Your very soft—and expensive—sheets and pillowcases may not be made of what you think they’re made of. That’s because a major scandal is rocking the world of “Egyptian cotton.” After an investigation, the Target retail chain declared that 750,000 Fieldcrest-brand Egyptian cotton sheets and sheet sets it offered from August 2014 through July 2016 contained no Egyptian cotton, and the chain offered refunds. Walmart stopped selling sheets from the same provider, Welspun India, that it had sold under the brands Better Homes & Gardens and Canopy. Other stores (and consumers) may have been duped, too.

Egyptian extralong staple (ELS) cotton is renowned for its softness and durability. The extremely fine but strong fibers of the cotton benefit from the long growing season in a desert climate.

Without laboratory testing, even experts can’t easily distinguish between ELS cotton from Egypt and the world’s other premium cotton, Pima ELS, which is grown in the deserts of Arizona and California as well as in Australia and Peru. Because Egyptian cotton is so much rarer—representing just 7% of global ELS production—it carries added cachet. The Cotton Egypt Association, which licenses and certifies suppliers, estimates that 90% of products labeled “Egyptian cotton” are fakes.

What to do…

  • Don’t assume that if it says Egyptian cotton, it’s 100% Egyptian cotton. It’s more likely a blend of different cottons, perhaps including Pima ELS cotton or Upland cotton, a very common, coarser variety that is used for jeans, tablecloths and underwear. As a rule of thumb, authentic Egyptian cotton products command premium prices. Example: You should expect to pay at least $200 for 100% Egyptian cotton sheet sets in full size but less for partial Egyptian cotton.
  • Buy products with the 100% Supima label as an alternative. Supima is a licensed trademark used to promote and market textile and apparel products made with the highest–quality American Pima ELS cotton. It’s the equal of Egyptian cotton in feel and durability but often commands a lower price because supplies are more plentiful. The growers and supply chains that produce Supima cotton are closely monitored in the US to ensure the integrity of the product.