If you've seen the genius television commercial in which a woman uses a raw chicken leg to wipe down her kitchen appliances -- with a voiceover saying that you may as well do that as use a germy sponge -- you have a good idea why disposable wipes are taking over the universe.

Not so long ago, you could find disposable wet cloths only to clean an infant's behind. At the turn of the millennium came a few mini-revolutions that expanded the wipie world to toilet bowls, floors, tanning lotions, acne medications, hubcaps, shoe polish and beyond. In a matter of less than five years, sales of disposable wipes have risen to about $2.3 billion a year in the United States and Canada ($3.8 billion globally) from $750 million in 1997, according to market tracker Euromonitor International of Chicago.

Euromonitor also forecasts steady growth in the category, with sales of up to $4.3 billion worldwide by 2009, a prediction that also signals the sure extinction of the grandma-like ragbag filled with torn-up old clothing.

"Every time I look at the numbers, they are up," says Ian Butler, director of market research and statistics for the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. Butler admits that in his own home, he prefers old-fashioned cleaning systems such as terry cloth towels and spray bottles, but he's happy for his employer. "It's a really nice success story for the industry," he says.

The "nonwoven" industry, as it is called, is devoted to engineered fabrics that are bonded together by entangling fiber or filaments, or by perforating films, mechanically, thermally or chemically. They are flat, porous sheets that are made directly from separate fibers or from molten plastic or plastic film. They are not made by weaving or knitting and do not require converting the fibers to yarn.

A key product in the wipes revolution is the Swiffer by Procter & Gamble. The Swiffer is a hard-surface floor-cleaning device introduced in 1999. It started the flood of electrostatic, disposable floor and/or dusting nonwovens that dust and dirt glom onto. The company branched out with its WetJet products to wash those same floors.

This coming month, P&G is scheduled to introduce the CarpetFlick. Like Swiffer, the CarpetFlick consists of a long handle and a disposable cloth. But its wipie is sticky to pick up crumbs and dirt from carpets. Clorox Disinfecting Wipes are credited with launching the disinfecting wet-cloth craze in January 2000.

But Product X, the one that started it all, is the baby wipe.

Susan Everett Stansbury, a consultant to the nonwovens industry, says there is not a clear consensus on who came up with the first baby wipe. "According to one source, and in my opinion, too, Johnson & Johnson had a wet wipe in the early 1980s in the baby aisle. The wipes in this era were often made of a thinner material like rayon that is far different from today's baby and wet wipes," Stansbury says.

Stansbury explains that there were some paper-based wet wipes even earlier than that. By the later 1980s, a strong baby-wipes category developed. "Even private labelers such as Rockline Industries were well into baby-wipes production by the late 1980s," she says.

By the late 1990s, market research determined that a significant portion of baby-wipes usage was not for babies at all, but for polishing shoes, cleaning households, removing makeup and other pursuits. Companies began rolling out general skin-cleansing wipes, adult incontinence wipes, cosmetic wipes, and so on.

Stansbury points out that this development has resulted in sadness in the kingdom of baby wipes. When product-development leaders realized wipes were being put to other uses and later developed specialized wipes, it led to stagnation in baby-wipe sales. (The ebb and flow of birth rates also affect baby-wipe sales, of course.) The progeny of baby wipes are now so numerous that the nonwoven industry has corralled them into categories just to keep them straight.

The first is that "baby" segment. Even baby-wipe people have put on their thinking caps to see how they can extend their line. The Pampers people are trying to persuade consumers that its Kandoo flushable wipes are necessary for toddler hygiene.

Another is the "personal" category, which encompasses anything that touches human skin. This includes flushable toilet wipes, feminine care products, facial solutions, bug repellents and tanning solutions -- to name only a few. Antibacterial hand wipes are now almost mandatory in classrooms, especially during flu season. You can even find them on golf courses.

Disposable wipes are being sent in care packages to soldiers in Iraq, where they are especially valued after days without a shower, says Stansbury. One report says that baby wipes with lanolin are essential for removing facial camouflage paint.

A third category -- and the one perhaps most visible lately -- are wet or dry wipes used for "surface cleaning." This segment appears to know no boundaries. There are wipes designed for stainless steel and wood, wipes that contain antibacterial agents, and wipes that guarantee streak-free windows.

Stansbury says that perhaps the most important use for disposable wipes now and in the future is in hospitals. There, disposability is key in preventing cross-contamination -- both of surfaces and patients.

The forces at work behind this explosive growth, some observers point out, include some of the more unflattering characteristics of the human psyche: a fear of germs and an unwillingness to do the old-fashioned work it takes to make them go away.

Another marketing impetus came when P&G researchers asked Americans why they did not clean their houses as much as they should. The shocking answer is that it's considered "icky" and that people don't like bending over. These sentiments explain the recent rash of wipies-on-a-stick, such as the Scotch-Brite Disposable Toilet Bowl Scrubber With Built-in Cleaner. As for environmental concerns, well, they seem to be taking, as usual, a back seat to convenience.

As for any reluctance on the part of cash-rich, time-poor and housework-avoidant consumers to pay more for a package of wipes than for a bottle of cleaner that will last longer, the situation has a lot in common with adjusting to the high prices of real estate.

"At first, people weren't ready to pay high prices for wipes," says Stansbury, "but then . . . well, then . . . they just were."