Water Soluble PVOH: The Material Behind the Booming Detergent Pod Market

Water Soluble PVOH: The Material Behind the Booming Detergent Pod Market

Procter & Gamble’s Tide PODS shook up the staid laundry detergent market when they debuted in 2012. Brightly colored mini packs of detergent now hold about 15% of the US laundry detergent market, and most major brand owners offer laundry or dishwasher pods of their own.

Enthusiasm for unit dose detergent was not always a given, though. Procter & Gamble released its first laundry tablet in the 1960s, but the product flopped in the US due to performance drawbacks.  It took an even older technology -- a water soluble polymer called PVOH -- to launch unit dose detergent into the mainstream.

What’s PVOH and How Does It Work?

MonoSol -- the main producer of PVOH film in the US -- developed PVOH in 1953 for use in agrochemical and industrial settings.  PVOH helps prevent direct contact with harmful chemicals, as technicians can simply pour water on PVOH packages to dissolve them and release their contents.

Tide PODS brought unit dose detergent to the consumer market when the timing was just right. Demand for ultra-convenient, single-use products was driving the market like never before. And PVOH resolved previous iterations’ poor performance. Unit dose detergent introduced in previous decades never caught on because the dry, compact tablets usually didn’t dissolve properly.  Water soluble PVOH film, in contrast, encases loose powder and liquid solutions that disperse well in the wash. The soap in these water soluble pods is heavily concentrated to avoid dissolving the PVOH pack from the inside out. 

Unfortunately, the delicate balance between package and product that makes detergent pods possible is also one of the product’s most significant drawbacks.  Since their release, detergent pods have come under fire for the dangers they pose to children.  The pods look like candy or toys, leading to medical emergencies among children who have ingested or otherwise come into contact with the detergent. Because the formula is so concentrated, children have experienced severe effects -- like chemical burns and, in rare cases, coma and death -- that likely would not have occurred with regular detergent.

Even though Procter & Gamble responded to these concerns by including more prominent warning labels and designing childproof containers, recent studies -- like this one led by Johns Hopkins -- suggest that dangerous incidents are on the rise as usage increases. The Consumers Union, the nonprofit that authors Consumer Reports, has even discouraged users from buying the pods at all, one of the strongest recommendations in the organization’s history.

What’s next for PVOH?

Despite such alarming findings, the dangers of these pods do not seem to outweigh their benefits in consumers’ minds; the market is still growing rapidly. MonoSol opened its new DuneLand manufacturing facility last year to produce more PVOH film for unit dose applications, following a decade of capacity expansions.  Demand has been so strong, in fact, that the original plan to install two additional production lines at the plant by 2020 has been ramped up to six lines. 

Yet, MonoSol also seems to be looking beyond detergent for new opportunities, reflecting the possibility of constrained demand and market saturation in the not so distant future.  The company’s Vivos brand is designed for personal care applications and may make tossing a pod of shampoo in your bag for traveling or showering at the gym commonplace.  One of the most innovative uses for PVOH unit dose packs to date is Pacific Shaving Company’s Single-Use Shaving Cream Minis, launched in February of this year.

Still, cosmetic and beauty products contain a significant amount of water and are often used in damp bathrooms and with wet hands, which could result in stickiness or premature breakage.  It’s likely that improvements to PVOH technology will have to be made before such applications become widespread.

Interested to Learn More?

The Freedonia Group’s Industry Study, Packaging Films Market in the US, provides US packaging film demand data, including historical demand and forecasts. It also offers in-depth analysis of the industry, market share of leading packaging film manufacturers, and more.

About the Author:

Ellen Kriz is an Industry Analyst at the Freedonia Group where she covers US polymers & materials markets.

  Industry Studies      Packaging      Plastics & Other Polymers