Consumer Wipes: Stretching into New Segments

By Sean Moloughney, Managing Editor | June 6, 2012

Future growth may rely on developing regions and emerging markets.

Once dominated by baby care, the wipes market is maturing and branching out into other applications that offer manufacturers new opportunities for growth. However, balancing cost, convenience, sustainability and performance will continue to be a delicate task as the category looks to attract new customers.

According to Cary, NC-based INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, North America and the European Union combine for 65% of the global wipes market. On an annual basis, wipes represent approximately 1 million metric tons. INDA forecasts the U.S. and EU will witness growth in the 4-5% range while the Asia-Pacific region will increase 10%.

Market segmentation will influence expansion overall, says Rory Holmes, president of INDA. “Wipes manufacturers are constantly looking for the next big thing, thereby fragmenting the wipes market even further. The largest wipe segment is household wipes, although personal care wipes are fast becoming a close second. Twenty years ago baby wipes were the only wipes to be found. The wipes market has evolved and now the household and personal care wipes have taken over the market as the biggest sellers.”

According to Phillip Mango, president of Phillip Mango Consulting, baby wipes represent 20% of all wipes sales in North America, while the household wipes category has reached more than 35% of all sales. Meanwhile, cleaning/disinfecting wipes and floor wipes account for 10% each of the total market. Globally, however, baby wipes are still the best sellers with about 32% of retail sales, followed by the household wipes category at about 30%. No sub-segment exceeds 10% globally, although general purpose industrial wipes (9%), cleaning/disinfectant wipes (8%) and floor wipes (8%) are the largest globally.

A 2011 wipes market report from EDANA, the international association serving the nonwovens and related industries, indicates personal care wipes have increased by 15.7% compared to 2009. Household wipes continued to show positive development (+6.5% in 2010 following the +7.7% observed in 2009).

A Developing Marketplace

Explaining the evolution of the wipes market, Susan Stansbury, director, Converting Influence, says, “Wipes came into being because of their convenience—not having to combine wet sprays with paper towels and so forth. Now that they are part of a solid purchase pattern, wipes have evolved into a greater range of task-specific roles.”

Niche marketing is most apparent within skin contact products where new additives and applications are rolled out, she adds. “A walk down retailers’ cosmetics, skin care and lotions aisle shows the diversity. Additives in these products, which strive for a level of functionality such as deep cleansing, add value to these products. And line extensions beyond previous lotions in bottles and jars now find their way into wipes.”

Carolin Weber, sales director, Hygiene and Wipes, with nonwovens supplier Sandler, agrees that wipes are used in an increasing number of applications, including baby care, cosmetics, medical uses, household and industrial cleaning. “The concept of wet wipes imbued with different cleaning lotions, which are primarily used in the baby care and cosmetics markets, has also penetrated the market for automotive cleaning. In this way, these versatile products are likely to continue expanding their areas of application.”

Amy Lee, sales director, KNH Enterprise Co., Ltd., says baby care wipes have been the major growth driver for wipes products for years. “At this moment, personal care/home care wipes are playing as the growing segments in the wipes category.”

Charlotte Castleberry, director of business development, Kleen Test Products Corporation, a leading contract manufacturer of wet wipes, notes that growth has scaled back a bit in recent years. “Kleen Test continues to see growth in the core wipes categories within personal care, such as hand and facial wipes, and with home cleaning and disinfecting wipes. The growth rate seems to have slowed from what it was several years ago. Special purpose wipes—targeted to specific cleaning or personal care applications—are increasingly becoming more popular as well. Wipes that can offer the consumer a benefit are the ones that take hold in the market and grow.”

In terms of market regions, East Asia has contributed strong growth in the wipes market, especially in China, according to Bernard Kerstens, commercial director (overseas business), Nanliu Enterprise (Pinghu) Co., Ltd., a company that operates three spunlace lines (one with cross lapping) and 10 wet wipe converting lines. “There we have seen an annual growth rate of approximately 20% in the last five years. We expect that the rapid growth rate in China would continue for the next five years in view of the continued increase in personal income. Moreover, increasingly, people realize the convenience of using wet wipes.”

