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The Science Behind Adult Diapers

So many of the everyday items we rely on depend on science to work. What is the science behind adult diapers?

A look at how today’s adult incontinence products came to be

So many of the everyday items we rely on depend on science to work.

Most of us don’t really notice the scientific process taking place right in front of our noses, but science adds to our quality of life and helps us get more done each day.

Consider the fact that science is behind the deodorant you wear, the soap that kills the germs from your hands or the simple bottle opener that removes the stubborn lid from your drink with ease.

While we may not be aware of the scientific forces at play around us each day, the people that develop some of the basic products we use daily are scientists.

Of all these products, adult diapers aren’t exactly synonymous with the height of scientific achievement. But when you think about it — they are a pretty amazing use of chemistry to improve our daily lives.

We all wear diapers as babies, but did you know that the same technology that keeps you dry and rash free as an infant can serve you as an adult if you should need incontinence products?

And many of us will need these products. Within the next few years, the sales of adult diapers could surpass sales of baby diapers with one-third of all adults needing them.

The use of adult incontinence products dates back to ancient Egypt, but we have come a long way since then. Before the modern adult diaper came to be what it is today, there were many variations including the use of leaves, animal pelts, moss, wool and the more familiar cloth diapers.

It was the 1940s before disposal diapers made their debut. Knowing that kind of gives you a whole new appreciation for today’s incontinence products, doesn't it?

I mentioned that many products we used regularly depend on science, but just what is the science behind diapers?

If you have ever ripped into an adult diaper, you know it’s more than just cotton fibers. Nope, plain cotton would be bulky, leave the wearer feeling damp and uncomfortable and leaks would be a guarantee.

Today’s incontinence products are discreet, close to leak-proof and can handle a lot of liquid. That’s all thanks to something called a polymer.

Polymers are present in a powder within diapers. These chemical wizards can be made up of millions of monomers, which is a single molecule that can bond to like molecules.

There is a special super-absorbent chemical within this diaper powder, one that can absorb up to hundreds times its weight in water. The chemical used in adult diapers is called sodium polyacrylate. It’s a type of polymer, a chain of molecules, that expands enormously when it comes into contact with water.

What’s actually happening?

Sodium polyacrylate is a very curly and very long chain of molecules. When it mixes with water, the chain starts to stretch out and expose more molecules that attract water. The molecules expand to hold water.

Remove the powder and put it in a cup. If you add water, you will see how quickly the powder absorbs the water and leaves you with a gel. When the adult diaper is in use, that gel sits within thin cotton fibers which hold it in place and create a barrier between the liquid and your skin, keeping you clean and dry.

Some diapers can absorb up to 40 oz. of liquid — that’s about the same as a SUPER Big Gulp at 7-11.

Another important trait of polymers is that they don’t just absorb a massive amount of water. If you were to take a diaper that was filled with liquid and try to wring out the water it holds, you would find it very difficult to extract much at all.

That’s because polymers not only soak up water, they hold onto it. This fact is important for the wearers of adult diapers because they may be moving around or sitting while wearing the diaper.

Diaper-wearers have much more freedom because of the nature of polymers to hold tight to the liquid held within its chemical bonds.

The science behind adult diapers is incredibly important for millions of people who are facing incontinence or circumstances that require the use of adult diapers. And the reasons that people wear adult diapers are as diverse as the wearer.

Yes, some of these products are diapers for senior citizens. With age many people develop incontinence, most commonly women whose muscles weaken through childbirth. But there are other conditions and other reasons that adults commonly wear diapers.

Astronauts wear adult diapers in space where the lack of gravity means that a traditional toilet is not an option.

Some adults may need adult incontinence products temporarily due to a surgery that leaves them on bed rest or after childbirth.

Strenuous exercise can lead to incontinence and leave adults needing diapers.

Others struggle with waking during the night to use the bathroom and opt to use adult incontinence products overnight to avoid accidents.

There are also countless rumors about members of Congress wearing adult diapers under their business attire to survive filibusters, or debates which can sometimes last dozens of hours without any breaks.

Many believe that adult diapers will become even more prevalent as the pandemic continues. Some have suggested they are the key to social distancing and avoiding public bathrooms.

Not to give anyone nightmares, but have you heard of toilet plumes? They are quite literally tiny droplets (which could contain COVID-19) released into the air when toilets are flushed.

Public toilets, typically without lids, often leave no way for the user to contain said plume. Like many things during the pandemic, more research is needed to understand the risks, but some people do not want to take the chance.

Some people are taking a proactive stance and guarding themselves and their bladders with adult diapers before venturing too far from home.

Undoubtedly many people benefit from the chemistry that helped to develop adult diapers.

Polymers
Credit: Ben Mills and Jynto / Wikimedia Commons

The science of polymers that make adult diapers possible means that they are thin and easy to wear. There are MANY benefits to choosing adult diapers for someone who is facing incontinence or who just wants the protection and ease of use that adult diapers provide:

  • Comfort. The chemistry behind adult diapers keeps them slim. Therefore you can dress normally without any bulkiness beneath your clothes. And adult diapers ensure you stay dry and comfortable for a prolonged time.
  • Reduced stress. Don’t worry about getting stuck without a bathroom nearby. You can breathe easy knowing if you have an accident or leakage, you are covered by adult diapers.
  • Avoiding embarrassment. Remember that Big Gulp? Whether you need adult diapers to absorb the entire contents of your bladder or smaller occasional leaks, you don’t have to worry about embarrassing stains to your clothes or leaking onto furniture.
  • Ability to rest. If you are recovering from a medical procedure or traumatic event, your body needs rest to heal. Adult diapers are the simple solution for remaining in bed as your body heals.
  • Convenience. Most adult diapers pull on and off like underwear. They are easy to put on and remove for anyone, even the elderly or those handling health issues. There is no tricky way to use them, so it’s unlikely you will have to deal with spills or accidents.
  • Preparation. If I have learned anything from 2020, it’s that I want to be prepared for anything that may happen. Having a stash of adult diapers makes me feel ready for whatever circumstances I may face.
  • Discreetness. While the stigma surrounding adult diapers has basically disappeared, no one wants to look like they are wearing a diaper. The great thing about today’s incontinence products is that no one will be able to tell you are wearing one.

The science behind adult diapers is not complex, but it is life-changing for millions. If you are someone who needs adult incontinence, you can thank the chemistry behind polymers each time you use an adult diaper to stay comfortable and dry.