Adult diapers and pads are uncomfortable, impractical, and unflattering—but also a necessity for many of the world’s 200 million incontinence sufferers. Now a New Zealand startup is offering a more seductive alternative. Founded in 2012 as a maker of specialist underwear for athletes, Auckland-based ConfiTex pivoted about four months ago to sell alluring incontinence underwear that addresses the involuntary leakage of urine.
Why offer something sexy to address an embarrassing problem? “There’s obviously a practical need that has to be met,” company spokesperson Johanna Bennett told Quartz. “But self-esteem issues are quite equal to the practical issues in terms of how people feel when they manage the problem.”
Sales of the underwear have doubled every month, according to the company. Online orders come from Australia, North America, and the UK, and also from surprising markets, including Pakistan, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates—places the product wasn’t advertised.
The market for incontinence products is growing globally, according to a report in Nonwovens Industry, which also noted:
Adult incontinence is becoming more widespread as older populations continue to represent a larger demographic segment around the world. While an overwhelming majority of sufferers are women—approximately 75-80%—more men are being affected by the condition than ever before and while it is usually considered a concern of the elderly, more younger people are afflicted.
According to Bennett, for women the problem can start in their 20s or 30s, typically after a difficult birth. Pelvic floor exercises will usually address the condition, but not always. For men, the condition is typically related to prostate issues that occur later in life.
ConfiTex uses a patented fabric technology to create a breathable, bamboo-based material that suppresses odor while absorbing urine leaks, which dry with the assistance of body heat. One customer, said co-founder Mark Davey, went from using 10 pads a day to just one pair of his company’s underwear, which is washable and reusable (and also, as a result, more eco-friendly). The “moderate” version of the product can handle a cup of liquid in the course of a day.
The company makes the underwear in southern China (in Dongguang, near Shenzhen) and uses Hong Kong for warehousing and shipping.
Euromonitor analyst Svetlana Uduslivaia considers ConfiTex a potential challenger to disposable incontinence products, but first, she notes, “the new sexy underwear will require more marketing and wider distribution in retail to increase consumer awareness and reach, beyond those who look and shop online.”
Working in the startup’s favor, Davey believes, is a growing awareness about incontinence, combined with a decreasing stigma surrounding the condition. “People are starting to realize, as we have, that incontinence is a huge issue,” he said.