Portability and convenience, coupled with the hygiene aspect of their single usage, has popularized wipes among consumers, says Pranay Bhaskar Sahu, senior manager, Nonwovens Business, Welspun India Limited, who gave a presentation about the wipes category at EDANA’s EurAsia Symposium held in May in Istanbul, Turkey.

“Developed regions like the U.S., Western Europe and Japan will continue to lead the global wipes market because of the large affluent population and lifestyle trends focused on time-saving products. Developing regions like China, India and Latin America will show a rapid growth for wipes due to the industrial expansions leading to express economic growth.”

Innovative products will capitalize on new market opportunities, he adds. “Wiping fabric manufacturers should work hard to offer consumers environmentally friendly products—disintegrable, dispersible and biodegradable spunlace—desired by the consumers. Even if the spunlace manufacturers are able to achieve part of the desired properties, it will generate massive interest.”

What Consumers Want: Sustainably Convenient

Wipes offer consumers significant value in saving an increasingly precious commodity: time.

“In North America, the recovering economy and reduction in unemployment is increasing income and reducing time for consumers, feeding the time-saving driver for wipes growth in consumer wipes,” says Mango. “Globally, both the recovering global economies as well as penetration of developing markets, like China, Latin America and Eastern Europe are driving growth.”

Today’s time-strapped consumers are looking for a combination of functionality and convenience, says Weber. “In all applications, wipes are supposed to provide excellent cleaning, be easily applicable and, especially for wet wipes, offer an all-in-one solution. Just take it out of the box, swipe the surface and have a clean result. In today’s fast-moving times, every task has to be handled quickly and without delay. Wipes offer such convenience—at home, at work and also on the go.”

Beyond convenience, the current generation of surface wipes is mostly about economy where clean up of spills, polishing, degreasing and similar uses dominate, according to Stansbury. “On the skin contact side, more subtle motivations range from ‘pampering’ yourself, choosing a product that’s within your favorite brand category or fragrance type and meeting personal care needs. Products specifically for men, for example, have come a long way from just using a baby wipe to cleanse the skin.”

For today’s consumers, however, eco-friendliness is another important purchasing criterion. “For a company like Sandler, which operates sustainably, this is all the more reason to make sustainability and eco-friendliness one of the top priorities in product development—from the choice of the raw materials to the reduction of energy consumption during the manufacturing process,” says Weber.

Like many other markets, sustainability has become an important issue for the nonwovens industry. “Wipes manufacturers are aware of the consumers’ need for greener or more eco-friendly products and are pushing that down the supply chain,” says INDA’s Holmes. “Flushability has become a critical issue for wipes manufacturers as well. Wastewater treatment facilities have been focusing their attention on wipes and their (wrong) perception that they are causing problems and clogging their pumps. INDA has been working with wipes manufacturers, wastewater treatment facilities and local government officials to address this growing perception.”

Welspun’s Sahu agrees, saying that with growing consumer emphasis on the importance of green and sustainable products, the wipes industry must learn how to deliver on these expectations. “Nonwovens producers should continuously move towards greener practices and develop biodegradable products.”

For example, sustainability is at the forefront of Suominen’s entire production process, says Alistair Brown, director, Marketing & Communications, Suominen Nonwovens, which acquired Ahlstrom’s wipes business late last year. “Sustainability is a main driver for our business both from customers and suppliers but also from end-users. All our nonwovens are manufactured with an environmental footprint in mind and lifecycle analysis ‘from cradle to grave’ plays a large role in our new product development activities.”

When it comes to sustainability, Keen Test’s Castleberry says she has noticed customers are looking for solutions to minimize their products’ environmental footprint. “Kleen Test works with its customers to address sustainability at all levels of the supply chain, including raw materials, packaging, transportation and our overall manufacturing operations.”

New products often present unique challenges, she adds. “Our product development and engineering teams draw on their experience and the diverse capabilities of our company to overcome the challenges and incorporate the learnings into future products.”

