Lint is the common name of visible accumulations of textile fibers and other materials, usually found on and around clothing. Certain materials used in the manufacture of clothing, such as cotton, wool, and linen, contain numerous very short fibers bundled together. During the course of normal wear, these fibers may either break, or be jostled out of the weave of which they are part. This is the reason that heavily used articles like shirts and towels become thin over time, and why these particles collect in the lint screen of a clothes dryer. Because of their low surface area, static cling causes fibers that have detached from an article of clothing tend to continue to stick to one another, and to that article or other surfaces with which they come in contact. Other small fibers or particles also accumulate with these clothing fibers, including human and animal hair, skin cells, plant fibers, pollen, dust, and microorganisms. The etymology of the modern word “lint” is related to “linting”, the term used for the cultivation of the shorter fibers from the cotton plant (Gossypium), also called “lint”, from which lower quality cotton products are manufactured.
Varieties of lint
Pocket lint is debris including not only bits of fabric, but also small shreds of paper and tissue that are often found in pockets. It may be caused by the clothing run through a washing machine one or more times, causing the pocket lining or contents to compact and shred.
As pocket lint is an amalgamation of the contents of the pockets, pocket lint can be helpful when determining if drugs have been previously stored in the pockets, by testing it with various drug tests. In a survival situation, pocket lint can be used as kindling for starting a fire.
The Infocom game, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was sold with a collection of “props” that included a small bag of “pocket fluff”.
Problems related to lint
Inhalation of excessive amounts of lint, as observed in early textile workers, may lead to diseases of the lungs, such as byssinosis. Lint shed from clothing during the course of wear may also carry bacteria and viruses. For this reason, lint presents a danger during surgery, when it might carry microorganisms into open wounds. It has been demonstrated that due to the abrasive contact between clothing and skin, “a person wearing a standard cotton scrub suit actually sheds more bacteria than without clothing”. Lint presents a threat to the environment in spaces that generally do not experience human contact, constituting “one of the primary polluters” in cave exploration.
Lint contamination also presents perhaps the most serious threat of damage to delicate mechanical devices. In order to prevent lint contamination, workers entering clean rooms are generally required to wear an outer layer of clothing made from artificial fibers that are longer, thicker, and therefore much less likely to shed any material. Lint-resistant clothing materials include elastic fabrics like spandex (or Lycra), for which the fibers will tend to stretch rather than break; and longer, stronger polyolefin fibers such as Tyvek.
Lint on clothing is generally considered unattractive and unprofessional. Furthermore, lint may be abrasive, and may damage the clothing itself. For this reason, lint is usually removed with a lint roller when possible. The accumulation of lint during clothes cleaning can be reduced with the use of a fabric softener, which reduces the amount of static electricity on clothing surfaces, and therefore prevents the lint from sticking to the clothes. Dryer lint, which collects on the lint screen of a clothes dryer, is highly flammable, and therefore presents a fire hazard. However, because of this flammability, dryer lint may be collected for use as kindling.
Uses of lint
Use in forensic science
Lint is useful to examine in forensic science because it is accumulated over time, and because the fibers shed from clothing not only adhere to that clothing, but also adhere to other particles to which the carrier is exposed. The lint on a person’s clothing is therefore likely to contain material transferred from the various environments through which that person has passed, enabling forensic examiners to collect and examine lint to determine the movements and activities of the wearer. Examiners may use various chemicals to isolate lint fibers from different articles of clothing based on differences in color and other characteristics.
It is possible to compost lint retrieved from the lint screen on a dryer by adding it to other materials being composted. The texture of the material allows the organic matter within it to compost quickly and easily, but it provides little value to the soil generated by this process, and may include inorganic fibers and materials which never break down.
Dryer lint burns readily and makes excellent tinder for starting campfires. It is especially useful for catching sparks from flint and steel or similar striker type fire starters in the absence of matches.