A Look at Microfiber

In November 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report, “Using Microfiber Mops in Hospitals,” which was, arguably, the introduction of microfiber products on a wide-scale to the U.S. healthcare market. The report compared conventional wet mops and microfiber flat mops.

Conventional wet mops were identified as large, heavy mop heads that required frequent changing of cleaning solution; were labor intensive; and contributed to high chemical and water use. The highlighted benefits of microfiber mops were: they were light and ergonomic; they prevented contamination of cleaning solution from dirty mops; they were constructed of dense, durable fibers that reached into surface pores; and that they were cost effective.

Everything said then was true. But a lot has changed since 2002. Some examples:

  • Healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs) have become the bane of existence of Environmental Services professionals, Infection Preventionists and patients.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions more have found themselves with HAIs.
  • Manufacturers have been able to economically produce micro denier fibers that are considerably smaller than microfibers. They now produce splittable fibers using 100% polyester rather than a polyester/polyamide blend.
  • Reusable microfiber products are now available in colors, thus allowing for an effective color-coded system in processing different areas of the environment.
  • Reusable microfiber products are available in a variety of products that replace inferior cotton products and costly disposable products.
  • Chemical manufacturers, laundry equipment manufacturers, and Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council-accredited laundries can now ensure that reusable microfiber products are laundered to exacting specifications needed to eliminate cross contamination and re-contamination of used products.
  • The price of microfiber products has gone down and the quality and efficacy has gone up.
  • Depending upon the manufacturer, a quality microfiber can remove 99.9% to 99.9999% of bacteria from a surface without the use of cleaner or disinfectant.
  • In 2002 the focus was floor mops, but microfiber wipers have taken a more important position as the role of environment “touch-points” is being acknowledged as one of the main sources of HAIs.

However, there continues to be resistance in changing from cotton to microfiber. Here are some common excuses:

  • It’s too expensive.
  • It’s more expensive than what is being used now.
  • It’s too easily pilfered.
  • It’s too hard to get clean after it’s used.
  • “Somebody” said it can’t be laundered good enough to “make it clean.”
  • My laundry can’t clean it properly.
  • It’s more expensive than disposables.
  • Disposables are easier and faster to use.
  • We can’t afford it.
  • Paper towels are just as effective and cheaper.

Before we move to microfiber, let’s take a quick look at a textile that is centuries old, but has outlived its benefits: cotton mops and wipers. The fibers are too large to trap and remove the microbes that can cause sickness and disease, cotton sheds and leaves parts of itself wherever it is used. Cotton breaks down in the presence of many chemicals, leaves lint, streaks (it does not remove dirt; it spreads it.) and finally, because cotton is an organic fiber, it provides nourishment to bacteria since bacteria feed on organic matter. Bacteria don’t feed on microfiber and ultra-microfiber fibers.

goldenstar Microfiber_Scrubber_Pad__64849.1362772024.1280.1280(1)

Putting the Microscope on Microfiber – the smaller the fiber, the higher the efficacy.

Even though all people are created equal, microfiber is not.

In order for microfiber to be effective against bacteria, virus, fungus, mold, other potentially infectious materials (OPIM) and dirt, it must be split. And the smaller the split, the more effective it will be. The smaller the fiber size the more effective it will be at trapping and removing a virus, a bacterium, a bacterial spore, a pollen grain, a gathering of dust particles, blood, OPIM, and other undesirables.

It takes educated, trained technicians

But, and here is the caveat: The best micro-denier or microfiber products will only be as effective as the person using it. That means it must be incorporated into a proven process that involves educated and trained technicians.

Wait a minute! Before someone asks what is meant by “educated” and what is the difference between education and training, let me explain. For our purposes, education means the technician is taught the “why” of using microfiber. Why does it work; why it must be handled/used properly; why it should be used only in one patient room then placed into the bin for laundering; why color-coding is essential; why its use will save time and effort on their part; and why it provides a safer environment for the patient/client and themselves.

