Elastane VS Spandex: What’s the Difference?

Elastane“… That word rings a bell, doesn’t it? No? Well, what if I told you that right now you’re probably wearing something that features it? That’s right! Elastane isn’t just a word, it’s a material that’s almost everywhere: yoga pants, leggings, underwear, you name it — elastane is responsible for pretty much anything stretchy. However, you might recognize it by another popular name: spandex.

Whether it’s elastane or spandex, this super flexible material is one of the most widely used in the textile industry, so it’s time to do some eco-research on it! But first, let’s clear up the elastane vs spandex confusion floating around and find out what’s the difference between them. Spoiler alert: the answer is easier than you may think!

What is Elastane Material?

No worries if your knowledge about elastane isn’t vast as my knowledge about astrophysics —virtually nonexistent—, we’re here to learn together! So, what’s elastane material in the first place?

Well, elastane is basically a man-made fiber, a blend of about 85% polyurethane (PU) and polyethylene glycol that is known for its great elasticity, strength and durability.

The exact chemical composition of elastane is a bit tricky but in a nutshell, PU is the polymer that gives it its characteristic elasticity. This polymer is segmented based on a polybutene ether, which is responsible for making it stable so that the fiber recovers its shape after being stretched, and it also contains other stabilizers to protect the fibers from external agents such as heat and light. In short —not to bore you with more chemical terms—, its main component is PU.

As we already know, one of the main applications of this material is clothing like sportswear and underwear because these garments have to adapt to the body, and elastane is excellent at it. But in reality, elastane can be used in other areas such as the manufacturing of orthotics or even stuffed toys.

What is Spandex Material?

Now that we know what’s elastane, one question still remains: what’s spandex fabric? Well, the word itself is an anagram from the verb “expands”, but in reality… It’s the same thing as elastane!

Regardless of the name, spandex is an entirely synthetic fabric. It doesn’t exist anywhere in nature and no organic resources are used to manufacture it. I can literally copy and paste the definition of elastane here as they’re both the same thing, made from the same chemicals.

If you want to know the origin of this popular fiber that seems to have multiple identities, we have to go back in time to the 50’s when Joseph Shivers, a chemist at the American company DuPont, decided he wanted to develop an alternative to rubber.

While it’s true that DuPont had already been thinking about developing a synthetic elastic fiber since the 30’s, it wasn’t until the 50’s that this idea would materialize thanks to Shivers’ contributions, which paid off in 1958 at DuPont’s Benger Laboratory after years of hard work and fine-tuning of the formula. It was at that moment that elastane was commercialized, becoming part of people’s closets all over the United States and later on, all over the world.

Fun fact: DuPont initially wanted to develop an alternative to rubber as that was the material used to manufacture women’s girdles at the time. The wearers of this garment were not entirely happy with how it felt on their skin, so they expressed their desire for change in market research conducted by the American company. And they listened!

What is the Difference Between Elastane and Spandex?

Ok so, if elastane and spandex are the same thing… “What’s the difference between them?” I hear you asking. To be completely honest, there is no significant difference between the two terms as they are literally the same thing. One of the only two “differences” between elastane and spandex is that the word “spandex” is more widely used in the United States, while in the rest of the world the word “elastane” is more widely used.

The other tangible “difference” between the two terms is who made the fabric, as different elastane manufacturers make different levels of quality. Maybe the elastane from one company holds up better than the spandex from another company, but in reality, this happens with any other type of fiber. Whether it’s cotton, nylon, hemp or viscose, it all comes to the level of quality that each manufacturer wants to achieve.

Fun fact: Did you know that Lycra also equals elastane? Yup! Some people add Lycra to the elastane vs spandex combo as if it was a different material when in reality, Lycra is to elastane what Kleenex is to tissues. It is simply a brand name given to it by the DuPont company in 1958 when they marketed this fiber.

How Is Elastane/Spandex Made?

Although four different methods can be used to make elastane fabric (reaction spinning, solution wet spinning, melt extrusion, and solution dry spinning), solution dry spinning is the one that most manufacturers use nowadays. This method consists of 8 steps:

  1. Production of the prepolymer: first, macroglycol is mixed with a diisocyanate monomer (more complex chemical terms… Heh, please don’t close this tab!) within a special type of reaction vessel so that a prepolymer, the basis of the whole procedure, is formed.
  1. Chain extension: the previously formed prepolymer is then reacted with diamine acid.
  1. Diluting: the remaining solution is diluted with solvents in order to make it more manageable, then placed inside a fiber production cell.
  1. Extrusion: next, the cell spins to cure the solution, pushing it through a spinneret that has minuscule holes which form the liquid into fibers.
  1. Heating: the fibers are then heated within a nitrogen and solvent gas solution, forming the solution into solid strands.
  1. Twisting: the strands are bundled together and twisted in various thicknesses with a compressed air device, resulting into better elastic recovery.
  1. Finishing: then, a polymer such as magnesium stearate is used as a finishing agent, this helps to prevent the fibers from adhering to each other.
  1. Weaving: finally, the fibers are moved to a spool, ready to be dyed or turned into fabric!

