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What is Organic Cotton? Sustainable Cotton Fabric Guide

cloud cotton blanket
Written By
PARACHUTE TEAM
Photographs By
JESSICA SCHRAMM FOR PARACHUTE
@parachutehome
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It’s no wonder organic cotton is seeing such a rise in popularity today. In an era of fast fashion, sustainable fabric has come into its own. But is organic cotton a smarter choice than cotton products that don’t bear the organic label? Is it better for the environment, and for your family’s skin?

As a biodegradable natural fabric, conventional cotton is certainly more eco-friendly than synthetic fibers, but organic cotton fabric takes sustainability one step further. Organically grown and organically processed cotton cuts down on landfill waste and reduces pollution. Organic cotton makes up just under 1% of global cotton, but it’s become increasingly trendy as a bedding, clothing, and bathroom material in recent years.

Here’s everything you need to know about organic cotton, to help decide if you should look for bedding, bath, clothes, and home products made from this eco-friendly fiber.

What is Organic Cotton?

Organic cotton is sustainable cotton grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizer and other toxic chemicals. By law, organic cotton plants can’t come from genetically engineered seeds, and strict regulations dictate how cotton must be grown to be certified organic.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversee organic certification. Other third-party certifications cover the process of turning organic fiber into organic textiles. Chief among these are the Textile Exchange’s Organic Content Standard (OCS) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

Still, the label “organic” might not take things far enough. When products are marketed as organic cotton fabric, that usually only refers to the way the cotton was grown. Your products may still be treated with harmful chemicals like bleaches and formaldehyde or dyed with toxic inks that contain heavy metals. This is where the Oeko-Tex certification comes in.

Organic cotton can be Oeko-Tex certified, which ensures that your bath, bedding, and home products are free from high levels of over 100 chemicals proven to be dangerous to humans and the environment.

You can learn more about the Oeko-Tex certification in our article: What Is Oeko-Tex? Learn About This Certification.

How is Organic Cotton Made?

Organic cotton is made a little differently than conventional cotton, focusing on more natural agricultural and production processes. 

Farmers can use organic fertilizer when growing organic cotton, but they mostly prep their soil by rotating their crops. With conventional cotton, each crop is grown in the same soil as the previous crop. Over time, this can strip the soil of nutrients. Another difference is that farmers of organic cotton plant only non-genetically-modified (non-GMO) seeds.

They then control weeds and pests using natural methods like trap crops and beneficial insects rather than by using heavy duty herbicides and pesticides. Any products used are naturally-derived, and though many organic crops are irrigated, most sustainable crops rely heavily on rainwater.

Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton is harvested using natural methods that don’t rely on chemicals. During processing, warp fibers are stabilized through a method called double-plying or by using cornstarch. Once the fibers are processed into yarn, eco-friendly cotton can be woven into different fabrics (think: canvas for a sturdier sustainable textile or chambray for something lighter).

Organic cotton fabrics may also be whitened using a gentle, non-chlorine peroxide, scoured using warm water and soda ash and dyed with natural dyes or low-impact dyes.

Want to know more about high-end fabrics? See our bedding fabric guides:

Matelasse: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Linen: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Sateen: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Brushed Cotton: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Percale: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Organic Cotton Fabric vs. Conventional Cotton Fabric

By the time cotton fibers are made into fabric, you might not notice much difference between conventional cotton and organic cotton. Organic cotton is just as cozy as your favorite non-organic cotton t-shirt. Where things differ is in the chemicals used during processing that you may not want coming into contact with your skin.

Conventional cotton fabric can use a wider variety of dyes, which can contain sulfur and even heavy metals. Other chemicals, like formaldehyde and chlorine bleach (which creates toxic by-products) are sometimes used to prepare the fibers for manufacturing.

