History of Urinary Incontinence and Hygiene Pad Technology

December 11, 2017

Do you ever wonder how urinary incontinence was managed 500 years ago? What did people do before the invention of thin, convenient, disposable briefs? And what does our future hold?

Urinary Incontinence Products from 1500-1950

The earliest incontinence devices can be traced back to Egypt, though very little is known about what they involved. However, we do know that in the 1500’s, an incontinence apparatus was invented. It consisted of a belt that strapped to a bag, which essentially acted as a portable restroom.

In the centuries that followed, incontinence inventors made minor updates and adjustments to this basic blueprint; but the basic outline remained the same. Then, in the 1800’s, people in Europe began using leaves—and, for the most comfortable protection, milkweed leaves were preferential—and animal skins.

It wasn’t until the 1900’s that women finally began using cloth as their primary form of leak protection, for both infants and adults. Cloth hygiene products had to be laundered regularly. In response to that inconvenience, the first disposable incontinence briefs were invented in the mid-1900’s. 

Retro Urinary Incontinence Products from the 1950’s and 60’s

Dr. Chimelewski, Research and Development Senior Scientist for Attends brand incontinence technology, has been in this industry for 44 years. He’s watched the technology grow across four decades.

“Closures were Velcro,” he shares, “I remember one of the early members, talking about using Velcro as a closure for a diaper, and a lot of people thought that was just too futuristic.” Now, looking back, Velcro seems dated.

“I guess looking back what’s interesting is, as is often in tech and science, there’s a lot of resistance to things that are new and different. New innovations aren’t immediately embraced -- not until you learn about them.”

Dr. Chimelewski remembers a time when incontinence pads were Velcro and thick cotton. Modern-day super-absorbent polymers weren’t being used yet in commercial products.

“Folks had those super-absorbent materials on the shelves in their laboratory, and a lot of people would say, ‘Oh, well, they’re just laboratory curiosities. Yah, they can hold a lot of liquid, but they’re too expensive. They’re never going to be commercial.’” Now, those materials are in almost every major brand.

Everything was thick and fluffy -- but in the 1990’s and beyond, we began moving towards thin, discreet, comfortable.

The Future of Urinary Incontinence Technology

The future looks bright for UI technology for many reasons.

First, the absorbent core technology is getting more advanced. Instead of huge, fluffy materials, we can use super-absorbent polymers to keep materials thin, elasticated, and conforming to the body.

“If you look at Attends pull-up underwear, for example, they even print a tag in the back,” Dr. Chimelewski says.

The vision: Can we make a paper-thin material, so it feels like you’re just slipping on your underwear, but with a fast-enough absorption rate to keep you dry? “That is a dream that can happen,” he says, “Someday, you’ll have a hard time telling between incontinence briefs and regular underwear.”

“We’re hopeful, because the way healthcare is going, long term care facilities are more responsible for the any problems that arise -- so they will be more willing to invest if it saves them money and protects their patients in the long term.”

That’s way better than wearing milkweed or animal skins.

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