Viscose rayon is a fiber made from regenerated wood cellulose. With respect to bamboo, the term came into use when sellers of bamboo began to make product claims that the Federal Trade Commission (the government agency that regulates advertising) worried that consumers were being misled, that bamboo products somehow came straight from the farm into consumers’ homes. (We don’t doubt extravagant product claims were being made. We’ve seen some of them. We aren’t sure, however, that the use of “viscose rayon” clarified matters for the consumer.)
Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate that is the basic structural component of plant cell walls and is the most abundant of all naturally occurring organic compounds. It is processed to produce, among many, many other familiar products, papers and fibers, including bamboo fiber. The FTC ruled that manufacturers should identify bamboo fiber as bamboo viscose and/or bamboo rayon, meaning the fiber is produced from the cellulose of the bamboo plant.
Cotton production differs from bamboo production. Cotton is harvested and then ginned where lint is separated from seed. Lint is compressed into bales and then shipped to textile mills. Cotton is produced primarily in the United States while bamboo fiber is produced primarily in China.
Manufacturers of both bamboo and cotton fiber make “environmental” claims about their products the veracity of which can depend upon the degree of environmental purity insisted upon by a user. (That is, cotton supporters insist bamboo isn’t “environmentally friendly” because its pulp is broken down mechanically or chemically to produce fiber. Conversely, supporters of bamboo say that cotton is genetically engineered and, even worse, “organic” cotton requires 660 gallons of water to produce a single t-shirt compared with 290 gallons of water for a conventional cotton t-shirt.)
Bamboo fiber and cotton fiber have different strengths and weaknesses. Bamboo is extremely soft, but its fibers lose strength when wet. Cotton fibers, on the other hand, gain strength when wet, which is why they are used in so many medical applications to clean, protect and absorb body fluids.
Our formulation, developed here in the United States, now combines the strengths of both cotton and bamboo. Unicorn Station luxury washcloths are seventy percent bamboo viscose fiber and thirty percent cotton. We would suggest consumers be wary of products claiming to be 100 percent bamboo viscose.