An estimated 13 million adults suffer from some form of incontinence. Whether this disorder is light and causes the sufferer to release slightly when sneezing or participating in a strenuous activity, or strong, leaving the sufferer with virtually no bladder control, they all warrant the use of an adult incontinence item.
Similar to baby diapers in their general design and function, adult incontinence items are a growing niche in the nonwovens industry. While this segment will never compete with the baby diaper market in its size and scope, it is becoming recognized as an important growth industry. As more of the population deals with incontinence issues, the consumer base for this market will only expand. Now, the challenge for roll goods producers is to keep up with the increasing demand for diverse products to cater to the many forms of incontinence. Additionally, as the consumer becomes more knowledgeable, the manufacturer must innovate to be successful.
“Adult incontinence items are getting more sophisticated,” said Pieter Meijer, vice president of marketing and sales, Europe for BBA Nonwovens, London, U.K. “The main areas of development are comfort, leading to softer and thinner products; fit with new designs using thinner cores and more elastic components and efficiency, leading to faster strike-though and improved re-wet. All of these improvements need to be delivered to the marketplace at acceptable costs to the end user.”
Traditionally Kimberly-Clark, Dallas, TX, has led the U.S. incontinence market with its Depend brand. As the leader, many technological advancements have been initiated by K-C. For instance, the company introduced Depend protective underwear in 1998 amidst strong consumer demand. Today, most companies participating in the adult incontinence market offer protective underwear.
While protective underwear is a preferred choice for sufferers of severe incontinence disorders, the majority of incontinence issues are more slight and require a less substantial product such as a panty shield or light pad. This diversity of conditions has led to a wide array of products, and manufacturers expect this product mix to diversify even further as more attention is paid to this growing market.
In recent years, several factors have contributed to growth and increased diversification of products in the adult incontinence market. The recent aging of the general population has created a customer base for these products that is larger than ever before. Additionally, as more people face incontinence issues, less of a stigma is attached to these products, and customers are now more comfortable purchasing them on the mass market.
These two factors have led more manufacturers to recognize the adult incontinence segment as a viable market and, consequently, more research dollars than ever before are being poured into the segment.
In the last two years, consumption of adult incontinence has increased for several reasons,” explained Aykut Peltek, plant manager of Ritas Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey. “These include increased quality of products as well as better ergonomics and useful products that have led people to prefer adult incontinence.”
Additionally, a larger product mix has contributed to this growth. “There is more of a variety now, and we expect a lot more in the future,” said BBA’s Mr. Meijer. “Products are getting more specialized and respond better to the specific needs of the end user. This is also possible through cooperation between different key manufacturers of adult incontinence products.”
A trip to the local drug or grocery store easily illustrates the growing proliferation of adult incontinence products. Where once these items were hidden from view, they are now prominently displayed on the shelf. Also, while incontinence sufferers at one time had only the choice of a bulky device, similar to a baby diaper, now they can choose from a variety of products.
“The desire for comfort and increased performance at a cost that will be competitive with today’s designs will continue,” said Steven Bryant, sales and marketing manager for KT Industries, Fort Wayne, IN. “Many companies are trying different materials for this market. Airlaid materials offering a thin core design are one of these options, but time will tell if it will become cost effective.”
KT Industries is currently offering its Core-Lokt technology to the adult incontinence market. Core-Lokt is a thin strip of c-folded substrate material (airlaid or spunbond) that locks in superabsorbents and other additives at all times, whether wet or dry, using a sealed longitudinal seam. “This process eliminates leakage of polymers and additives from the core, thereby protecting the plant and equipment from contaminants during manufacturing and the consumer during use,” Mr. Bryant explained. “This thin, pre-assembled core can be combined with other materials, such as acquisition and distribution layers, to simplify a converter’s line and improve its processing speed.”
Manufacturers face several issues when manufacturing an adult incontinence product. Not only must the product be effective in quickly absorbing and retaining waste, it must also be discreet and indiscernible to the public. Many of today’s incontinence sufferers still want to lead active lifestyles so there is no room their incontinence items to fail them. They also need products that are comfortable.
“Functionality is key,” said Gregory Day, vice president hygiene marketing and sales for PGI Nonwovens, N. Charlotte, SC. “It’s not as traumatic if a baby diaper leaks as when an adult diaper leaks.”
And, because of the sensitivity issues that exist in adult incontinence, sufferers are generally extremely brand loyal. In fact, many of these sufferers credit their preferred adult incontinence item with giving them their lives back. “I remember one woman in a test study told us that she had not left her home for years before she found a certain product that worked for her,” Mr. Day recalled. “She was so afraid of having an accident in public that she did not leave the house.”
This brand loyalty, according to Mr. Day, is creating a complete need for customization in the adult incontinence market. Because there are so many types of incontinence, there must also be a wide variety of incontinence products, such as protective underwear, briefs, undergarments, guards, underpads and panty shields. For instance, in the case of stress incontinence—experienced by many women—when leakage occurs during coughing, laughing, exercising, lifting and other strenuous activities, a light incontinence item such as a panty shield is needed. Additionally, many women experience urge incontinence, a feeling that they cannot reach the toilet fast enough. This can be caused by infections that irritate the bladder or urethra or the loss of bladder control from a stroke, spinal cord injury or dementia, and sufferers from these conditions may need a more absorbent incontinence device. Additional forms of incontinence include overflow, functional, total or medication-related. Keeping up with all of these types of incontinence have kept end use manufacturers busy.
