Magical Microfiber

    Kids, what makes a microfiber cloth so good at picking up dust and water?  Believe it or not, it’s chemistry behind the magic. Here are some tests to determine the quality of a microfiber towel or cloth.   All you need are some different brands of microfiber cleaning cloths, a paper towel, and a rag made from a cotton t-shirt. 

    Please note:  All chemicals and experiments can entail an element of risk, and no experiments should be performed without proper adult supervision.

    The first test is touch. How does the microfiber cloth feel?   Soft?  Does the material “grab” the imperfections on your skin when you run it over the palm of your hand?  When this happens it means the cloth is made from ‘split microfiber’. The tip of a split microfiber looks like an asterisk under a microscope. The open spaces in the split microfiber allow it to pick up and hold dirt and liquid. If you don’t feel a “grab” from the towel it may not be split, and if it’s not split it won’t be any more effective as a cleaning towel than a cotton rag.

    Another test is absorbency. Pour a little water on a flat, smooth surface, take a folded microfiber cloth and slowly slide the towel towards the puddle. Observe as the cloth contacts the water. Does it suck the water up like a vacuum? Does it push the water away? Is it somewhere in between? Does the water quickly wick through? You want a cloth that sucks the water up like a vacuum and wicks throughout the cloth.  Compare the behavior to the paper towel and the piece of cotton cloth.

    Synthetic microfibers are exceptionally strong yet have very thin fibers (three times thinner than cotton fibers). Microfibers are specialized polymers – long chain-like molecules made of repeating units strung like beads on a thread.  They wick moisture away by absorbing up to seven times their weight in moisture.  Cotton soaks water by absorbing it, but microfibers pull water away to a drier part of the fabric.


    Kathleen Carrado Gregar, PhD, Argonne National Labs 
    [email protected]
    December 2011


    Roberta Baxter, ChemMatters, American Chemical Society, October 2011, page 4, “Polymers: The amazing properties of microfibers”.