Polyester vs. Cotton T-Shirts: What’s the Difference?

January 26, 2022
Nicole Rollender
Two women standing next to each other. The woman on the left has a white shirt on made out of cotton and the other has a yellow shirt made out of polyester

If you’re just starting out decorating your t-shirts at home as a hobby (or for an upcoming family vacation), starting to sell your creative designs on Etsy, or launching your very own t-shirt business, it’s important to know the differences between cotton and polyester t-shirts. We’re here to break it all down for you, so you’ll have everything you need to know when you’re browsing our t-shirt selection. 

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Polyester vs. Cotton

 

COTTON’S ADVANTAGES

  • Natural, chemical-free fibers
  • Breathable (great for warmer weather)
  • Hypoallergenic (gentle on skin)
  • Easy care

POLYESTER’S ADVANTAGES

  • Strong, durable synthetic fabric
    Flexible (great for outerwear and activewear)
  • Dries quickly
  • Resists wrinkles and shrinking
  • Stain resistant
  • Resists fading
  • Inexpensive

 

COTTON’S DISADVANTAGES

  • Expensive
  • Natural fibers wear down faster
  • Holds moisture longer (can be a plus in hot weather, but not in cold) and doesn’t dry as quickly
  • Shrinks more easily

POLYESTER’S DISADVANTAGES

  • Some blends not as breathable
    May pill or snag
  • Can stick to sweaty skin
  • Temperature sensitive (can be damaged by too hot water or heat in the laundering cycle)
  • Can sometimes experience dye migration

 

To split it down the middle, decorating experts say that t-shirts made of cotton and polyester blends are the best of both worlds. Basically, your t-shirt manufacturer blends cotton’s natural, soft hand and breathability with polyester’s strength, flexibility and cost-effectiveness. With a blend, you’ll get an affordable t-shirt with the best of both fabric worlds.

When to Use Cotton Vs. Polyester T-Shirts

We get a lot of questions about when to use cotton or polyester t-shirts. Well, that really all comes down to your personal preference and use case.

When to Choose Cotton T-shirts

First up, cotton. We love cotton because it’s soft, breathable, comfortable and great for people with sensitive skin. Lots of people love cotton, and they’ll deal with some of the common downsides, like that it’s more expensive, as well as can lose color in the wash and shrink in the dryer. However, cotton garments are easy to clean and wash, and cotton conducts heat well, so it feels cooler in hotter weather and warmer in cold environments.

However, since cotton clothing absorbs moisture and dries slowly, you shouldn’t wear these when you’re outside in windy, cold conditions, especially if you’re doing activities that make you sweat. Instead, cotton blends are better in this case. On the other hand, definitely opt to wear cotton if you’re headed out for a hike in hot and dry conditions.

Threadsy’s most popular cotton unisex tees cost under $4 each and include the Gildan G640 Adult Softstyle Shirt and Hanes 5280 Adult Essential T-Shirt. Shoppers looking for a slimmer fit in 100% cotton may prefer Next Level Apparel 3600 Unisex Cotton T-Shirt.

  1. Adult Softstyle® T-Shirt
    G640
    |
    Gildan
    Adult Softstyle® T-Shirt
    XS-4XL
    $3.13
  2. Unisex 5.2 oz., Comfortsoft® Cotton T-Shirt
    5280
    |
    Hanes
    Unisex 5.2 oz., Comfortsoft® Cotton T-Shirt
    S-4XL
    $2.48
  3. Unisex Cotton T-Shirt
    3600
    |
    Next Level Apparel
    Unisex Cotton T-Shirt
    XS-6XL
    $5.43

Decorating Tip: Generally, 100% cotton shirts are safe for embroidery and printing with most textile inks, like direct-to-garment printer inks, as well as screen-printing water-based and plastisol inks. However, dye sublimation doesn’t work well with cotton t-shirts at all, and your print results may look downright terrible.

When to Choose Polyester T-shirts

Second up, polyester. This fabric is more wrinkle- and stain-resistant than cotton, fades less, and is very long-lasting. That’s why shirts made of polyester are great options for restaurant staff who need durable, tough shirts that go through lots of wearings, washes and tumbles through the dryer. 

Lots of manufacturers also add treatments to polyester shirts to wick sweat and moisture away from the body. Plus, there are antibacterial treatments that prevent odors. These performance options are great for uniform apparel, and for people who are active or working out.

You’ll also see some polyester fleece fabrications, a more affordable version of wool maximizing its pros and minimizing its cons. Clothes made from polyester fleece are lightweight, highly breathable, super-soft and stay warm, even when it’s wet.

Some of Threadsy’s most popular polyester t-shirts cost under $5 each, like the Gildan G420 Adult Performance T-Shirt or the Jerzees 21M Adult DRI-POWER SPORT Poly T-Shirt. Often 100% polyester shirts will have product names that include “cooling,” “sport” or “performance” that speak to the fabrication’s quick drying properties and light weight.

  1. Adult Performance® Adult 5 oz. T-Shirt
    G420
    |
    Gildan
    Adult Performance® Adult 5 oz. T-Shirt
    S-3XL
    15% off with code POLO15 at checkout!
    $6.55
  2. Adult DRI-POWER® SPORT Poly T-Shirt
    21M
    |
    Jerzees
    Adult DRI-POWER® SPORT Poly T-Shirt
    S-3XL
    15% Off with code LOVE15 at checkout!
    $5.57
  3. Men's Zone Performance Long-Sleeve T-Shirt
    TT11L
    |
    Team 365
    Men's Zone Performance Long-Sleeve T-Shirt
    XS-4XL
    15% off with code POLO15 at checkout!
    $7.05

Decorating Tip: If you plan to print on polyester or poly blend garments, we recommend checking with your ink manufacturer to make sure that the t-shirt will take the ink. However, if you want to dye sublimate polyester garments, they’re ideal for this decorating method. Plus, since poly garments are designed to wick moisture, sublimation “becomes one” with the fabric, so it doesn’t add a surface layer that interferes with polyester’s quick-dry nature.

Making the Right Choice

Cotton and polyester each have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, cotton is a natural fiber that’s breathable and hypoallergenic, but doesn’t dry quickly. Polyester is a strong, durable fabric that’s great for many uses, but isn’t sustainable and can pill or snag. Another option is to look at 50/50 cotton/polyester blends, which combine some of the best qualities of both fabrics: these t-shirts have cotton’s softness and polyester’s strength for a long-lasting t-shirt. When you know the pros and cons of each material, you can choose the best one to meet your needs.

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