Nylon vs Polyester – A Comprehensive Comparison

Polyester fabric


Nylon and polyester are two of the most common synthetic fabrics used worldwide. Both have been extensively used in clothing, outerwear, athletic apparel, outdoor gear, textiles, and many other applications. Understanding the key differences between nylon and polyester is important for making informed decisions about which material is best suited for specific needs.

This article provides a detailed comparison of the characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, and ideal use cases of nylon and polyester fabrics. It analyzes factors like durability, environmental resistance, texture, cost, sustainability, and more to highlight the unique benefits and drawbacks of each synthetic fiber. Whether choosing fabrics for athletic performance, outdoor adventures, or everyday wear, consider the information below to determine if nylon or polyester is the better choice.

1. Nylon and Polyester Overview

Nylon is a silky, synthetic fabric made from petroleum and natural gases. Developed in the 1930s, nylon was the first commercially successful synthetic fiber and quickly became popular due to its durability, elasticity, strength, luster, and affordability compared to silk. It is lightweight, smooth, non-absorbent, stretchy, and dries quickly. Nylon is used for swimwear, outdoor gear, jackets, trousers, tracksuits, luggage, machine parts like gears, and more.

Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from coal, air, water, and petroleum. Polyester fibers are formed from a chemical reaction between an acid and alcohol. Developed in the 1940s, polyester became popular because it mimicked the appearance of natural fibers like silk but was more durable and affordable. Polyester is strong, resistant to stretching and shrinkage, quick-drying, and retains its shape well after washing. It is used for clothing, home furnishings, industrial applications like conveyor belts, and more.

2. Strength and Durability

Nylon and polyester are both known for their durability and resilience. However, nylon is stronger than polyester in terms of tensile strength. Nylon has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, meaning it is very strong but lightweight. Its elasticity also contributes to its durability—it can stretch up to 600% of its length and snap back into shape. This elasticity prevents ripping or damage when pulled.

Polyester is weaker in sheer tensile strength but still highly durable due to its resistance to abrasion, shrinking, stretching, and wrinkling. While it can stretch, it has low elastic recovery so it does not snap back into shape like nylon. Polyester is also resistant to pilling, which helps maintains a smooth fabric appearance after frequent use and washing. Overall, both synthetic fibers are durable, but nylon’s elasticity gives it an advantage in high-strain activities.

3. Resistance to Environmental Factors

Nylon and polyester have different strengths when it comes to resisting environmental factors like water, UV light, and daily wear and tear.

Nylon is highly weather resistant—it repels water well while also being breathable. This makes nylon suited for outdoor gear exposed to rain, snow, and moisture. However, nylon is more prone to degradation from sunlight than polyester. Prolonged UV exposure causes nylon to become brittle and experience discoloration.

Polyester has excellent resistance to sunlight, water, and chemical damage. The hydrophobic nature of polyester gives it good moisture-wicking abilities. Liquid beads up and rolls off polyester fabrics without absorbing. This property makes polyester suited for outdoor applications where it will be exposed to rain, humid climates, and washing chemicals. Polyester maintains its performance and appearance longer than nylon when used in harsh outdoor environments.

4. Comfort and Feel

The feel and comfort of fabric are important considerations for clothing and apparel. Nylon tends to be softer and smoother against the skin than polyester. The texture of nylon resembles natural silk, whereas polyester feels more synthetic to the touch.

Nylon fabrics have a luxurious drape and appearance that mimics silk. Polyester can look cheaply made and glossy compared to nylon’s subtle sheen. When blended with elastane and other natural fibers, nylon becomes stretchy, moisture-wicking, and excellent for form-fitting sportswear like swimsuits, tights, and athletic tops.

While not as naturally soft as nylon, polyester is well-suited for performance athletic wear and outdoor apparel. Its hydrophobic properties help moisture dissipate from the skin during physical activities. Polyester is also easier to clean and care for than more delicate nylons. For casual everyday wear, nylon’s softer hand feel may be preferable.

5. Price and Production

One of the main factors influencing the popularity of polyester versus nylon is cost. Polyester is significantly cheaper to manufacture than nylon fabric.

The raw materials for making nylon like petroleum and natural gas are more expensive than the coal, air, water, and petroleum used to synthesize polyester. At an industrial level, producing nylon requires high pressures, temperatures, and extensive chemical processing—adding to the overall costs passed onto consumers. Polyester production has lower input costs and streamlined manufacturing.

This means polyester clothing, outdoor gear, furnishings, and textiles come at a lower price point than nylon equivalents. Mass production of polyester makes it readily available and affordable compared to costlier nylon goods. Consumers seeking budget-friendly synthetic fabrics will likely favor polyester, while those wanting luxury finishings or high-performance gear may opt for pricier nylon.

