Polyamide refers to a group of synthetic textiles, most commonly Nylon which was created by the American company DuPont. Nylon began as a silk replacement in ladies stockings and went on to become very popular for sportswear and swimwear.
What you may not be aware of is that polyamide is made of plastic. The textile we love to use in our activewear is made via a chemical process whereby extreme heat is applied to fossil fuels (eg. crude oil) to produce nylon chips which are then made into a stretchy and durable fabric.
Is polyamide fabric good or bad?
Polyamide was indeed a very useful discovery in its day, gaining popularity for its performance qualities and affordability during World War II. Unfortunately polyamide isn’t as great as we first assumed in part due to the numerous harsh chemicals involved in its production. And it’s most certainly not biodegradable. Much like single use plastics, polyamide stays with us for the long haul, taking up to 200 years to break down.
On the plus side for polyamide, it’s inexpensive and can be combined with natural and pricier materials making them into textile blends that are both stronger and cheaper than the natural fibre on its own. Polyamide is also very low maintenance and known to be wrinkle, water and stain resistant. A key reason for our love of polyamide and its use in sportswear is the high stretch quality that made it superior to silk when making stockings.
The downside of polyamide is that it’s essentially plastic and doesn’t cope very well with heat, it can melt when exposed to high temperatures. It’s also not very breathable and absorbs moisture.
The two most concerning ‘bad’ qualities of synthetic polyamide are the toxic chemicals used and released in its production and its impact on the environment.
Is polyamide better than polyester?
It is very easy to get confused between polyamide and polyester, the fabrics look and sound very similar! A key difference is that polyamide refers to a group of fabrics, the most commonly known being Nylon. Polyester on the other hand is a specific fabric. Both fabrics are essentially plastics but have a few characteristics that set them apart.
Polyamide is smoother and tends to feel nicer against the skin, hence its use in stockings. Polyamide is more stain and wrinkle resistant compared to polyester. However one of the downsides to polyamide is that it absorbs water and isn’t as quick drying as polyester. Synthetic polyamide also isn’t very breathable and it’s very stretchy compared to polyester. Both polyester and polyamide are both durable but polyamide is the most durable fabric of the two.
The impact of polyamide fabric on the environment
In making more environmentally friendly fabric choices, synthetic polyamide most certainly does not make it onto the list. The production of this common textile is hazardous and results in nitrous oxide being released, said to be 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As we noted earlier, polyamide fabrics are plastic and once manufactured they do not go away anytime soon. Clothing made from these synthetic materials will stay in our landfills for hundreds of years, shedding microplastics into the air we breathe. In their useful life they shed these microplastics into our oceans with each and every wash cycle.
Is polyamide fabric safe to wear?
Although the majority of manufacturers do their best to source quality polyamide fabrics, quality and safety are not able to work together when it comes to synthetic fabrics.
Polyamide is manufactured using hundreds of harsh and toxic chemicals. Plasicisers, softeners, flame retardants, water and stain proofing, the list goes on. These chemicals are highly likely to be absorbed by your body as you sweat in your skin tight, barely breathable polyamide garment. Research into the effects of these additives to human health is ongoing. Some links have been found between exposure chemicals in synthetic fabrics and health concerns such as reduced testosterone, infertility, adult obesity, and developmental issues and lowered immunity.
What about bio-based polyamides?
Now for the good news! Polyamides can also be much better than the synthetic version of polyamide widely used by most brands today. The bio version of polyamide is made using renewable resources such as natural fats and oils rather than fossil fuels.
Bio-based polyamides offer all of the performance benefits of synthetic polyamide but with a significantly reduced carbon footprint. They don’t release toxic gas during production, the resulting fabric takes a lot less time to break down, and it doesn’t shed microplastics over the course of its useful life. Even better, the manufacturing of bio-based polyamides doesn’t require harsh chemicals, a very different story to that of its synthetic cousin.
As for synthetic polyamides, bio-based polyamides is a group of polyamides, there being various types and with unique qualities.
So you may be wondering why brands are not all running to replace their synthetic polyamides with bio-based ones?
A key reason holding bio-polyamides back is cost. Although it has been around for more than 50 years, the bio-based polyamide is still a niche product and very expensive. The supply chains are not in place yet for it to gain momentum. That said, things are looking up for the future. With increasing consumer concern about health and environmental issues brands will be in a better place to scale their clothing lines using this incredible material.
The content in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, always seek the advice of your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment immediately. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this article or linked materials.