I'm hearing a lot about microfiber towels and mops. What can you tell me about their performance compared to more well-established products? Are they processed differently in the laundry? How do they differ from cotton and other materials?
CHEMICALS SUPPLY: Steven Tinker, the director of research and development for Gurtler Industries, South Holland, Ill., has more than 30 years of experience in laundry chemistry research, development and marketing. He’s secretary/treasurer of the Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council (HLAC).
I will leave the analysis of performance aspects of microfiber towels and mops to other experts. My expertise lies in the area of processing.
First, a little background: Microfiber textiles consist of a blend of polyester and polyamide (nylon is a polyamide fiber), typically in an 80/20 ratio.
These fibers are specially manufactured such that the fibers are split into microscopic, wedge-like filaments. Each fiber has both polyester and nylon components. The fibers do not cling to one another and will separate into finer threads, creating a large surface area.
The fibers are 100 times finer than a human hair. It’s said that 90,000 microfibers are contained in each square inch of fabric. Plus, microfiber fabrics are usually nonabrasive, and generally they don’t lint.
Microfiber mops and many cleaning cloths are usually constructed with a collection of hooks and loops, which are designed to attract and trap fine particles of particulate soil.
The static electricity in the fibers will attract soils, and the polyester will attract oil. The fabric can hold a great amount of oil and particulate soil because of the high surface area and the wedge-like filaments.
The last thing to consider is how microfiber mops are used. In hospitals, the mops replace traditional cotton mops for general cleaning (and sanitization) of patient rooms and general areas.
Usually a “quaternary” cleaner or disinfectant is used as the cleaning solution. Quaternary cleaning solutions have a cationic (positively charged) surfactant component that sanitizes and a nonionic (no charge) surfactant that is the cleaner in the product.
These physical and chemical features of the fabric and the cleaning solution can guide us into understanding the best cleaning methods for the mops.
First, the fabric is highly absorbent. Thus it’s somewhat difficult to thoroughly rinse out detergent solutions.
Also, there’s an ionic bond between the fabric, the cleaner and the soils that makes it even more difficult to remove the soils.
Knowing this, we recommend two or three high-water flushes to remove the detergent and soils that are loosely bound to the fabric.
We follow with a heavy-duty wash cycle with a high amount of nonionic detergent.
Nonionic detergent will dissolve and strip away any residual sanitizer or cleaner deeply absorbed into the fiber. In addition, nonionics are oil-loving surfactants and they can strip away the oils for which the polyester has a high affinity.
We recommend 160 F for best cleaning; the wash time could vary from one 10- to 12-minute cycle to two 8- to 10-minute cycles, depending on the typical soil loading.
And, we recommend a moderate amount of alkali because both the polyester and polyamides don’t require much alkali to properly clean the fibers.
This is one of the main differences between cotton mops and microfiber mops. Cotton reacts to alkali by swelling and opening up to release trapped soils. Micro-fibers don’t react this way, so high-alkaline washes aren’t beneficial.
Some customers require a bleach step to brighten the fabric. Overuse of chlorine bleach has a potential to damage nylon fibers, so we recommend bleaching only if it’s deemed necessary.
If you do bleach, we recommend an antichlor to make sure no residual bleach is absorbed into the fibers. Follow the optional bleach cycle with two or three rinse cycles to make sure all residual detergent is removed.
One note: Don’t use fabric softeners on the mops. Any finish added to the fabric will decrease its effectiveness in cleaning by affecting the fabric’s absorbency and attraction to soils.
The mops should be extracted and tumble-dried at medium heat levels.
These general processing guidelines should help you maintain the quality of your microfiber mops and cleaning cloths throughout their entire life cycle.
HEALTHCARE LAUNDERING: Sue Klein is the marketing manager for Shared Service Systems, Omaha, Neb., a central healthcare laundry that serves customers ranging from large urban health systems to small rural hospitals. She’s been active in the International Association of Healthcare Textile Managers (IAHTM).
Microfiber mops and towels began their trials almost 10 years ago. According to manufacturer sources, approximately 10% to 14% of hospitals have implemented a microfiber mop program.
[Microfiber – densely-constructed polyester and polyamide (nylon) fibers – are approximately 1/16 the thickness of a human hair. The density of the material enables it to hold six times its weight in water, making it more absorbent than a conventional, cotton loop mop. Microfibers are positively charged, which attract negatively charged dust particles.
So, why only a 10% adoption rate?
Microfiber mops require a fairly substantial initial investment. Each manufacturer uses a slightly different design, requiring the purchase of the microfiber pads and new mop handles specific to the pad.
The return comes in lower chemical usage, increased worker productivity, and potentially fewer back-related claims due to mop-induced injuries.
Microfiber mops will not, however, completely replace the cotton string variety. Microfiber is not used in heavily soiled, bloody, sticky or greasy areas.
From the perspective of laundering these items, we face several challenges. The size of these items makes their weight relatively light, causing you to examine how you charge for their cleaning.
The variety of different types of heads and manufacturers necessitate keeping these mops separate by facility in a central laundry, adding to the cost of processing.
Additionally, the ease of use prompts high loss rates as the mops migrate to the homes of employees.
Chemically, microfiber mops require more softener, no bleach and a more moderate temperature. This adds to the difficulty in integrating them into a central laundry’s operation.
Whether a hospital has already adopted a microfiber program or is in the investigative stage, these tools have a specific, useful place in hospital housekeeping.
Hospital linen processors need to embrace this change, and enact a cost-effective strategy to launder and bill for this service.