Next they must be trained. A trained technician is a person in whom a company has invested time, knowledge, support, education, and money. A trained technician is not just a “warm body” who can fill a position. A trained technician knows not only the “why” of their job but the best of “how” to do their job.

Now, to address your customer’s objections.

“It’s too expensive.”

  • Yes, but only when compared to ineffective cotton washcloths and towels.
  • No, microfiber wipes and mops are infection-prevention tools that produces superior results in bacterial and viral removal; they should be considered as an investment, just as other tools are.

“It’s too hard to get clean after it’s used.”

  • Well, “yes” and “no.” Yes, it’s difficult to get it hygienically clean and safe if one is trying to launder it in a “home” washer, even a machine labeled “Commercial Quality” that’s purchased in an appliance or big box store. And coin-operated laundries don’t count. So, no, it’s not difficult, rather it is very simple and it’s best to have microfiber products commercially laundered. Commercial laundering also prolongs the efficacy and life of the microfiber textile. Check www.hlacnet.org to find a Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council (HLAC) accredited laundry near you.

“’Somebody’ told me a research study showed reusable wipers can’t be laundered good enough to make it clean.”

  • Well, they were wrong! Contact an HLAC-accredited laundry for assistance. A 2015 “study” underwritten/paid for by a very large disposables manufacturer produced the study that had many procedural questions unanswered and caused or started, proliferates, and allows this confusion to reign unrestrained. When properly laundered, a reusable textile is just as hygienically clean and safe and perhaps cleaner than a disposable product.

“My laundry can’t clean microfiber properly.”

  • Find another laundry or contact your microfiber or micro denier manufacturer for washing instructions. It’s no more difficult than any other HCT and it must be washed to the same exacting standards as all HCTs.

“Microfiber products are more expensive than disposables.”

  • When was the last time you compared the total costs per disposable wipe with a reusable microfiber wipe? Disposables that come in their own plastic container with their own cleaner/disinfectant or those that go into your bucket to which you add cleaner/disinfectant cost in the range of $0.09 to $0.15 each.
  • How many disposable wipes does it take to properly process and meet the dwell time/contact time/kill time needed by the EPA? Eight? Ten? More? Even at $0.09 each and using a minimum of eight disposables one is looking at $0.72 per bed. That’s $0.72 thrown into the waste bin for each bed. Do the math. Not only are disposables not as effective at removing the things that need removing, they’re very expensive.
  • I will say that there is a LIMITED need for disposable wipers for the occasional wipe needed to remove bioburden or a quick wipe of a wheelchair arm or, telephone, or bed-rail. Disposable wipes are a convenience item and for that convenience a premium is paid. Should an operating room or patient room be processed with disposable products? Why? They cost more, they are not good for the environment and they don’t clean as good as quality reusable microfiber and micro-denier products. (Many people will disagree with me on this.)

“We can’t afford microfiber.”

  • Really? How much are they spending monthly on disposables? Keep in mind “spending” involves: ordering, storing, distributing, and disposing of the disposable wipes, the plastic pails they come in, the cardboard boxes they are shipped in, the additional plastic can liners that fill faster because of the added disposable waste, and the time involved in disposing of the waste.
  • Finally, when someone says, “We can’t afford it,” I must ask who the “we” is. Because “we” not only includes the obvious EVS department. It also includes the patients, staff and visitors who are put at risk when environmental surfaces are not processed properly. And it includes the community in which “we” live since disposables take about 25,000 years to disintegrate and have an impact beyond the immediate eyesight of “we.”

Using microfiber and micro-denier textiles in healthcare requires making the paradigm shift in thinking by EVS professionals, Infection Preventionists, Laundry Managers and Healthcare Administrations. The mindset needs to move from “rags and mops” to infection prevention textiles, and from aesthetics and cleaning to clinical processing and infection prevention.johnHLAC2

John Scherberger, BS, FAHE, CHESP, REH, Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council Board