Sustainability is crucial to the long-term vision of KNH Enterprise, according to Lee. “We have developed several green-concept wipe products including cotton and pulp blended material in wipes.”

With sustainability getting more attention in the industry, Nanliu Enterprise is developing new fabrics composed of natural fibers that are both biodegradable and also flushable. “It is a profound desire to reach these goals in a verifiable way,” says Kerstens. “Many are making all sorts of claims in the area of sustainability. However, it is clear that sustainability goes much further than having a portfolio of environmentally advanced fabrics. It must be rooted in a company culture and to provide our clients with the assurance that the performance claims of Nanliu Enterprise are accurate we got our plants ISO 14000 certified.”

According to Jeff Willis, medical and wipes sales representative with Texel, a universal definition of “sustainability” has been elusive. “We have a concerted effort underway to define what we believe to be ‘sustainability’ and how we want to measure it internally. We’re in the beginning stages of doing that at Texel.”

He also notes the premium costs often associated with sustainable products. “We hear our customers say they’d love to have green products and use renewable resources; they just don’t want to pay for it. That’s been the sentiment for a long time.”

Flushable wipes are now truly flushable and have good, usable standards (INDA/EDANA guidelines), says Mango. “Kimberly-Clark, Buckeye and Suominen have developed commercial, dispersible products for flushable wipes. Buckeye’s Gaston airlaid products now use less synthetic bicomponent fiber and more sustainable wood pulp and deliver excellent wet strength, with production rates twice most other airlaid and spunlace lines. This provides lower cost, higher performance and more sustainability. FiberVision’s trilobal polypropylene fiber used in spunlace for wipes provides superior opacity and aesthetics, permitting lower basis weights for some wipes. This delivers lower cost, lower raw material usage and more sustainability.”

Selecting Substrates

Spunlace has been the most widely accepted wiping fabric, representing nearly half (49%) of the wipes market in terms of tonnage. Other technologies include airlaid (26%) and wetlaid/needlepunch/composites (25%), according to EDANA.

“Spunlace globally is one the most competitive arenas—made even more so by capacity increases in certain geographies,” says Suominen’s Brown. “The market is still growing and new applications within wiping where spunlace can be used are emerging.”

Technology has focused on efficiency, developing cost-engineered products and bringing value-adding properties to customers, he adds. “Our spunlace products under the global brand Fibrella Spunlace cover an extensive range of properties, basis weights and locations of global manufacture. We can produce Fibrella Spunlace from multiple locations throughout Suominen Nonwovens and offer such differentiation characteristics as embossing and biodegradability.”

Sandler offers wipes substrates for a wide range of applications, says Weber, including soft and fleecy materials for cosmetic applications that can be saturated with nurturing substances to make them ideal materials for cleansing, removing make-up or refreshing the skin. “In Sandler multi-layer composites for cosmetic wipes or washcloths, fine and coarser layers with structured surfaces can be combined to ensure gentle cleaning. Nonwoven substrates for baby wet wipes are extremely soft and kind to the skin and can be used anywhere—at home or on the go, from head to toe, providing reliable all-around protection.”

Other major spunlace makers include Jacob Holm, which claims its technology represents the latest in the field. The company has made strong investments into innovation and research, and is constantly on the lookout for new raw materials and fabric production techniques to provide clients the products they need in their ever-changing markets.

Turkey-based Mogul also offers a wide selection of fibers and blends in different compositions to meet various customer needs. Wet wipes are mainly used for baby wipes, antibacterial wipes, facial wipes, impregnated wipes for homecare, feminine hygiene, etc., while dry wipes are used for cosmetics, floor-glass cleaning, dust wipes and mops, automotive, cleanrooms, etc.

Other major spunlace players include Spuntech in Israel and North America, Albaad and Eruslu in Israel, as well as a number of smaller companies in the Far East.

Willis, of Texel, says needlepunch nonwovens offer some advantages over spunlace, especially for floor wipes, as well as kitchen and bath wipes, where abrasive scrubbing properties are desired.

“A lot of floor wipes in particular are needlepunch because it is heavier than a spunlace product and it will have more durability; and for the kitchen and bath segment we can impart flame and heat treatments to give some abrasiveness. In a lighter weight spunlace product you might not have that option.”

