The development of nonwoven materials is one of the greatest innovations in the textile industry. Who would have thought that such materials could meet the needs for millions of consumers and professionals with innovative products and applications for the most basic every-day situations in personal care, hygiene and health-care?
As the world is a changing place, so is the development of nonwovens. The nonwoven technologies today are excellent enablers for creative market developers and innovators to discover new technical solutions and nonwoven materials to serve as the basic carrier and construction provider in millions of products. So, let's take a look at a few of these segments.
Absorbent hygiene products increase quality of life
Personal care and hygiene is of utmost importance when increasing the quality of life for women, men and children everywhere. And different kinds of nonwovens are used in numerous products, such as absorbent hygiene products where nonwovens are in direct contact with the body as a top-sheet for baby diapers, feminine care and adult incontinence products. They provide quick liquid penetration and at the same time a dry surface. The requirements are very high, not only in technical performance, but also giving products a soft, comfortable touch, without compromising safety for sensitive skin. Nonwovens can also be found in the sub-layers, like the absorbent distribution layers, the wrapping of the absorbent core, and finally laminated to the back-sheet to give the final products a textile feeling. New products may also incorporate additives for odour prevention and surface improvements. The difference lies in the sophistication between purpose, design and complexity of products.
Feminine care products help women in all parts of the world to manage their daily activities and challenges without having to worry about their period. These products make it possible for girls to go to school and women to work every day and not have to stay home during the period. Sanitary pads - or napkins - have undergone a revolution from thick and uncomfortable reusable products to become easy-to-use disposable ultra-thin and non-visible, while panty-liners have become a daily-use alternative for women everywhere.
Baby diapers, the biggest category in hygiene products, are expanding design and distribution to meet habits and use for babies and mothers in different cultures. This requires technical adaptations to consumer needs on a local basis. Although fluff pulp combined with SAP (super absorbent polymers) are used in most baby diapers, the more recent developments with an absorbent core with no fluff pulp is increasing in the market. The thinner products reduce shelf space, bring down transportation cost and add to efforts on sustainability and environmental friendliness.
The third major category is adult incontinence products. Although a quite young segment, growth is rapid due to the increasing share of older people. People today live longer and stay active many more years than their grand-parents. But, with higher age many other problems occur. Some of these are life-style related like obesity, diabetes and cardiological and hip and knee-problems, as well as adult incontinence. The latter is still a taboo topic in most parts of the world although awareness is increasing. Media and medical professionals highlight this problem and organizations engage opinion leaders and celebrities to talk about incontinence and what can be done about it. And, absorbent incontinence products are developed to meet the needs of each individual, man or woman, based on absorption capacity, design and level of incontinence with pads, inserts, pants and full-size diapers.
Products are becoming both more readily available and accepted and today one can buy absorbent incontinence products in almost any retail store or pharmacy, something that was impossible just some years ago; or why not order via the internet and get the products just by the door.
Another growing segment is wipes, mainly made by spunlaced or air-laid nonwovens of multiple fibre compositions. Wet wipes help improve personal hygiene when water is scarce or when travelling. They make it easy to wash the little ones when changing diapers or just in all situations to clean hands, face, body or even pets. Other uses can be found in cleaning surfaces at home, cars and many technical areas. Some of the new wipes can also provide disinfection from various types of bacteria and viruses. Such wipes will become increasingly valuable in the future.
What do Healthcare Associated Infections have to do with nonwovens?
Healthcare associated infections, HAI, can be defined as infections acquired in healthcare facilities by patients who have been admitted for reasons other than those infections. Such infections can cause pain and even death to a high number of patients in various healthcare settings. HAI also stand for pro-longed hospital stay and high additional treatment cost and are therefore at the top of the agenda of governments, authorities and healthcare providers. In this context, single-use nonwoven based products play a major role.
For example, in the operating room single-use nonwoven surgical drapes and gowns are important in providing a safe and clean environment. Single-use nonwoven surgical drapes and gowns are used only once and then destroyed by incineration. The requirements of gowns are very high, giving surgical staff the best security against contamination combined with expectations of comfort and ease of use. Specific hydrophobic treatments are important to withstand body fluids that may occur during a surgery. Surgical drapes that serve to protect patients during surgery are usually laminated with a plastic film as well as treated with hydrophobic or hydrophilic agents for optimal performance. In these categories various types of spunlaid nonwovens (SMS, SMMS, etc.) are favoured, followed by spunlaced and to lesser degree chemical bonded nonwovens.
New less invasive surgical technologies are rapidly increasing for ambulatory and out-patient treatments. In many of these pre-packed customized procedure, trays (CPT) are used to facilitate the use of tools and equipment for specific treatments and surgeries. Here single-use products also play a major role in reducing cost, inventory and waste. Drapes designed for specific treatments, wound care products, swabs, tools and many other articles can be found in the CPTs.
Technologies play a major role
Today the most common technologies in absorbent hygiene products and healthcare are various kinds of polymer based materials together with viscose, cotton and fluff pulp.
The nonwoven types used in both absorbent hygiene and health-care related products are represented by the major nonwoven technologies such as spunlaid (spunbond), SMS, spunlaced, carded thermally or chemically bonded, air-through bonded and air-laid. All these technologies provide a great number of materials and combinations, each designed to meet the technical criteria and personal needs for thousands of products asked for by consumers and professionals. The technical development potentials seem endless. For example ultra-light super-soft spunlaid materials can today be produced at speeds approaching 1000 m/min, while higher weight materials provide impermeable, but breathable qualities.
Single-use products are always new every time!
From a global perspective many of the personal care and health-care segments are growing, although it may look different in different parts of the world. For example, in Western Europe fewer babies are being born, the aging population is increasing and the 65-year old will soon represent 20% of the total population. In North America the situation will be similar, just some years later. In most Asian countries, South America and Africa the picture looks totally different with much greater shares of babies and young people. As a result, it is expected that the use of baby diapers will continue increasing in most parts of the world.
The future will show numerous new nonwoven technologies and creative finished products to make life easier for consumers, care-givers and health care professionals because nonwovens are here to stay. And single-use products are always new every time!
About the Author:
The author is the founder and owner of Engqvist Consulting, Switzerland. She is a specialist in consumer insight and development of nonwovens, hygiene and health care products.