clothes.
  • Smaller loads. Once again, less friction.
  • Wash with cold water. Not only does this reduce shrinkage, it also reduces the release of fibers. High temperatures can damage the fabric, causing more loose fibers to fall off.
  • Choose the right setting. Higher spin speeds result in more friction. This article explains what each setting means.

Want to do more?

Buy different fabrics

  • Natural fibers – they are found in nature and thus cannot be manipulated into a microfiber.
  • Blends – when you blend 60% or more of a natural fiber with a synthetic fiber, you get the best of both worlds. Take a 60-40 cotton polyester blend, for example. It is going to have the strength of the synthetic polyester with the comfort of the natural cotton. Blended fibers have to be the same size to keep uniformity throughout the yarn. Since the majority of the blend is a natural fiber, the synthetic fiber is not made as a microfiber.

Buy or donate to the production of one of these products:


  • Speak up. The Story of Stuff, the organization behind the ban of microbeads has made a petition. It states, “We call on clothing brands to: 1) publicly acknowledge the seriousness of the pollution threat that microfibers pose; 2) commit to investments of time and resources to investigate and test potential Solutions; and 3) share what they learn with each other and the public.” Sign the petition here.
  • Take action with the Plastic Pollution Coalition. You can take a pledge to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle, become an activist or donate to the cause.
  • Tell a friend. Share this article with the hashtag: #MicrofiberPollution.

Microfibers might be small, but they are causing some big problems. Whether they will continue to make their way in to our food or the industry will come up with a way to solve the problem, I am sure this is not the last you will hear of microfiber pollution in our oceans.


Are We Eating Our Fleece Jackets? Microfibers Are Migrating Into Field And Food
Microfibers: How the Tiny Threads in Our Clothes Are Polluting the Bay
15 Ways to Stop Microfiber Pollution Now 
Microfiber Pollution and the apparel industry
Yoga pants, fleece jackets and the microplastics dilemma
Fish for dinner? Your seafood might come with a side of plastic
Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption
Microfibers emerging as new environmental threat as Canada moves toward banning microbeads


  1. A great multimedia package! Everything works so well together. The only suggestion I have is to put your audio slideshow in the “Why you should care” section.


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