By Melissa Donovan
While limited physical interaction continues to be encouraged, there are certain environments or activities that the general public still visit or partake in. At press time, much of the U.S. was phasing back into business openings—of course with COVID-19 still out there only time will tell if those openings will lead back to closures. To participate in some level of normalcy, the public must remain vigilant.
Slowing the spread of the virus means taking precautions like washing your hands, staying home if you feel unwell, social distancing, or wearing a mask. For the last two points, graphics play a prominent role.
Signage is essential in sharing pertinent information about safety and health regulations. The same applications can also act as safety or privacy barriers that include branding or helpful information. Masks are mandatory in many states and there is an increased desire for fun designs and patterns, licensed graphics, or company branding to be found on them.
While there is no question the technology is available to print and finish these applications, the materials used is an interesting topic. Not new, but perhaps not as in demand until now, there are substrates coated with antimicrobial treatments including fabric, film, and laminate.
Antimicrobial coated fabric is particularly prominent because of its versatility. For example, it can be used in silicone edge graphic (SEG) frames, acting as both informational signage and privacy barriers, or it can be utilized as apparel for non-medical grade masks or gowns.
Above: Fisher Textiles’ Disenfectex DFX 5200 Face Mask printed and produced by signs.com in Salt Lake City, UT.
Antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral coated fabrics prevent bacterial and fungal build up, eliminate odor causing bacteria, and kill or slow the spread of viruses.
“Currently, in the U.S., antimicrobial coated fabrics are primarily engineered to effectively eliminate bacteria up to 99.9 percent and fungal build up eliminating odor,” notes Mike Compton, former product marketing manager, TVF.
In addition to preventing bacterial buildup, Jason Bartusick, CEO/head of product development, Media One USA, says that coatings used on his company’s antimicrobial fabrics kill over 96 percent of bacteria within 24 hours.
Sharon Roland, advertising and PR manager, Fisher Textiles, explains that “antimicrobial treatment on fabrics stops the growth of unwanted bacteria that can cause stains and odors. It offers freshness, stain protection, and an extended product life. Antiviral treatment on fabrics kills viruses and bacteria on contact and stops its ability to replicate and grow. It offers the same bacterial fighting advantages as antimicrobial treatment with added viral fighting benefits.”
Indicating or eluding to an antimicrobial coated fabric killing the spread of viruses is one claim that Compton says cannot be made without certification by either the EPA or FDA. “There are coatings available to fabric suppliers that indicate they are effective in eliminating viruses including the human coronavirus SARS-coV-2, however, certification of this type of coating has not been completed in the U.S.”
This makes it challenging to market antiviral treated fabrics in the U.S. “EPA regulations prevent treated articles from making antiviral claims, they have explicitly stated ‘treated articles cannot claim that they are effective against viruses and bacteria that cause human illnesses,’” adds Roland.
For example, Fisher Textiles’ Disenfectex fabrics are treated with HeiQ V-Block, which can be marketed as antiviral in other countries, but in the U.S. it is classified as antimicrobial. “No active health claims can be made at this point in time, but possibly further down the road,” admits Roland.
Composition of a Coating
The science behind what makes an antimicrobial coating effective isn’t overly complicated. There are specific elements known for their ability to eliminate or disrupt viruses and bacteria. Most coatings with this characteristic include silver, copper, or zinc oxide.
Coating technologies are not universal in their chemical composition. Each varies based on the company engineering the product and its proprietary process. For example, HeiQ V-Block consists of a unique combination of silver and vesicle technologies, says Roland.
Specifically, HeiQ V-Block is a patent-pending combination of advanced antimicrobial HeiQ Pure TAG silver technology and vesicle booster technology. HeiQ Pure TAG is a non-ionic silver-based antimicrobial odor control agent with no foaming behavior, offering high antimicrobial efficacy achieved with low dosage.
Silver is commonly found in an antimicrobial coating. “Charged silver attracts bacteria and viruses to spherical liposomes, which will deplete the virus membrane, allowing the silver the capability of eliminating the virus. The utilization of silver can inhibit the replication of bacteria and deactivate viruses,” explains Compton.
Zinc oxide is another helpful feature. “It produces charged ions, which can disrupt and potentially destroy lipid membranes where viruses reside,” notes Compton. A nano particle, copper also contains antimicrobial properties, which can be effective in eliminating viruses and bacteria, he suggests.
While silver, zinc oxide, and copper are the acting ingredients in an antimicrobial coating, harmful chemicals should also be considered. When it comes to any engineered coating, it’s important to address whether there are any health or environmental concerns. Overall, antimicrobial coatings rarely contain caustic chemicals that are harmful to the environment or human health.
“Fabrics with antimicrobial components are recyclable and do not contain chemical agents that pose health and environmental concerns. In many cases, the antimicrobial finishes are composed of ingredients that are cosmetic grade and certified for skin contact,” explains Compton.
Roland notes that in theory these fabrics are recyclable, but processing the material is challenging.
“Nothing in the coatings would prevent recyclability. The coatings are common and should pose no cause for health concerns,” adds Bartusick.
To ensure any harmful ingredients are not added during the production and coating processes, print service providers (PSPs) should make sure the fabrics are REACH, OEKO-TEX, or ASTME certified, suggests Compton.