Environmental Impact of Spandex

The main issue with spandex fabric from an environmental perspective is its lack of biodegradability (kinda goes without saying) as it’s made from PU, a synthetic polymer. Fabrics made with PU don’t break down over time in landfills, rather they gradually accumulate in the environment, contributing to heavy pollution forever. Like, foreva eva.

Also, elastane material is made from fossil fuels, which are nonrenewable resources. We already know how harmful the fossil fuel industry is for our planet, but even if we didn’t know the details about it, the constant extraction of a limited, nonrenewable resource can never be sustainable nor eco-friendly.

And don’t get me started on microplastics! Every synthetic fiber releases microplastics in one form or another when it is washed or manufactured, and the damage these tiny particles cause both to us and to the animals that inhabit the seas and oceans is undeniable.

While PU isn’t as problematic as PVC, for example, I simply cannot add spandex to my eco-friendly fabrics list. Elastane contributes significantly to the tons of waste that are found in landfills and waterways, and since there is no well-established infrastructure for its recycling, I will continue to consider this fiber as not eco-friendly/sustainable. Oh, I almost forgot a factor that takes away even more sustainability points from spandex… Its ethics. Or rather, its lack of ethics towards workers.

Is Elastane/Spandex Ethically sourced?

At least we know that Spandex is vegan as it’s a synthetic fiber, but is it ethically sourced? Well… Not so much. It’s ethical towards animals because its manufacturing doesn’t require animals in any way shape or form, but it’s unethical towards workers. Let me explain what I mean:

Another important factor that makes elastane non-eco-friendly is the number of harmful chemicals used to manufacture it, such as isocyanates ⁠—linked with respiratory issues such as asthma⁠— and toxic dyes.

These chemicals together with polyurethane (a possible human carcinogen according to the NIH’s National Toxicology Program), make a dangerous cocktail for workers in elastane factories. Not only do they contaminate waterways, endangering the animals that inhabit them and nearby communities, but it’s also possible that workers who handle this substance during the manufacturing process develop health issues down the road. That’s why the ethics of elastane are questionable.

The Best Ways to Dispose of Spandex Products You No Longer Need

A world where landfills can’t take any more synthetic polymers is just around the corner if we don’t change our disposing habits, so it’s time to do something about it! Here are some ways to dispose of your old spandex products that you no longer need:

Get Into Creative Upcycling

If recycling old spandex garments is not an option, the first way to get rid of them that pops into my mind is, drumroll please, creative upcycling!  If you don’t know what upcycling is, I’ve already talked a bit about it in previous posts but long story short, the term itself is born from mixing the words “upgrade” and “recycling”. It’s essentially the practice of converting waste products that are no longer useful into new materials with a higher value.

E.g., if you have a pair of old leggings that no longer serve their stretchy purpose, you can make DIY fabric coil bowls, personalized headbands, cuddly toys for the little ones at home and even woven floor mats (if you happen to have many, MANY old leggings).  But if at this moment you feel like your creativity reservoir is running low, don’t worry ⁠— a hot glue gun will always be there for you.

Grab a lamp with a small size lampshade, scissors, an old legging, your trusted silicone gun and start upcycling! Just cut the “legs” of the legging to get the maximum possible width, stretch the piece that you cut up onto the lampshade, stick it with the silicone gun, cut the excess fabric and voilà! New lampshade! You know what they say when it comes to upcycling your only limitation is your imagination.

When your sustainable socks or organic bras finally reach the end of their lives, make sure you dispose of your socks and bras the right way!

Look For Donation Centers or Thrift Shops

A woman pointing at a sign that says rethink reuse.

If, on the other hand, you don’t have old and damaged spandex garments but you do have some that you simply haven’t worn before or are in great, almost like-new condition, consider donating them. That same garment you want to throw away may be someone else’s treasure.

Try not just dropping off your donations at Goodwill or The Salvation Army, but consider other places like Diabetes Canada donation bins, shelters like Sanctuary or non-profits like New Circles. This way you can be sure that you will be helping the people who need these garments the most.

Also, thrifting helps the environment by reducing textile waste in a fun way, and that’s a fact! There are people who love to find antiques or clothes they need in the thrift shop racks, and if you have spandex garments in good condition and want to earn some spare cash, you can take advantage of that. Grab your spandex shorts, leggings and jackets and drive to your nearest local thrift store!

P.S: If after reading this post you want to know some tips and tricks on how to thrift like a pro, I got you covered! Check out my BEST Thrift Store/Goodwill Shopping Tips, I’m sure they’ll fit you like a glove whether you’re planning your first trip to a thrift store or are just curious about the experience.

