Healthcare design choices: Is polyurethane upholstery fabric the best option in hospitals?
July 08, 2019
July 08, 2019
The faux-leather fabric is easy to clean and better for the environment, but delamination failures are troubling
When polyurethane upholstery fabrics first came onto the market many designers said: “Finally there is an environmentally friendly viable alternative to vinyl.” In the past couple of years, however, I’ve begun to question whether this is true or not, especially as it applies to healthcare environments.
Our team had an experienced healthcare client in the Middle East show us graphic and widespread delamination failures throughout her facilities. This was followed by evidence from another client that several of the polyurethane fabrics we selected for a large medical center here in California started delaminating after less than three years of use.
There can be many factors for why the occasional fabric failure happens—whether due to a defect in the manufacturing process or being used outside of its intended applications—but when one type of contract-grade fabric is failing in mass quantities it’s a red flag. Why is this happening?
Our team did a deep dive to find out the truth around the use of polyurethane fabrics in healthcare settings. The results may be surprising.
Simply put, the benefits of using polyurethane can be grouped into three categories.
To understand why polyurethane fabrics delaminate, you have to know how it is manufactured. Without getting too technical, the typical polyurethane fabric is made by coating a textile fabric backing (or substrate) with a polyurethane resin base layer. Once the base layer is adhered to the fabric backing, it is laminated to a polyurethane resin skin (or surface) layer. When delamination occurs, it is because the polyurethane resin skin or base layer has separated from the backing.
What can cause the delamination? Polyurethane fabric’s greatest enemy: humidity and heat. And in an indoor air-conditioned, high traffic environment, this can come from body heat and sweat, which over time is enough to break down a lesser-quality polyurethane fabric.
Powerful hospital-grade cleaners and disinfectants have been introduced to the healthcare market. … They may also be playing a part in expediting the delamination of polyurethane fabrics.
Coinciding with the proliferation of polyurethanes, increasingly powerful hospital-grade cleaners and disinfectants have been introduced to the healthcare market in the past several years. They are typically used to clean the furniture, including wiping down the upholstery fabric. While these cleaners are effective and essential in killing harmful bacteria and viruses that are known to cause healthcare-associated infections, they may also be playing a part in expediting the delamination of polyurethane fabrics.
All polyurethane fabric manufacturers have a disclaimer that says after these types of disinfectants are used, the fabric must be rinsed with clean water and dried with a clean towel to remove any chemical residue that could eventually discolor or degrade the fabric surface. If this last step is skipped—and I have heard from several healthcare facilities where they admit getting cleaning staff to come back and do a second round of rinsing and drying is nearly impossible based on time—you have a combination of body heat, body sweat, and a buildup of powerful chemical residues, which over time all contribute to the rapid degradation of the polyurethane fabric, especially in a high-traffic area.
Now that our team is more informed about polyurethane fabrics, there are steps we will take the next time we select them on our projects.
Do I still think polyurethane fabric is an environmentally friendly viable alternative to vinyl? Yes.
While there’s no way to predict exactly how any fabric will perform under real world conditions with its many variables, knowing how to select the highest quality fabric will help make a difference in prolonging the life of both furniture and fabric.
My conversations with leading coated fabric manufacturers (or leaders in the coated fabric industry), leads me to believe we can have hope that evolving technologies will lead to more holistic performance characteristics. In the meantime, the best thing we can do as designers is to continue to educate ourselves and our clients about the benefits of using polyurethane and be aware of its inherent weaknesses.
Former Stantec designer Mary Lee contributed to this content.