Beyond ensuring the coating isn’t harmful to the environment or human health, standards and certifications are helpful when determining the best antimicrobial fabric for a PSP’s business or job at hand.
If a fabric is used for a mask, it needs to be certified for skin contact. This comes under classifications like ASTME-E2149-13a, REACH Compliance, Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX, and OEKO-TEX Standard Class II, shares Compton.
Two additional standards that Roland finds helpful for PSPs to refer to include AATCC TM 100 and ASTM F2101. The first, AATCC TM 100, measures the antimicrobial properties of a fabric that has been incubated with selected microorganisms. ASTM F2101 measures the infectivity of a virus remaining on a treated fabric after being in contact with it for 30 minutes. Testable viruses include human influenza, human coronavirus, and respiratory syncytial virus.
Compton also notes that it is important to keep abreast of any government certifications and compliance for antimicrobial coatings. “Keep in mind that there are currently no certifications in the U.S. for antimicrobial coatings claiming to eliminate or ‘kill’ the human coronavirus SARS-coV-2,” he reiterates.
“Our advice to print providers is to really understand the end use application and gauge the importance of antimicrobial coatings for their customers’ needs,” shares Bartusick.
Two options are available to print providers when it comes to antimicrobial coated fabrics—either purchase a pre-coated fabric from a trusted supplier or coat a fabric on their own—whether in house or outsourcing to a specialized company.
“There are antimicrobial companies that finish fabrics. While this offers options, the short-run coating licensing fees, shipment costs, and other variables can make this cost prohibitive,” cautions Compton.
Many digitally printed fabric orders are shorter runs than most companies elect to finish, as Roland says treating before printing usually requires a minimum of 5,000 yards. She also notes that most outside fabric finishers won’t treat printed material.
By conducting the coating process inline on the manufacturing end, cost savings, scale, and efficiency are achieved, says Bartusick. “Coating on demand and locally at the customer level is cost prohibitive in specialized coating equipment, time, labor, and waste.”
Antimicrobial coated fabric is prevalent. Fabric being such a versatile medium, it is no surprise it can be used in applications ranging from signage that directs people on social distancing measures or protective barriers to apparel like non-medical grade personal protection equipment (PPE).
“The main applications include PPE face masks; SEG protective barriers for counters, desks, and open spaces; and in specialized trade show booths, especially in the hospitality and medical industries because of the hygienic properties of the treatment. When used in protective barriers, fabric provides added sound absorbent benefits that are not present in plexi- or hard-surface barriers,” explains Roland.
Compton says TVF’s print media textiles with antimicrobial coatings are utilized in separation and divider walls. “These offer protective safety barriers in schools, restaurants, salons, healthcare facilities, offices, retail environments, and gyms, as well as health and safety messaging, social distancing divider partitions, and directional and wayfinding signage. These fabrics can be washed without affecting the antimicrobial finish and can be printed with dye-sublimation (dye-sub) heat transfer as well as direct disperse.”
Many of the aforementioned examples are areas that Bartusick classifies as high traffic or high touch. “This might include tablecloths, table drapes, hotel curtains, and fabric barriers. It may also involve retail signage that if treated with antimicrobial coatings leaves one less thing in their environment to put into routine cleaning.”
“There’s tremendous growth in antimicrobial finishes for masks, gowns, and healthcare facility curtains,” notes Compton. “In addition to antimicrobial coatings, our fabrics have moisture wicking construction and withstand a high level of wash cycles, which is very important with non-medical PPE and fabrics are dye-sub printable.”
Not Required, but Preferred
With the recent pandemic, fabrics coated with antimicrobial features are in high demand. While there is a heightened need into the immediate future, the question becomes is this need sustainable? PSPs should know that antimicrobial coated fabrics will not disappear anytime soon and prepare to include them in their product offerings. Customers may prefer this media over one that doesn’t feature antimicrobial properties.
According to textile industry reports and heightened awareness, Compton says textiles with antimicrobial finishes are expected to see a global sales increase of eight to nine billion dollars over the next five years.
“With the innovation and constant evolution in our industry, I would be willing to say there will likely be new opportunities for treated fabrics further down the road,” foresees Roland.
Cycling back to the issue of the EPA preventing treated articles from making antiviral claims, Compton believes this will change eventually. “At some point, we will see antimicrobial finishes certified by U.S. government agencies that are effective in eliminating viruses when applied to fabrics. This will further accelerate sales and demand.”
“The bottom line is that printing on antimicrobial fabrics will likely be required by some clients for use in public spaces to help ensure health and safety,” notes Compton.
Bartusick believes it is smart antimicrobial fabrics remain in circulation even after COVID-19 is under control. “With a normal price premium, it makes sense to keep these antimicrobial fabrics in use for a wide range of applications—not just due to the pandemic, but to prevent the spread of common bacteria like staphylococcus and pneumonia causing bacteria.”
PSPs who haven’t done so should look into available antimicrobial coated fabric by reviewing current independent and government standards to ensure the correct certifications are met. Fabric treated with antimicrobial coating is very useful in today’s society and will probably remain so well into the future as further technology advancements and federal-based regulations are made.
If you aren’t printing to fabric but are interested in antimicrobial coatings be sure to read our December issue, which includes a feature on antimicrobial coated films and laminates.
Nov2020, Digital Output