MILAN — The wave of innovation that has marked the evolution of the textile sector in Europe and elsewhere in the past decade has increased the number of performances the garments we wear now boast — think antibacterial, natural stretch and wrinkle-free qualities.
But unusual times call for unusual projects and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic bringing customers’ safety and health concerns to the forefront, textile firms in Europe have been banking on a new performance-driven innovation: antiviral fabrics.
As reported, apparel and accessories inspired by personal protective equipment could be a $10 billion to $20 billion opportunity for the fashion industry. But what about antiviral fabrics that luxury players can source from their usual suppliers and craft into suits, shirts and cocktail dresses?
Textile firms developing this category have made clear these fabrics do not substitute for PPE, nor do they prevent the risk of contagion. Rather, they are seen as an additional layer of performance that is likely to become the new norm in manufacturing.
The latest brainchild of cotton specialist Albini Group’s Albini Next think tank for smart innovations is a family of antiviral fabrics dubbed ViroFormula, developed in partnership with Swiss company HeiQ, which provided the chemical treatment called Viroblock. This destroys the virus within five minutes, the company claims.
Treated with liposomes combined with a silver compound that enhances the antiviral property, the ViroFormula’s range of fabrics — intended for shirts, jackets, trousers and to be applied soon to knitwear yarns, too — marks an evolution from existing textiles that were adjusted to become suitable for the treatment, maximizing their performance without any impact on quality.
“When we realized the violent impact that COVID-19 could have on the world, strong enough to freeze the economy and change social behaviors, we prompted HeiQ to apply the treatments they were already developing for PPEs to regular apparel,” explained Fabio Tamburini, chief executive officer of Cotonificio Albini, the group’s production arm.
Despite the shutdown of all nonessential manufacturing businesses that Italy enforced on March 23, the group powered ahead to bring the family of fabrics to the market in less than two months, instead of the six to nine months that are typically required, conducting about 1,200 tests.
Similarly, the Marzotto Wool Manufacturing company partnered with Polygiene, a spin-off of Sweden-based chemical company Perstorp Group, to adapt the ViralOff finish to fabrics crafted from natural yarns, including wool, linen and cotton, which required the fabrics’ manufacturing process to be revised.
The compound, which is made of titanium dioxide and silver chlorine ions, underwent lab tests showing it can eliminate 99 percent of viruses within two hours, or 93 percent in 30 minutes.
Before taking it to the market, the company wants to assess that the treatment can persist on fabrics such as wool, stretch wool and washable wool after at least three to six dry cleanings. Marzotto already evaluated that cotton significantly retains the coating compound after 15 water washes, with a 4 percent reduction in efficacy.
“At the beginning of the lockdown in Italy, the idea started taking shape, even though wool itself boasts antimicrobiotic features,” commented ceo Giorgio Todesco. “We had never thought about antiviral treatments, despite the fact that Polygiene had already developed a few solutions during the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, but customers easily forgot about that epidemic because the impact was limited to a few regions of the world.”
In the U.K., Promethean Particles has cooperated with local textile businesses to explore the antiviral effect of its copper nanoparticles technology when embedded via melt extrusion into nonwoven polymer fibers.
Initial results showed that the antimicrobial effect can last longer than in surface-coated textiles, but the company is assessing the efficacy in collaboration with Mexican research institute CIQA and textile trade association NWTexNet through independent laboratories in the U.S. and the U.K. “If we can show evidence of antiviral properties from the testing being carried out, then it’s particularly relevant to the current COVID-19 outbreak, and we may see a lot more urgency in its development,” noted Selina Ambrose, technical manager at Promethean Particles.
Also, Germany-based chemical company Rudolf Group has conducted lab tests on its RUCO-BAC AGP technology introduced in 2005 to assess whether it could boast antiviral properties on the family of coronaviruses. Made of microstructures, or vehicles, that carry and release an appropriate quantity of silver ions on the treated textile, the solution enhances the durability of the chemical’s antibacterial qualities, up to 100 water washes.
As an evolution of antimicrobial or odor-control treatments already widespread and common among textile suppliers, the antiviral fabrics seem to be generating buzz and interest.
“The market has responded very well, especially for those areas, such as Japan, South Korea and China, that have been traditionally more sensitive to the topic,” said Marzotto’s ceo, adding that demand in Europe is also strong, especially in Germany, France and Spain.
“Like for any innovation, the request has been spotty, with companies at the forefront of the conversation and others which will probably follow suit,” he noted. “I cannot really tell what’s the future of these fabrics…but talking to scientists I got the impression that COVID-19 is not going to be an isolated incident and that vaccines typically require a long amount of time, so having the chance to be ready with these fabrics in the future is meaningful.”
“I hope it will become a market standard, as I believe people deserve to return to a normal life, which cannot rely only on the progresses made by the pharmaceutical industry,” echoed Tamburini while stressing that Albini’s ViroFormula fabrics cannot alone help prevent contagion.
The executive said the innovation resonates with the psychological impact the coronavirus has had on consumers and on more exposed workers such as frequent travelers, health-care professionals and retail employees.
The range has been welcomed by Albini’s clients, but Tamburini sounded cautious. “Like for any fabric category, ViroFormula will perform as a learning curve, with its demand spiking in the next six months triggered by curiosity and the psychological needs of the moment. Then the interest will probably decline until it becomes a market standard, growing consistently.”
He believes that in the next two to three years, the market share of antiviral fabrics will be comparable to wrinkle-free textiles as a performance-based feature.
Although the business of antiviral textiles seems to be thriving in the wake of the pandemic, these technologies pose a number of questions in terms of marketability, safety, sustainability and compliance with countries’ regulations.
