Used to create mission-critical medical products such as patches, personal protective equipment, packaging films, containers, lidstock, and bag headers, polyethylene (PE) and other polymers can play a key role in promoting health and hygiene. PE products in healthcare can be designed for single-use applications and help prevent disease spreading by negating the need to sterilize and reuse devices. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, polyethylene in medical applications has been in higher demand due to the increased need for hygiene products, personal protection equipment, and more.

Leveraging polymers in the medical field has been a key component to growth and innovation. Polyethylene in medical applications provides healthcare professionals and medical product designers with a variety of competitive advantages.

1. Enhanced Sanitation and Hygiene Benefits

Sanitation and hygiene are essential to safely and effectively operating in the healthcare space. This includes everything from the examination or operating rooms to the devices used by the doctors. Because of this, most medical devices or products are constantly subject to harsh cleaning chemicals and rigorous sterilization routines.

Due to its high resistance to chemicals, HDPE plastic stands up well to sterilization, does not support organic growth, and is resistant to fading, splintering, or rotting as a result of repeated sanitization. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that “...higher-temperature polymers designed to survive continuous use at elevated temperatures or a polymer that can withstand exposure to aggressive cleaners or solvents now being used to reduce the frequency of hospital acquired infections (HAIs) or materials that can be precisely molded into micro-sized parts with very high tolerance requirements while also surviving the rigors of use.”1

Compared to alternatives, HDPE is less susceptible to degrading, creating a more durable, yet sterile product that holds up against harsh chemicals and environmental stresses.2

While PE can be used to make medical devices, it’s also used to create sanitary packaging. PE packaging can be heat sealed, making a leak-proof barrier around medical devices or other items. This provides reliable protection against moisture, germs, and tampering, further protecting patients due to enhanced sterilization.

Related Reading: Overcome Production Challenges for Plastic Converters with these Output-Boosting Expert Tips

2. Increased Comfort

Especially in the middle of an outbreak, personal protective equipment is a critical component to protecting both medical staff and patients. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, “Careful selection and use of adequate PPE should protect individuals involved in chemical emergencies from hazards affecting the respiratory system, skin, eyes, face, hands, feet, head, body, and hearing.”3

Compared to other materials, polyethylene can be a more comfortable option for patients and medical staff, while still benefiting them with the durability required for higher-risk situations.

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Compared to other materials, polyethylene can be a more comfortable option for patients and medical staff, while still benefiting them with the durability required for higher-risk situations.

For example, polyethylene can be flexible, with excellent resistance to solvents and chemicals such as alcohols, dilute acids and alkalis. Specifically, HDPE is aquaphobic, so spilled liquids on PPE gloves or suits help prevent absorption and contamination of the staff member’s skin. Most importantly, because of its flexibility, PE can be easily molded for a more comfortable fit, while still boasting a higher tensile strength than other types of PE. It’s also inert and does not support organic growth, reducing risks that can be associated with sterilization.

In addition to creating a more comfortable final product, plastics in surgical products are creating alternatives for patients with allergic reactions to the traditional materials used.

3. Reduced Costs

Compared to metal products, plastic products can be mass-produced at more cost-effective rates. Along with cheaper production costs, plastic products can be more durable, preventing wear-and-tear from constant stress. Because metal products are more susceptible to rust and other forms of corrosion, they run the risk of needing to be replaced more frequently. Not only are plastic products more reliable in many cases, they may also reduce the time medical staff spends on sterilization and maintenance.

From the patient’s perspective, because of the corrosion-resistant nature of polyethylene, it can reduce the costs associated with maintaining take-home medical devices such as prosthetics. Single-use versions of products that patients may need daily like syringes can also be kept sanitary for home use in a cost-effective PE film packaging.4

So, what does all this mean? In essence, experimenting with new technology and materials is key to unlocking progress and maintaining a competitive stance in the healthcare and hygiene industry. In order to better support its customers, Shell Polymers’ team of experts is gathering valuable industry insights and is eager to support converters who create products and devices for the healthcare sector as they embrace new technologies and adapt to emerging trends.