Let’s be honest — we spend a lot of time in our clothing and bedding. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin, it’s heartening to know you’re wrapping yourself and your family in linens and towels free from harmful chemicals. Organic cotton —  or, better yet, Oeko-Tex-certified materials —  can give you peace of mind and help your family sleep more soundly.

Popular Organic Cotton Products

When you’re sold on organic cotton and its cousin, Oeko-Tex certified cotton, the next step is to find the best towels, bed sheets, duvet covers, and other bath and home items. A cozy Turkish cotton robe or a luxurious cotton quilt feel just that little bit better when you know that no harsh chemicals are up against your skin.

Organic Cotton Comforters and Duvets

Bedding products are where organic cotton shines. Indoor allergens tend to build up in the bedroom, but an organic cotton comforter or duvet with a Down Alternative Duvet Insert is less likely to aggravate your symptoms when it’s regularly cleaned.

Want to know more about organic cotton bedding? See our articles:

Guide to Duvets & Duvet Covers: Everything You Need to Know

Fabric & Bedding Materials Guide

Organic Cotton Quilts 

Because cotton is such an airy fabric and comes in so many colors, it’s a wonderful choice for use in quilts that can be layered with sheets and a comforter — or used on their own. A white cotton quilt made with Oeko-Tex certified cotton can brighten even the smallest bedroom.

Is a quilt right for you? Learn more in these guides:

Guide to Quilts, Blankets and Coverlets: A Modern Take on Traditional Covers

What Size Quilt or Blanket Do You Need? 

Organic Cotton Pillows

Side sleeper or back sleeper? Firm or soft? Either way, you spend upwards of eight hours every night with your cheek against a pillow. That means you’re breathing in whatever comes out of that pillow for a full third of your life. It makes plenty of sense to look for organic pillows made from organic cotton fabric — or for pillows with an Oeko-Tex certification — to ensure maximum comfort and peace of mind.

Pillows are another item that tends to aggravate indoor allergies, but a down alternative pillow can keep symptoms at bay (plus, it’s just as cozy as the real thing).

Did you know that a pillow may not be the best choice for every member of your family? Find out when to let your newborn sleep with a pillow with our Baby Pillow and Blanket Guide.

Organic Mattresses

A safe, comfortable mattress is the center of your bedroom. It’s where you sleep, where you sit, and for those lucky enough to work from home, occasionally where you work. Needless to say, you need a good mattress, but did you know mattresses can actually release potentially toxic compounds while you sleep? 

These compounds, which can cause health problems in high concentrations, are called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). In your bedroom, they’re caused by the polyurethane in traditional mattresses. The Eco Comfort Mattress you’ll find at Parachute doesn't contain polyurethane, letting you sleep soundly without affecting your home’s air quality.

Organic Cotton Clothing and Loungewear

Everyone has a favorite cotton t-shirt for a reason. Organic cotton fabric is ideal for clothing and loungewear because it’s hypoallergenic, durable, breathable and naturally absorbent. You can get it as dirty as you like, yet you don’t have to take too much care when throwing it in the wash

Looking for loungewear? Find the best of the best in our guide: Get Cozy With the Best Loungewear and Bathrobes From Parachute.

Organic Cotton Robes

Cotton is naturally cozy and absorbent, so it’s an ideal fabric for a comfy bathrobe. Most of us love a big, fluffy robe like an Oeko-Tex certified Classic Turkish Cotton Robe, but you can also opt for something lighter-weight like a stylish Cloud Cotton Robe designed for warmer climes.  

Organic cotton fabric is also a delightful addition to your bathroom, from towels, bath mats and bath rugs, and even shower curtains. Want to learn more? See our bathroom necessity guides:

What are the Best Towel Materials and What Sizes Should You Buy?

Guide to Shower Curtains: Get to Know Colors, Sizes, Materials & More

Bath Mat vs Bath Rug: What’s the Difference?

