The characteristics of surfaces in relation to the “chance of contamination” have never been a burning issue like today. If in the past we looked at the antibacterial properties of surfaces with great interest, today they could even represent a new global standard, in a world challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

An extremely touchy topic, where labels such as “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” surfaces could represent a fundamental motivation for the market. But what are we really talking about? How the world of furniture can and must deal with materials presenting such new potential?

The technicians and specialists of Catas, the most important European laboratory for the wood-furniture sector, are asked about this topic more and more often.

This continuous and growing need of clarifications convinced them to organise specific webinars entirely dedicated to this subject.

The two events were due to be held on June 11 and June 23, with Catas specialists talking about antibacterial strategies, sanitising treatments on different types of surfaces (furniture, appliances and objects of daily use in homes and offices), test methods, interpretation of results and obligations under the relevant legislation, for example, the European Biocides Regulation.

Furniture Surfaces at The Time of Covid-19

The term “contagion”, which often occurs in our conversations during this period, has an interesting etymology deriving from the Latin words cum, meaning “together”, and tangere meaning “to touch”.

Indeed, the simple act of touching a surface can be the source of many infections and some studies testify, for example, that the door handles or the elevator buttons of crowded places are among the primary causes of the transmission of many viruses.

These strange “biological entities” are in fact able to easily pass from the surfaces we touch to our hands and from the hands to our mouth and eyes, which represent a kind of open door through which they are finally able enter into our body.

In this regard, an Australian study published in 2015 proved that people touch their faces very often (on average 23 times per hour) and viruses take great advantage of such gestures, even unconscious, to spread their diffusion.

The transmission of the virus through the surfaces is evidently based on a first contact deriving from an infected person, mostly through the well-known “droplets” (saliva droplets transmitted through a sneeze, a cough or simply by speaking to another person) followed by the ability of the virus to survive on the contaminated surface.

Recent studies, applied precisely on Covid-19, described a fairly prolonged survival of this virus on plastics (up to 72 hours) and on steel (48 hours), while it is more limited on cardboard or copper.

The most interesting data regarding the interior environments is probably that relating to plastics considering that many of the surfaces around us are coated or in any case covered with laminates or other polymer-based materials that represent the primary constituents of plastics.

Apart from all these theoretical considerations, many practical things have changed in our daily lives as a result of the dramatic effects of Covid-19 and we have learned that besides the mutual distance, the hygiene of our hands and of all the surfaces surrounding us is also crucial.

These new needs and habits are also determining significant consequences for the world of furniture and finishes. There is, in fact, an increasing number of requests for antibacterial surfaces. And, additionally, the ability of furniture surfaces to tolerate frequent cleaning and disinfection operations is considered fundamental. In this regard, Catas has recently started specific studies collaborating with various partners in our sector.

The Antibacterial Efficacy of Surfaces

The antibacterial effect of furniture surfaces is normally achieved thanks to the addition of particular additives (for example silver based substances) which perform a biocide and/or inhibitory action towards their proliferation.

Catas carries out specific tests to study the antibacterial action of plastics and other non-porous materials by contaminating the surfaces under investigation and verifying their effects on bacteria survival.

The reference methods are those described by ISO 22196 and JIS Z2801, as well as internal methods specifically created to adapt the test to materials which, due to their intrinsic properties, could not be tested according to the standardised methods.

However, these tests do not consider viruses and in particular Covid-19, which our Institute obviously does not have inside the laboratories.

Resistance to Cleaning Products and Disinfectant Liquids

As mentioned above, frequent cleaning and disinfection of surfaces are recommended actions at all levels to counter the spread of Covid-19.

Among the products declared effective against the virus, there are alcohol-based preparations and those containing oxidising agents, such as sodium hypochlorite or hydrogen peroxide.

Alcohol is certainly an agent to be taken into due consideration, as it sometimes tends to cause the softening of some coating films. On the other hand, oxidising agents may be responsible for discolouration or “fading”, although there is currently not much data available to be able to present a real case study. Finally, particular attention must be paid to the colouring agents that are sometimes added to these cleaning products: if these substances penetrate deeply into the surfaces, they could be difficult to remove, resulting in the formation of coloured areas.

In this regard, Catas has developed a specific investigation protocol (based on EN 12720) to verify the ability of the surfaces to resist contact with cleaning products and commonly used disinfectant liquids.

Resistance to Rubbing

In addition to the assessment of the sole contact of a liquid with the surface under test, Catas has also developed a test method for assessing the combined effect of contact with rubbing, simulating a real cleaning operation.

The combined effect can in fact be very deleterious, causing various types of damage on furniture surfaces.

The tools made available by Catas can undoubtedly represent a valid and ready-to-use aid for the whole market hoping also, in any case, that the standardisation world begins to consider and work on these new needs and present challenges.