Fact Checked

What is Cellulose Acetate?

C. Martin
C. Martin

Cellulose acetate is a man-made substance that is derived from the naturally occurring organic compound - cellulose. Cellulose is the main structural ingredient of plants, and is usually considered to be the most common organic compound on Earth. Cellulose acetate is manufactured out of wood pulp by a purification process. It is a renewable and biodegradable substance, providing a cheap source of quality fiber that can be used in many manufacturing processes.

In addition to its importance as a synthetic fiber, particularly for use in the clothing industry, cellulose acetate has a number of other applications. These include magnetic computer tape, absorbent surgical dressings, and some types of adhesives. Cellulose acetate film is also used in photography. Fiber made of this substance is sometimes confused with cellulose triacetate, which is a similar compound that contains a higher proportion of cellulose. Cellulose acetate propionate is another similar substance, used for manufacturing a number of plastic items such as spectacle frames, blister packages, and plastic handles such as those on cutlery or tools.

Cellulose acetate may be used to make surgical dressings.
Cellulose acetate may be used to make surgical dressings.

Commercial production of this compound is usually performed by treating cellulose in the form of wood pulp with various chemicals. Chief among these is acetic acid. Acetic anhydride is also usually also used in the treatment, along with sulfuric acid. This process is called acetylation, and on a molecular level, the hydrogen atoms of the cellulose molecules are being replaced by acetyl groups, a carbon-based molecular group. Following acetylation, the substance can be dissolved, and then spun into its fibrous form to produce the textile end product.

The process of acetylation was discovered as long ago as 1865, by a chemist named Paul Schützenberger, who worked in France. It was not, however, patented as an industrial process until 1894, by Charles Cross and Edward Bevan in the UK. From the 1920s onwards, cellulose acetate has been in commercial production.

When used for clothing, this fiber is soft and resilient, drapes well, and allows the skin to "breathe". Some other benefits of this kind of fiber include its resistance to shrinking when washed, its hypoallergenic qualities, and its resistance to mildew and some molds. In modern production lines, these fibers are often blended with other substances such as cotton, silk, nylon, or wool. The demand for cellulose acetate fiber has decreased in more recent years due to the discovery of various polyester fibers.

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Discussion Comments


@Swampgirl: It's chemoset. It is not a thermoplastic.


@swampgirl -- Cellulose Acetate in clothing buttons, which I collect, are thermoplastics, and not thermoset.


@StarJo - I use cellulose acetate to showcase my products. It looks just like the laminating sheets used on brochures like yours, but it goes on top of a box with a window cut out.

I sell chocolate truffles that I make at home, and I had to have hundreds of boxes made especially for this. I had an oval shape cut out of the top of each box so that the customers could see the truffles before buying them. Rather than leave it open to the elements, I had cellulose acetate placed over it to shelter the truffles.

You can see right through it, as though nothing is really there. My customers can even see the little designs on top of each truffle through the acetate.


It sounds like the list of cellulose acetate uses is endless! From clothing to plastic items to filters is quite a range for one material.

I had to get some brochures designed for my company, and the design agency that I hired told me that they could laminate the brochures with cellulose acetate. They told me that this would protect the paper and ink and give the brochures a more professional look.

They showed me the laminating sheets before they started, and they were just clear pieces of plastic. I was impressed with how well the coloring and lettering of the brochures showed through when all was done. It looked almost as though nothing were covering it, except for the sheen when the light hit it.


I have heard that cigarettes have cellulose acetate filters. My husband used to smoke, and I commented that the outside of the cigarette felt like cotton. He told me that it was made from plant fibers, but not from cotton.

I think this is probably the one good thing that cigarette manufacturers decided to use in their products. It is biodegradable and originates in nature.

I tore apart a cigarette that my husband had dropped on the ground and was going to throw away once. I could actually see thousands of tiny fibers in the filter.


I always check the labels of garments before buying them, and I have seen a lot of clothes that contain acetate. It sounds like something that would be acidic and harmful to the skin, but it is actually quite comfortable.

It seems crazy that the same acetate used to make plastic is used in the manufacture of clothing. It’s also weird to think that my soft clothing is made partially from wood pulp. One would think this would make it rough to the touch!

I have no problem wearing clothes that are made from cellulose acetate. I really don’t notice any difference in the feel of them.


Is this stuff thermo or thermo set? it's driving me crazy. i can't find the answer anywhere! thanks to the person or people who answer my question. it's a real help, this site!

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    • Cellulose acetate may be used to make surgical dressings.
      By: Sherry Yates
      Cellulose acetate may be used to make surgical dressings.