“The nonwovens industry should be able to design different products to fit all of these consumer needs,” said Guni Schiller of Atex, Settala, Italy. “Today there are already available adult diapers that fit into these consumer needs, and surely there will be improved quality in the future in terms of longer life use, chemical control of odor, better wear and comfort.”
Because so much of an adult incontinence product is comprised of nonwoven material, it is no surprise that nonwovens technology is contributing to the diversity in this market. The recent boom in airlaid material, for one, could mean good things for the adult incontinence industry. A thinner, pre-formed airlaid core would mean less bulky products, leading to more comfort and discretion for the end user. While some industry observers question the cost effectiveness of pre-formed cores in the baby diaper market, not as many cost restraints exist in adult incontinence—at least on the retail side. This means that the airlaid core could potentially find its way into adult incontinence, similarly to how it penetrated the feminine hygiene market in the 1990s.
“Process technology, product development and significantly improved raw materials (particularly in the area of nonwovens) drive this business,” BBA’s Mr. Meijer said. “And, the trend to thinner, more efficient and economical cores makes pre-assembled cores a key to success.”
Not A Baby Diaper
In many ways, adult incontinence products mirror baby diapers. For one, they are both basically designed for the same purpose, to absorb and retain urine and waste. Because the baby diaper market is by far the larger of the two segments, many roll goods manufacturers, who are active in the hygiene market, focus a significant amount of their attention on baby diapers, and a lot of the technology found in adult incontinence has been borrowed from baby diapers. However, as the adult incontinence market continues to grow, more suppliers are recognizing its viability and focusing more of their attention on it.
“Baby diaper design is strongly driven by bare marketing issues: make the product attractive not for the user (baby) but for the purchaser (mommy),” remarked Atex’s Mr. Schiller. “Adult incontinence products however have two retail channels—institutions, where purchasing is mainly triggered by cost issues, and end users who care much more about comfort and wellness than tricks and frills. For that reason, adult incontinence needs different innovations than baby diapers—only sensitive innovations introduced in baby diapers can be used in adult incontinence.”
One major difference between adult incontinence items and baby diapers is size. Naturally, adult diapers are significantly larger than baby diapers. Another difference, is length of use. Babies typically lightly soil their diapers several times in between changing whereas adults—particularly sufferers of severe incontinence—tend to change their garments after soiling them one time. “ A 200-pound person is very different from a 20-pound baby,” explained PGI’s Mr. Day. “A baby might go many times before being changed while adults change their items more frequently.”
Additionally, an adult is much more cognizant of soilage and leakage and needs a product with an effective acquisition layer that absorbs liquid immediately and keeps it away from skin. “The fluid cannot come back and touch the wearer,” Mr. Day added. “An adult needs a product with the technology that gets the liquid into the core quickly and keeps it there.”
Still, similarities exist between baby and adult diapers, particularly in terms of raw materials and machinery and equipment technology. In the past decade, the baby diaper industry has witnessed a trend toward lighter, thinner diapers, and many observers expect the diaper of the future to closely resemble a pair of underpants, with cloth outerlayers, thin cores and pull-on mechanisms. Already, many of these features are apparent on upscale and premium baby diapers, and adult incontinence items are borrowing this technology where it is appropriate.
“Basically the adult incontinence item and baby diaper are trying to do the same thing and adult incontinence is following the baby diaper market in terms of increasing leakage prevention and noise reduction benefits,” remarked Kirk Hwang of KNH Enterprises, Taipei, Taiwan.
The Path To Maturity
As the taboos associated with adult incontinence products continue to fade, more attention will be paid to this market. New products, featuring both novel innovations and technology borrowed from the diaper industry, will continue to appear on store shelves. Furthermore, additional marketing efforts will be paid to adult incontinence, which saw its first televised commercials only a few years ago.
“There are very advanced products for the market, which will be coming up during the next couple of years,” said Alexander Maksimow, CEO of airlaid producer McAirlaid’s Vliesstoffe, Steinfurt, Germany. “This will continue to be a niche market, but it will be a strong one—at least for the next couple of years.
As the baby boomer generation enters the 50-plus age group—in the U.S. alone, someone turns 50 every eight seconds, a total of 1000 a day—the market for these products will continue to grow. This sharply contrasts the baby diaper market, where declining birth rates and extremely high penetration levels in developed regions have created a mature market with little room for growth.
“The fastest growing segment in adult incontinence is light incontinence,” explained BBA’s Mr. Meijer. “All of the traditional reasons, such as the aging of the population, increased awareness and acceptance of problems with incontinence and availability of economical and efficient solutions, are contributing to this growth.”
Manufacturers will continue to add to these motivators driving growth in the segment by diversifying the product mix and creating more efficient production and product designs, along with better raw materials and increased economies of scale to trim costs. “Everyone is looking to reduce costs, while at the same time, adding value to the product,” said KT’s Mr. Bryant. “The method of pre-assembling materials outside a converter plant is a developing trend in an attempt to reduce asset investment and input costs. Pre-assembly often presents a more efficient cost model than does doing the work internally.”
In addition to decreased costs, increased education and marketing efforts will allow incontinent adults to feel more comfortable buying products to make living with their disorders more comfortable. Hence, consumers will be satisfied with their adult incontinence products and continue to live happy, active lifestyles in spite of their disorders.