Convenience has always been a major reason for the success of wet wipes. The other key feature for users is performance, whether cleansing a baby's bottom, removing makeup or any of the other targeted tasks. Now, more than ever, wet wipes for skin contact continue their path of market growth driven by performance.
Today’s nonwovens, in both specialty and commodity categories, when combined with additives, offer still more possibilities and growth potential. According to Rory Holmes, president of the INDA nonwovens association, “We estimate that the wipes category uses about 280,000 metric tons of nonwoven fabrics. The consumer wiping categories, baby, personal and household have had spectacular growth: five times larger in the last 15 years and what was originally only baby wipes now has three segments: baby representing 29% of dollars, household, 45% of dollars and personal, 26% of dollars. Consumer wipes have been growing at almost 10% per year for the last decade.”
This year, innovation is back stronger than ever. “The wipes explosion, even though slowed down significantly by the recent recession, has begun to grow again,” says Rick Jezzi, consultant. Wet wipes markets have moved well beyond concerns that they are "nice to have" to “must have” products. Wet wipes deliver features that build loyalty, particularly for skin contact benefits.
Nonwovens materials, because of their particular fiber content and processing methods, demonstrate a wide range of features for wet wipes. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. In addition, wet wipes made from nonwovens substrates often compete with the typically more economical tissue products. So these comparisons are useful as starting points.
When it comes to wet wipes for skin contact, spunlaced (also called hydroentangled) nonwovens have emerged as the leading fabric choice. According to Rory Holmes, "Of the total 280,000, spunlaced fabrics comprise the largest segment of nonwovens for wipes at 146,000 metric tons.”
Materials designers continue to dial-in new features of spunlaced nonwovens based on the support of fibers suppliers, equipment manufacturers and converters. Want more absorbency? Use more cellulose content. Looking to appeal to consumers with proven softness to hand and reputation? Choose cotton content. Is strength important? Various synthetic fibers will deliver that value. And so forth.
Consider the special needs for medical wipes where product attributes are crucial to sales success. According to Rick Jezzi, details are a given "with more disposable wipe applications in the area of infection control being commercialized. Nonwovens used in this segment tend to be selected, as they should, by cost and function. One type of nonwoven substrate that seems to be gaining popularity is the increased use of spunmelts (spunbond, meltblown, SMS) in this category."
"Typically these substrates do not make good pre-moistened wiping materials as their ability to absorb and hold large volumes of liquid is poor,” says Jezzi. “In many of the medical alcohol swabs, antibacterial and disinfectant wipes, this is not always a requirement. Their more economical cost structure and their high strength and abrasive resistance are making them more noticeable for certain wiping applications.”
One specific spunmelt wiping material mentioned by Jezzi is an abrasive meltblown structure superimposed onto either a spunbond, meltblown or sometimes even a spunlace nonwoven.
Jezzi cites airlaid nonwovens that are also used in the medical wipes segment, especially when high liquid volumes are required. Depending on the task, the fiber sloughing of the short pulp fiber onto surfaces that is inherent by this type of nonwoven, is sometimes viewed as a detriment and limits its application. “Biax-FiberFilm later this year is introducing its Bi-Form nonwoven process technology which is a hybrid of both meltblown and cellulose pulp forming,” he says. “Depending on the ratio of these two materials, it will give meltblown nonwovens some much needed absorbent properties, and depending on the design of the structure, it also may control the fiber sloughing experienced by the airlaid substrates. This flexibility will allow it to compete for some of the medical wipes applications. It will be very interesting to see what product developers will do with it when it becomes available in the nonwoven marketplace.”
Airlaid nonwovens also have a great ability to be design-friendly. However, in recent years, producers have been content to make a “standard” array of weights and emboss patterns, rather than developing items using new fibers and additives. With the multiple forming heads and process abilities to offer more features, optimization is awaiting the right push and partners for airlaid advancements.
Spunlace offers great flexibility for the design of these products but at a price, says Jezzi. “Their ability to to accept a blend of a multitude of different fiber types is useful when trying to optimize the delivery properties impregnated fluids are trying to deliver.”
Topping off a feast of possibilities for wipes performance are the additives available to product developers. They offer a host of enhancements during processing for greater efficiency, and for every type of task-specific need. Increasingly, additives also tackle environmental issues such as incorporation of replacements such as Zemea® propanediol, a skin-friendly, natural and petroleum-free glycol alternative in wet formulations. Additives further advance goals set out when fiber choices are made, and they can introduce features not available otherwise. The range is wide, including fragrance, cleansing, polishing, soothing, tanning/screening and so many more specific advertised aspects that attract buyers.
When additives are considered, it's helpful to note that features and outcomes are affected by:
The choice of specific ingredient / formula.
The point at which they are introduced.
The package, canister, pack etc. and how it is shipped or stored (upright, side etc.).
Shelf life desired.
The type of nonwoven it combines with.
Some additives can adversely affect other factors such as softness of the nonwoven.
Requirements for performance in finished product.
Cost and complexity in gaining the targeted result.
When wet wipes exhibit the full force of selected nonwovens and additives, their attractiveness is so much more than packaging, graphics and promotion. Repeat purchase and loyalty are more likely assured. Simply, they are what consumers expect.