Search for Brand Take-Back Programs

This initiative is being led by only a few brands, but it is still worth asking your favourite brand if they have a take-back program, where they collect used products or materials from consumers in order to reintroduce them to their original processing and manufacturing cycle.

Patagonia is one of the brands that does have such a program, and although for now they only accept Patagonia brand garments, I hope that in the future they will expand their willingness to accept products from other brands. The procedure is simple ⁠— first, bring back your unwanted Patagonia spandex garments to any Patagonia store or mail them with a prepaid shipping label, then wait for them to recycle or resell it and lastly, get WornWear store credit. As easy as a pie!

A woman stretching a piece of spandex.
Image: Patagonia

The North Face is another brand that has jumped on the take-back program bandwagon, and the plus point they have in their favour is that they accept items from any brand. Just drop off your unwanted elastane garments at their retail and outlet stores that do accept their “Clothes the Loop” take-back program, and earn rewards as coupons. Isn’t that awesome?

Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Spandex 

If spandex fabric isn’t eco-friendly… Are there any eco-friendly alternatives out there? Absolutely! There’s a couple of ones that seem pretty promising, so let’s review some of the candidates for a sustainable stretch:

Eco LYCRA® T400®

If you’ve been a consumer of the LYCRA brand for years or even decades, you’re going to love this! The brand recently developed Eco LYCRA® T400®, a fiber that plans to be the basis for setting the long-lived brand on a new path to sustainability.

 LYCRA states on their website that around 68% of the overall fiber content in Eco LYCRA® T400® comes from recycled plastics diverted from landfills and renewable bio-based resources while still maintaining traditional Lycra fiber characteristics such as comfort and shape retention. Although Eco LYCRA® T400® is not composed of 100% recycled plastics, it is a good eco-friendly step forward! One of the brands that have already used this fiber in their garments is Esprit and to be honest, they look pretty good.

DuPont™ Sorona®

Now every word that has the suffix “rona” in it brings back negative flashbacks (hope I’m not the only one), but Sorona® is the exception!

Sorona® is a partially plant-based (made of 37% Industrial Dent Corn and polyester) fiber manufactured by DuPont™ that can be recycled in any normal polyester recycling stream. Just like Eco LYCRA® T400®, Sorona® is not a 100% eco-friendly fiber as the majority of its composition is still polyester, but it’s still a nice improvement!

Will DuPont’s sustainable alternative dethrone spandex? I’m not sure if it will in the near future, but I’m hopeful that it will in the mid to long-term future. It’s a fiber just as stretchy and soft as spandex and it’s made by the same company that created the original fiber over 60 years ago, plus, already several world-renowned brands like Timberland and The North Face have adopted it, so I see Sorona® as a strong alternative.

Blended Spandex

While there are clothing brands that use spandex in a very irresponsible way, there are others that decide to break the mold and opt for a better path: the responsible use of spandex.

Brands like Threads 4 Thought or Boody manage to stay on that responsible path by mixing spandex with sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, Lyocell or hemp, always maintaining a clear limit: that their garments contain less than 10% spandex. This is because according to the Global Organic Textile Standard, that’s the only way a fiber that contains spandex can be considered organic.

As for Threads 4 Thought, they keep the percentage of spandex on their garments for men, women and kiddos limited to 10% by blending it with recycled polyester, organic cotton and Lenzing modal. And as for Boody, they keep the percentage of spandex as low as 6-7% on their underwear and organic bras by blending the fiber with organic bamboo viscose. Pretty impressive IMO!

Spandex is best avoided if possible

Now more than ever, eco-conscious consumers ⁠—like me and you⁠— are questioning everything that we eat, use or even wear in the name of our Mother Earth’s sustainability.

Here at The Eco Hub, I’ve already questioned each one of those areas, finding sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives which, to be honest, have surprised me with how ingenious they are. In the fashion area, for example, I’ve already talked about the harm caused by petroleum-derived fibers such as polyester, finding Lyocell as a wonderful and modern alternative.

However, I hadn’t yet mentioned spandex specifically, a material that if you walk into any activewear shop and check the label of any piece of apparel with a little stretch in it, you’ll find it.

But guess what, things changed today! After doing some research on this fabric/material and learning about its composition, there is one thing I am certain of…

Spandex is best avoided if possible!

Yes, spandex has become an essential element in the textile sector, but taking care of our environment is also essential. While this fiber is better than others environmentally-wise, it isn’t eco-friendly per se. The chemicals used to manufacture it are harmful, it isn’t a biodegradable or compostable fiber and it’s very difficult to recycle. If you already have spandex garments at home try to donate them, send them to take-back programs or just take care of them as much as possible so you don’t have to toss them. And if you can’t longer wear a really old pair of leggings, consider DIY projects!

There’s still a long way to go before spandex/elastane disappears or diminishes its presence in the fashion industry so in the meantime, let’s do what’s in our hands to take care of our Mother Earth from the bad side of the textile industry by reducing our elastane material consumption and taking into account eco-friendly alternatives.

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