“The coronaviruses are not particularly viable in external environments compared to other viruses that are more robust. COVID-19 tends to be inactivated in a relatively short amount of time, its viability does not last more than a few hours or less,” said Carlo Federico Perno, professor of microbiology and virology at the University of Milano and director of Niguarda Hospital’s department of laboratory medicine.
“The airborne, respiratory contamination is the dominant route for the spread of this virus in the environment…the example of shirts is particularly fitting as if an infected person wearing a shirt sneezes on it, the shirt becomes a vehicle of transmission only if another person touches it shortly after and then with the hands [dirty of secretions] touches their mouth, nose or eyes. As you can understand, this way of transmission is unlikely and limited,” he said.
“I’m saying that I’m not sure about the real need for excessive efforts to make antiviral clothes that in reality do not represent a vehicle of transmission,” Perno underscored, noting other pathogens can definitely transmit via garments. Despite this, he underscored the positive psychological impact these textiles can have on consumers, who want to feel safe.
Research conducted by scientists at the National Institutes of Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine assesses the life of the virus on different surfaces, but no real evidence was provided by this study and by the scientific community on COVID-19’s ability to persist on fabrics.
Italy’s health-care authority, the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, issued guidelines to sanitize garments and fabrics. Compiled with the support of Tessile e Salute, an eco-toxicology association that evaluates the safety and sustainability of chemicals employed by the textile and fashion industries, the guidelines are vocal about the indiscriminate use of chemicals, suggesting instead dry-steaming as the technique of choice, the only one avoiding potentially harmful compounds and preventing damage to the quality of the fabrics.
The antiviral fabrics are “a new category for every stakeholder and we never had in the past the necessity to evaluate the toxicology of such treatments,” noted Marco Piu, scientific and organizational coordinator at Tessile e Salute, raising health and environmental concerns.
Among the compounds available, Perno said ions of silver chlorine are the more effective antiseptics and probably among the few that can easily be applied to textiles with no harm, while stressing the need to make sure these chemicals persist after several cleaning cycles.
“The eco-toxicology problems might surface as these production processes potentially encompass additional treatments other than the antiviral coating, such as additives, coadjuvants and vehicles, that guarantee that the compounds stick to the fibers…also after several cleanings. It represents a downside because those could be harmful chemicals entering the textile process,” Piu said.
To this end, companies marketing antiviral fabrics have been stressing their compliance with safety regulations. “The treatment is environmentally respectful, this is extremely important because it sits in our broader green initiatives,” said Todesco about Marzotto’s antiviral fabrics. The ViralOff chemical has already obtained the Eco Passport by Oeko-Tex and the seal of approval by the American Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. The company also claims the compound is hypoallergenic and in no way harmful to the skin.
As a company stressing its commitment to sustainability and having recently developed an organic range of fabrics that forgo chemical compounds, Todesco acknowledged this project seems “counterintuitive compared to our values, but health care is very much top-of-mind.”
“Innovating in the field of chemistry means adding new performance features to existing fabrics but at the same time it challenges us to do so while respecting the environment,” noted Tamburini, who added that Albini’s ViroFormula fabrics boast all the certifications the company has gained for regular textiles. They include the AATCC 100 test method, the most commonly chosen test and the industry’s standard for antimicrobial fabric performances in the U.S.
Tackling diverse international laws and regulations can also represent a challenge.
In Europe any textile product claiming antiviral features is required to get the ISO 18184:2019 certification, which attests the substances — chemical or otherwise — employed produce a modification of one of the elements of the virion structure that induce an inability to replicate. Albini’s and Marzotto’s technologies have been tested according to that standard, although in compliance with the regulation lab tests could not be conducted on the COVID-19 virus causing SARS-CoV-2. ViralOff has been tested on the family of coronaviruses, instead, while the Albini’s ViroFormula fabrics are being assessed by independent laboratories to make sure the antiviral property can be applied to the fabrics.
In the U.S., to distribute or use an antimicrobial product, it must be registered with the EPA, which has stringent rules regarding what language can be used to state or imply its antimicrobial capabilities. For instance, marketing claims must be limited to the protection of the “treated article,” and cannot refer to protection beyond it, such as for personal protection.
The antimicrobial claims must be limited to protection or prevention from microorganisms that are not considered “public-health-related microorganisms.” That means companies cannot market products with references to specific organisms infectious to humans, like COVID-19, unless the antimicrobial product has been approved by the EPA to make these claims.
“Fashion and apparel companies must beware: If they buy such input products to use in finished goods, they are not allowed to make any similar kinds of claims about the end products’ ability to fight COVID-19. U.S. laws prevent companies from making ‘public health claims’ about viruses and consumer textiles,” noted Terry Walmsley, director of regulatory affairs and sustainability at Noble Biomaterials.
Todesco said Polygiene’s ViralOff compound is EPA-approved, securing a competitive advantage for Marzotto’s antimicrobic textiles in the U.S.
The Viroblock biocide developed by HeiQ for the Albini Group’s ViroFormula fabrics is under scrutiny by the American authority to be labeled as an “active agent,” according to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, the U.S. federal law setting up the basic system of pesticide regulation to protect applicators, consumers and the environment. Such approval would extend the chemical’s antimicrobial features to any finished good treated with it. Meanwhile, HeiQ has obtained the registration of the formula in Europe, as well as locally in Germany and Switzerland, and it has applied for it in Italy and Belgium.
“The regulations that prevent companies from using antiviral labels or claims make sense to avoid speculations, also because demonstrating the antiviral properties is no easy task,” commented Piu.
“I’m very happy about the innovation, I believe it represents the future of our industry. But despite our results, keep washing your hands,” Tamburini concluded.