6. Use Cases and Applications

The unique properties and performance characteristics of nylon and polyester make them suitable for different applications:

Common uses of nylon include:

  • Outdoor apparel and gear where durability and weather resistance are needed (hiking pants, jackets, tents, sleeping bags, ropes)
  • Athletic wear where stretch, ventilation, and moisture wicking are desired (swimsuits, sports bras, running tights)
  • Fashion apparel and accessories (dresses, leggings, lingerie, luggage)
  • Industrial applications like automotive parts and food processing equipment that require strength

Common uses of polyester include:

  • Outdoor apparel and gear where UV/water resistance and quick-drying are needed (backpacks, rain jackets)
  • Athletic clothing where wicking, drying speed, and elasticity matter (jerseys, tracksuits, sports uniforms)
  • Fashion apparel with blended fabrics (fleece jackets, dresses, suits)
  • Home furnishings and upholstery (curtains, carpets, sofas)
  • Conveyor belts, car tire reinforcements, ropes, and other industrial applications

Both nylon and polyester are prized for their versatility and ability to be blended with other textiles like spandex, cotton, wool, and silk. By combining the strengths of different fibers, manufacturers can create fabrics optimized for specific performance requirements.

7. Breathability and Moisture Management

Proper ventilation and moisture management are critical for athletic clothing to prevent overheating and discomfort. Polyester and nylon differ in their natural breathability and wicking abilities.

Nylon is more permeable than polyester, allowing better airflow through the fabric. This gives nylon an advantage in high-exertion activities where ample ventilation is needed to cool the body. However, nylon is also more likely to absorb sweat rather than wick it away from the skin.

Polyester is not very permeable but its hydrophobic properties help prevent moisture absorption. Instead, sweat beads are on the surface of polyester fabrics and can evaporate quickly. Polyester draws moisture away from the skin towards the fabric surface. This moisture-wicking trait makes polyester popular for athletic clothing, especially form-fitting garments where good evaporation is desired.

For the most breathable and sweat-wicking performance, blended fabrics like nylon/spandex blends optimize the strengths of each textile.

8. Stain Resistance and Easy Cleaning

Nylon and polyester have intrinsically different reactions when in contact with dirt, oils, and other contaminants. Polyester has a major advantage over nylon in stain resistance and ease of cleaning.

The hydrophobic and non-absorbent qualities of polyester that repel water also prevent staining from oils, lotions, food, and some dyes. Liquids bead up on polyester fabric instead of setting into the material. This allows stains to be cleaned off the surface of polyester with mild soap and water.

Nylon is naturally absorbent, causing it to hold stains rather than repel them. Water-based stains sink into the fibers and can be difficult to remove. Nylon needs to be washed gently and air-dried to prevent damage. Powerful chemical solvents may be required to remove severe staining.

The stain resistance and machine washability of polyester make it a practical, low-maintenance fabric for everyday apparel and athleisure wear. Nylon requires more delicate laundering but resists odor retention better than polyester.

9. Sustainability Considerations

As with all synthetics, polyester, and nylon raise environmental concerns regarding microplastic pollution and safe disposal. However, both fabrics also offer sustainability advantages over natural textiles.

Synthetics like nylon and polyester recycle well, allowing used fabrics to be turned into new textiles or other products. Their production also emits fewer greenhouse gases than cotton cultivation. Because they are cheap and durable, polyester and nylon clothing often lasts longer than natural fabrics, generating less textile waste.

Consumers should still aim to purchase high-quality, long-lasting gear made from recycled polyester or nylon. Properly washing synthetics by avoiding microfiber shedding into waterways is also important. Disposing of clothing responsibly via textile recycling helps prevent synthetics from entering landfills and oceans.

Consider environmentally friendly nylon and polyester made from recycled plastic bottles or fishing nets for outdoor apparel from brands like Patagonia. Eco-conscious buying, sensible laundering, and recyclable disposal can help mitigate the impacts of synthetic textile use.

10. Conclusion

Both nylon and polyester have unique strengths making them well-suited for different applications. Nylon shines where high durability, weather resistance, comfort, and stretch are needed. Polyester dominates in UV/water resistance, stain protection, affordability, and easy care.

For high-exertion athletic and outdoor apparel, nylon’s smoothness, breathability, and elasticity provide mobility and ventilation. Everyday activewear and rain jackets benefit from polyester’s wicking, quick-drying, and stain-repelling traits. Cost-conscious buyers get great utility from affordable, low-maintenance polyester.

By understanding the key performance characteristics of these two versatile synthetics, manufacturers and consumers can choose the best fabric for their specific requirements. Blending polyester and nylon allows clothing designers to combine the most desirable qualities of each into innovative textiles.

With mindful production methods and proper care, polyester, and nylon can deliver durability, functionality, and versatility while minimizing environmental impacts. The diverse strengths of these two synthetics will continue providing innovative solutions for both industry and individuals.