Beyond the Bandage: Medical Fabrics Help You Heal

By Regina M. Malczewski  

Think about the last time you put a bandage on a cut or scrape. The gauze in the center of the bandage is just one example of a medical fabric designed to help you heal. This fabric protected your wound and kept it clean and dry. 

These and other medical fabrics are made of natural materials like cotton, or synthetic materials such as polyester or nylon. Newer and more specialized medical fabrics are designed for specific life-and-death situations. For example, people have developed a fabric for use in dialysis. This specialized fabric filters and purifies a person’s blood in an artificial kidney machine!

Because medical fabrics are often used for people who are sick or injured, they must meet strict standards set by the government and health organizations. Medical fabrics must be non-toxic, prevent the growth of bacteria, and be “acceptable” to our bodies. They cannot cause allergies or cancer. Specialized fabrics must also be strong and resistant to heat and certain chemicals.

Some medical fabrics, called implants, go inside the body and stay there. Other fabrics, such as bandages, go on the body. And still other medical fabrics, like in the dialysis example, are used outside the body as parts of artificial organs. Medical fabrics may be used by both patients and healthcare workers, and can include masks, surgical gowns, wraps for sterilized tools, and wipes. Medical textiles also include thread used for sutures or stitches. Some stitches need to be taken out, while others dissolve slowly and safely inside the body as the wound heals, so a doctor or nurse doesn’t need to remove them.

Fabrics used in healthcare can have different textures or patterns. They may be woven, nonwoven, knitted, or braided (as shown in the picture). Certain fabric-building techniques are better for absorbing, stretching, or filtering. Due to their amazing properties and how they are used, medical fabrics not only help people heal, but also save lives!

Regina M. Malczewski, Ph.D. is a retired research specialist who worked at Dow Corning in Midland, MI.