The Pros and Cons of Organic Cotton

Like all cotton, organic cotton fabric is versatile, durable and breathable. Organic textiles are more eco-conscious, but they’re also arguably a smarter choice for the towels, linen, and clothes you surround yourself with each day. That’s because, with fewer chemicals close to you and your loved ones, you’re making a healthier choice.

But is organic cotton also the safest choice? When should you buy organic, and when is conventional cotton acceptable? And when should you insist on the Oeko-Tex certification for your sustainable cotton bedding and other home essentials?

Let’s have a look.

Is Organic Cotton Safer for Your Skin?

It’s no secret that conventional cotton production uses potentially harmful chemicals at every stage. Roundup, Monstanto’s controversial weedkiller, has been listed as a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization — but that’s just one of many. These chemicals don’t just runoff and pollute drinking water. They also come into contact with your skin. 

Organic cotton fabric isn’t made from fibers grown with harmful chemicals, so it doesn’t pose the same risk to your skin. If your sustainable cotton products are GOTS certified, their trust leven goes a step further. GOTS-certified cotton products are processed without harmful chemicals. Your skin deserves the best. You do, after all, have to live in it.

Safer for Your Lungs?

Remember those VOCs we talked about? Those affect air quality, and in high quantities they do pose a health risk. While there’s no evidence that non-organic mattresses emit enough VOCs to cause serious issues, research has shown the level emitted by some mattresses could be problematic for infants and children. Organic mattresses don’t carry the same risk.

Beyond that, conventional cotton farming has been linked to respiratory problems. The toxic defoliants, herbicides, and pesticides sprayed on crops can drift into nearby communities. According to the National Wildlife Federation, these chemicals may worsen symptoms like asthma, headaches, and fatigue. Organic cotton farming actually helps biodiversity flourish rather than contaminating the air.

The Oeko-Tex Standard of Health

Harmful chemicals can still contaminate your organic cotton products. The main drawback of organic cotton fabric is that — unless it’s OCS or GOTS certified — the label only applies to how the cotton was grown. Once the fiber is cultivated, anything goes. 

Products with the Oeko-Tex “Standard 100” have been tested for harmful substances down to the very button. Every thread is examined, rather than just a single type of fiber. 

Learn more about what it means for bedding to be genuinely organic and sustainable in our What to Look for in Organic Bedding guide. 

Is Organic Cotton Better for the Environment?

Organic cotton promotes sustainability. Every year, farmers apply 1 billion pounds of pesticides to crops in the United States. Some of it is sprayed into the air using crop dusters, some runs into waterways, and some seeps into the soil, posing both health and environmental risks — and that’s just one chemical. Some experts cite cotton defoliants as some of the most toxic chemicals in agriculture.

Is Cotton Sustainable?

Organic cotton fabric doesn’t cause the same kind of overt pollution. In fact, studies have found that cotton has one of the lowest CO2 emissions when compared to other popular fibers. It’s the farming method that poses the problem, but organic cotton cultivation aims to reduce environmental impact (and even promote biodiversity). Research has shown that organic cotton reduces water consumption by 91% compared to conventionally grown cotton, mostly because organic crops rely on rainwater.

Egyptian cotton has benefits, too. Find out more by reading our guide: What is Long-Staple Egyptian Cotton.

Where to Find Organic Cotton Products

Organic cotton fabric only represents a tiny portion of global cotton crops, but this is changing as the world embraces more sustainable options. Though it’s a good start, it’s also important to consider organic products made from responsibly sourced cotton that are Oeko-Tex certified. This won’t just protect the environment, it will also protect your health.

The line of Oeko-Tex-certified bath, bedding, and home products you’ll find at Parachute actually exceeds Oeko-Tex standards. All our bedding is made in family-owned factories in Europe, and no synthetics, pesticides or artificial colorants are ever used during the production process. Ready to take the plunge? Browse through our Oeko-Tex collection. Your skin — and your loved ones — will thank you.

Read on: 

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Home Fragrance Guide: How to Make Your Home Smell Good

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