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Is Your Incontinence Care Skin-Safe?

3 Lessons Learned from an Industry-Insider

When it comes to finding the right incontinence product to manage your bladder leaks, absorbency is king, which is understandable. The experience of, or the fear of having, an uncontrolled leak is so stressful that, when surveyed:

  • 27% of women with incontinence get less sleep

  • 50% of women with incontinence worry about laughing in public

  • 75% of women with incontinence avoid group exercise

  • 56% of women with incontinence avoid social events

As a woman who experiences bladder leaks myself, I can totally relate. Preventing leaks in the first place is paramount. But I’ve learned, in my roles as a mother and a Founder, that it’s definitely not the only thing that matters. Unlike the cleaner, greener diapers and wipes that I once bought for my children when they were little, the incontinence category is woefully behind when it comes to offering products that are better for our bodies and better for our planet. Moreover, incontinence products are not regulated by the FDA or otherwise, which has allowed the category to go unchecked for a very long time. And while almost every other personal care category on the market has gone gaga for greener and cleaner, that progress hasn’t extended to incontinence care, leaving women living with this condition grossly underserved.

It was this initial observation, coupled with the experience of caring for our older parents at the time, that inspired my Co-Founder and me to first take a hard look at this space. And while we learned so much as we studied the category, the most striking thing has been the correlation between ingredients used to make conventional incontinence care products and the often painful skin irritation experienced by so many women who use them.

When we dug further and learned that conventional incontinence care products are made with petroleum, chlorine bleach, synthetic dyes and fragrances, and other harsh chemicals, we knew we needed better choices for our incontinence care. So, in 2020, we launched Attn: Grace with our collection of liners, pads and briefs that replace the harsh chemicals used in conventional products with gentle, high-performing plant-based materials that prevent leaks while protecting your skin.

Are the incontinence products you’re using skin-safe? Here are a few insights and considerations to help you decide.

Absorbency is not the same thing as retention.

Have you ever bought a pad that advertised sky-high absorption numbers, but the pad still leaked? The thing is, absorption and retention are totally different measurements. Unfortunately, many brands will advertise that their products ‘absorb’ huge amounts of liquid, say 4 cups, but this claim is incomplete and misleading. Though they may initially ‘absorb’ 4 cups of liquid, they don’t necessarily ‘retain’ that same amount of liquid… in other words, the pad spits the liquid back out or becomes soaked and wet to the touch. For that reason, at Attn: Grace we very intentionally use retention numbers when we describe how much our products can hold. For instance, when we say our briefs absorb 2.5 cups, that means that they will both absorb and then retain that same amount of fluid.

How does this affect skin safety?

If you’re using a pad with heavy absorption but poor retention, it will either leak or be wet to the touch. A wet pad against your skin means increased friction and painful irritation. Eventually, the skin may start to break down, leaving you open to bacterial or fungal infections.

Lesson learned.

When looking for the right incontinence care, make sure to keep this distinction in mind and pay attention to both the absorption and retention capabilities of a particular product.

Toxic Top Sheets

Conventional incontinence products use petroleum-based synthetics, chlorine bleach, and other harsh chemicals indiscriminately throughout their design. While you absolutely need to use petroleum-based polymers to construct the absorbent core of a pad or brief, you do not need to use them to make the top sheet, back sheet, or your packaging.

How does this affect skin safety?

If you have persistent bladder leaks, you are likely wearing a pad or a brief 24/7. That means that the chemicals used to make the top sheet of your product are in direct, nearly constant contact with your skin.

Those patterned top sheets that you see on many incontinence products are embellished with colorful artificial dyes, chlorine bleach, and synthetic fragrances. Many women experience irritation (aka, contact dermatitis) from such exposure, characterized by symptoms such as redness, itching, burning, rash, swelling, or blisters.

Our skin gets thinner and more vulnerable as we get older (much like our skin when we are first born). So as we age, it’s all the more important to be mindful of the products we use on our bodies and to avoid harsh chemicals in our personal care routines. Just as endocrine (hormone) disruptors are important to avoid in our childbearing years, it’s equally important to avoid these chemicals in perimenopause, menopause, and beyond. Our hormones play a huge role in our health at all ages and stages of life, so it’s important to stay vigilant.

Lesson learned.

Research the ingredients listed in your incontinence products. Instead of petroleum-based top sheets, look for natural, breathable materials when possible. Lastly, if you experience irritation, consider discontinuing use of that product as you figure out what ingredients may be causing your flare-up and look for an alternative.

There’s natural, and then there’s naturally better.

Cotton top sheets have become a powerful alternative in the period care space as other brands have been inspired to provide us with better, safer alternatives. Unfortunately, while cotton can absorb and retain period blood very well, it does not absorb and retain bladder leaks the same way.  Bladder leaks and period blood have fundamentally different viscosities, flows, and chemical make-up. For the same reason that athletic wear isn’t made from cotton, this particular natural alternative falls short when it comes to locking in and wicking away moisture after you’ve had a leak — two things that are critical for your comfort, peace of mind, and skin health.

How does this affect skin safety?

Cotton, once wet, is not breathable. In fact, as one of our engineers said to us early on in our design process, “If you’re using a cotton top sheet for bladder leaks, you might as well be sitting on wet newspaper.” As mentioned above, wet materials against your skin can lead to irritation and bacteria buildup.

Lesson learned.

Employing natural, breathable materials is great… but only if you’re choosing the right natural material for the task at hand. While cotton may be less toxic, it may fall short in keeping your skin safe for other reasons.

I’m proud that Attn: Grace has revolutionized how incontinence products are made. Using our CLN Design™ technology, we’ve replaced the plastics, petroleum and other toxins found in conventional products with a green PE (polyethylene) made from gentle, upcycled sugar cane waste. The result is a product that provides absorption and moisture-wicking capabilities that outperforms premium, big-box brands, as well as brands using cotton top sheets. For more information on women’s wellness and advances in cleaner, greener personal care for women as we age, I hope you’ll follow us on social media and check out our Blog and Resource Library.


About the Author

Alexandra Fennell is a passionate advocate for women’s health, as well as the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Attn: Grace, the first skin-safe personal care brand for women as they age.

Attn: Grace is proudly female-founded, owned and led, as well as a Certified B Corporation™, meeting the highest verified standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. Backed by a Skin-Safe Promise™, their products incorporate the cleanest, most sustainable materials possible without ever compromising on performance.

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