The company also does some business in the cosmetic wipes segment. “There are some techniques that we have introduced into the wipes market over the past few years or so to enhance properties in order to give you a velvety, soft, supple feel to a pad.”

He adds that the wipes market has evolved and technology continues to improve as competition stiffens. “If you go back 10-15 years, the wipes business wasn’t that much compared to what it is today. Now there’s a wipe for pretty much anything. The big driver was on the spunlace side of the business. Baby and personal wipes drove the market and people started spinning it off into a wide variety of applications. Almost anything you can spray you can put on a wipe.”

Meeting Challenges

As the globally competitive wipes market continues to evolve, new challenges will drive businesses to become more innovative and forward thinking.

Nanliu Enterprise’s Kerstens says his company has been confronted with challenges “from low-end and low-cost producers and converters who do not always meet the fabrics/wipes industry standards and cause negative impacts to customers.”

In an effort to overcome such challenges, “Nanliu Enterprise continues to invest in high-end, high-speed and wider spunlace lines to lower unit production costs in order to compete with the low-end suppliers meeting customer needs. As a matter of fact, Nanliu just decided to build a new six-meter wide spunlace line, the widest line worldwide.”

Jeff Slosman, president, National Wiper Alliance, which offers a full range of converting capabilities, says his company faces similar challenges from competitors. “It is the same challenge all manufacturers in the United States face: Our ability to remain competitive in a world market where we compete with countries that offer low wages and less government regulation. We must continue to improve our efficiencies and be willing to sell at lower margins than we have done in the past.”

He adds that false product claims continue to be a problem. “In the past few months we have received samples of wipes now being sold in North America making false claims as to antibacterial and biodegradability. We have sent samples out and had them third-party tested and found the claims to be unfounded. Until the FTC or EPA gets involved, we will continue to lose marketshare to wipes that are being sold that do not meet the claims they are making.”

According to Sandler’s Weber, as competition in developing countries heats up, companies will benefit from sound investments in technology and innovation.

“Above all in Asian and Far Eastern markets, as well as in Eastern Europe, an increasing number of market players will continue to provide vivid dynamics in the wipes sector. The numerous investments in these countries give rise to the supposition that high growth rates will ensue. In the already saturated markets of North America and Europe, on the other hand, growth has slowed down. In consequence, continuous improvement and investments into the latest state-of-the-art technology of existing and new equipment are being undertaken to support all our end consumers’ demands. For example, our latest spunlace line started production in May 2011. The new line allows us to systematically follow our strategy on highest-level quality in terms of product-properties and service as well as reliability and flexibility at reasonable prices. The maintaining of these standards is Sandler’s top priority systematically followed long-term.”

Texel’s Willis notes that raw material costs have also challenged businesses. “The volatility in the fiber market in 2011 made it very difficult for everyone. Prices shot through the roof. It seems to have calmed down a fair amount and we hope it will stay more manageable than last year.”


On the wipes machinery front, equipment needs to reduce, as much as possible, industrial transformation costs (ITC), according to Fabio Zampollo, sales director, Teknoweb, Srl. “This can be obtained with the maximum speed/efficiency/scrap performances of the machines, the minimum change format time, the maximum flexibility of the line to be adopted to different productions and minimum staffing possible for handling the lines.”

Technology has evolved dramatically in terms of performances, he adds. “The wet wipes business has been changed from a niche market to a commodity product. So costs, either for raw materials or for ITC, are making a difference. Who can produce at the lowest cost can survive; the others are forced to disappear.”

Anil Kirhalli, sales director, Kansan, says his company has been producing wet wipes converting machines for more than 14 years and has deep knowledge and experience in this market. “Accordingly, we are considering all details which are crucial for customers while manufacturing our wet wipe machines. Apart from this, we are capable of producing not only wet wipes converting machines but also packaging, lid applicator and top loading machines to provide our customers with fully automatic and synchronized wet wipes production lines. Hence, customer can procure all machines which are needed for production from us.”