The barrier tech solution to biofilms

10th of October 2023
The barrier tech solution to biofilms

Most people outside the specialist cleaning sector will never have heard of biofilms. Invisible, but everywhere, biofilms are the immobile communities of microorganisms that stick to one another, and then onto surfaces. They often float freely in the air until the right environmental cues attract them onto a surface, where they mature and multiply. Why should we care about them, and how can we tackle them? Dave Rudge, operations manager for REACT Specialist Cleaning, tells us more.

Most people outside the specialist cleaning sector will never have heard about biofilms. Invisible, but everywhere - biofilms are the immobile communities of microorganisms that stick to one another, and then onto surfaces. They often float freely in the air, until the right environmental cues - a change in acidity or nutrient concentration - attracts them onto a surface, where they mature and multiply.

Once on a surface, they embed themselves in a slime-like substance formed of DNA, polysaccharides, and proteins. These colonies can be found in most untreated homes and workplaces. They can even form on and inside animals, including humans. And unlike unbound bacteria of the same species, those that form biofilms become very difficult to control. That can present a serious risk to human health - a risk that we must attempt to eliminate.

Why should we care about biofilms?

I should be clear here: biofilms are not inherently bad. They can actually be very useful in the treatment of wastewater and industrial waste. Biotech engineers continue to find new ways to use biofilms in ways that benefit society. Uncontrolled though, biofilms can present serious health risks to human beings.

We should care about biofilms because they offer refuge to bacteria, viruses, and fungi,  some of which can be pathogenic. That includes the Covid-19 virus. When we fail to eliminate them, they can make food and water unsafe. Ultimately, they present a source of harmful infections.

Another, perhaps secondary, reason we should care about biofilms is because of their potential to damage the surfaces they adhere to. They can cause discolouration and, over time, corrosion. That can reduce equipment and materials’ lifespans and generally affect a building’s appearance. Controlling them is therefore important in workplaces and public spaces to maintain hygiene, appearance, and restrict the spread of infectious diseases.

Conventional cleaning products are unable to destroy most biofilms because of their biocidal resilience. Many of these products claim to kill 99.9 per centof germs. But even those will leave harmful bacteria behind after application. As part of REACT’s recent barrier tech report, we consulted Dr Sandra Wilks, an associate professor of health sciences at the University of Southampton. Dr Wilks told us that biofilms’ resilience to cleaning products is often missed in standard tests. To demonstrate efficacy, we need to introduce more specific tests, she says.

Cleaning specialists also need to consider other methods to protect the environments they’re responsible for. Instead of applying a cleaning product, biofilms require a different approach. The affected surfaces themselves can be treated to prevent colonisation. Products known as ‘barrier technologies’ (or simply ‘barrier tech’) can be very effective in this way.

The two main types of barrier tech can be used either by applying a new coating that contains antimicrobial materials (biocides, copper, or silver), or by creating a completely new surface with a structural make-up that prevents or destroys bacteria that colonise it. These technologies are growing in popularity due to their success. In 2022, Grand View Research valued the antimicrobial coatings market at US$10 billion (€9.25 billion).

You can find both examples of barrier tech in healthcare environments and on medical devices. In workplaces and public spaces, their use is growing, but not so prevalent. The quicker we can adopt these approaches, the sooner the buildings and vehicles they’re used in will be safe.

Some products available

I’ve explained why we need barrier tech, and how it can help to prevent and destroy biofilms.

Here are three examples of barrier technologies that are already being used for that purpose:

• ntrl by Jangro: a 13-product range that includes a washroom cleaner and multi-surface cleaner containing probiotics. These colonise and dominate surfaces, preventing the colonisation of pathogens.

• Citrox Protect Hard Surface Sealant by Citrox Biosciences: cleans, seals, and protects all hard surfaces and touchpoints. This sealant enables long-term protection for up to six months against the spread of bacteria and viruses through biofilms. It is touch-dry within minutes of application and fully seals within 24 hours. The product works in two stages. A silicon dioxide first prevents bacteria and viruses from binding to surfaces by creating a silicon dioxide barrier. Any pathogens that do attach to the surfaces are then killed by a natural Bioflavonoid complex called Citrox.

• FTP Wraps ‘n’ Pads by The Decontaminator: wraps that add a layer of infection prevention to touchpoints like door handles (FTP being ‘frequent touch point’). They contain the antimicrobial zinc pyrithione, which provides protection for up to three years. They are certified under ISO 22196 to reduce bacteria and viruses, fungi and parasites by 99.99 per cent.

While barrier tech presents the best way to tackle biofilms, it isn’t perfect. Antimicrobial surfaces require regular attention to prevent the build-up of what are known as ‘conditioning films’. These films are formed up of dead cells, and can build up on surfaces, reducing the effect of barrier technologies. Once new cells attach to such surfaces, they can survive despite the prior application of barrier technologies.

While barrier tech works well on hard surfaces, it doesn’t do so well on some softer materials and fabrics. Achieving complete coverage of porous and flexible materials can be difficult, and the market for antimicrobial fabrics hasn’t developed to serve all demand yet, like that of public transport operators. Most of the focus has been on antimicrobial sportswear and medical garments, widely available.

There’s also an issue with regulation. Barrier tech is relatively advanced, and regulations are yet to catch up with the sector. There aren’t any standardised procedures for testing new products, and companies that produce them need to do the research themselves. This can mean they don’t all meet the same standards.

More innovation is coming in this sector. As the market evolves, and more people realise barrier tech’s value in preventing the spread of infectious diseases, companies will fund more research into new products. Nevertheless, there are a few tips I can give that will help cleaning specialists to use them effectively.

First, make sure you use products supported by at least some scientific research, even if it is independent. This might be proven through certification in line with existing regulation, as well as empirical research results. Second, follow manufacturers’ guidelines, as barrier tech often requires different application techniques when compared to traditional products. You’ll also want to make sure you aren’t applying it in a way that damages the surface.

And, as always, follow standard guidelines to prevent cross contamination: follow the ‘clean to dirty’ pathform, clear debris and dust from surfaces before application, and follow clear colour coding guidelines.

Biofilms present a serious risk that cleaning specialists cannot ignore. We must inform ourselves of the most recent research in preventing and destroying them. With the right products, and trained operatives, it is possible to prevent the risks associated with biofilms in the workplace, in public spaces and at home.


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