The recent Covid-19 pandemic has placed medical personal protection equipment (PPE) in the limelight. PPE not only played a critical role in helping protect healthcare workers during the pandemic, but face mask requirements also made it a necessity for the general public.
As Covid-19 continues to be a presence and people continue to use face coverings in public, PPE will continue to be needed at an increased rate. In fact, industry experts project the PPE market to grow from about US$80 billion in 2022 to about US$111 billion by 2029.
What does the textile industry need to do to meet the demands of both healthcare workers and the general public to provide PPE that will keep them protected? According to industry experts, this includes adding in comfort, material, and design advances, and focusing on sustainability.
Protection and Comfort
While the main goal of medical PPE is to protect the wearer, comfort has also become a key component, says Juan P. Hinestroza, The Rebecca Q. Morgan Professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University. “In the PPE ecosystem, the balance between comfort and protection remains to be optimized,” he explains. “There is a lot of development on new materials across industry and academia, as well as the government.”
Bryan Ormond, assistant professor at the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, agrees. “One of the things that we ran into with Covid was you could have some of the best (PPE) products out there, but if they were uncomfortable to wear. If people couldn’t breathe, … they didn’t want to wear (it),” he says. “We have to really consider that human factor. If you don’t, your product (is) probably going to be doomed to fail if you don’t look at how they’re going to use it or if they will use it.”
The recent focus on medical textile PPE has led new innovations in the materials being used.
At Cornell, Hinestroza says they are focused on developing novel reactive materials that rather than capturing toxic compounds, converts them into harmless chemicals. “That approach allows us to increase the lifetime of the PPE as the issue of concentration saturation is minimized,” he says.
Additionally, Hinestroza says they are working on using 3D mapping to create optimal air flows inside PPE garments to minimize heat accumulation on the wearer.
“Each medical situation is unique, but textiles continue to serve as an optimal platform for PPE in many scenarios,” he explains. “The textile industry can continue innovating on new finishes and reactive coatings that can address a myriad of threats. The ideal situation would be to have textile substrates that are dynamic and can easily adapt to several external and internal environments without sacrificing comfort.”
The recent pandemic has also given the textile industry an opportunity to rethink how some PPE is designed.
“There’s some really good designs and really good materials out there that I think may start to allow us to start questioning some of the traditional things, like the traditional surgical mask,” Ormond says. “What do we expect it to do, versus what we know could be possible now, based off of the things that have been innovated over the past two or three years?”
He mentions a lot of research has been done over the past few years around protective face masks and face coverings.
“In many cases, many of the cloth or barrier products that have been designed over the past few years actually fit much better than surgical masks,” Ormond explains. “Even if they have a slightly lower level of performance, you’re almost achieving the full performance of what it’s capable of if you make it fit to the face better. Whereas a surgical mask being open on the side, the material may be great, but you’re never getting to that material level performance value if everything’s coming out around the gaps between the face and a mask.”
He adds that often, with PPE, manufacturers tend to over-protect because they just don’t know what someone may be exposed to. “A lot of people want a single solution, when in many cases that’s never going to be appropriate for everybody,” he says. “One of the things that really helps is when you start to understand your users and not just say this product is a one size fits all solution. I think that’s one of the things that would really help in the future.”
Focus on Sustainability
A study published in July 2021 estimated the Covid-19 pandemic caused about 7,200 tons of disposable medical PPE waste each day. The researchers stated this amount could be considerably lowered by using reusable face masks.
“PPE and sustainability have not necessarily been in the same conversation in the past,” Ormond says. “It’s one of those things where we didn’t necessarily worry about it because we were just trying to protect somebody. But when you use something on such a global scale, it really makes a difference to have things that could be reused.”
According to Jeremy Fogel, president of Medline Textiles/EVS division—which manufactures isolation and surgical gowns made from polyester fabric—during the pandemic they saw many customers switch from disposable to reusable gowns as supply was limited and the demand for PPE was high.
“Now, we’re seeing customers select reusable gowns to complement their sustainability initiatives to help reduce waste and lower costs,” he says.
Fogel says that, as systems reflect on lessons learned from supply chain and inventory management, there is opportunity to make sustainability a greater part of the conversation by incorporating more reusable products.
“An analysis of 1,000 isolation gowns from eight major manufacturers found that reusable gown systems can offer benefits over their disposable counterparts in four environmental indicators measured, including reduction in energy consumption, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, reduction in blue water consumption, and reduction in solid waste generation,” he says. “There’s also a number of other industry studies that support how reusable gowns can be more environmentally friendly than disposable when used in proper ways.”
According to industry experts, comfort, sustainability, and improved design and materials, are the areas where the textile industry needs to focus for the future of medical PPE.
About the Author
Corrie Pelc has more than 23 years of writing and editing experience as a magazine journalist, freelance writer, and blogger. Find her on LinkedIn.