Uncomfortable? That’s a common response. This widespread taboo has allowed the “feminine hygiene” industry to operate without governance or pressure to innovate for the last 85 years. The conversation, however, is opening up, and a revolution is beginning in an industry that has been stagnant for too long.
Menstruating women were ostracized in biblical times. Like many unexplained phenomena, periods were associated with black magic, sinfulness, and disability. In several religions and societies, women were physically separated from men, often requiring a separate living space during their menstrual cycles. As modern science connected menstruation with ovulation, and as women better established them- selves in society, there were shifts in the perceptions of menstruation. However, many of the reactions to periods, such as the separation from men in places of worship, or the downplaying of the pain related to menstruation, are still abundant today.
This sidestep approach to menstruation has left innovation and opportunity on the table. The tampon was invented in 1931, but there has been little to no innovation in the 85 years since. Game changers driven by the intuition of an untapped industry and intrinsic motivation to change the experience for women have recently emerged to push the comfortably idle industry. While innovators in the Western world are developing technology-enabled DivaCups that send feedback through smartphones, groundbreakers in third-world countries are bringing pads and tampons to the masses for the first time. The playing field is unequal, and the menstruating experience for women is disparate. Nevertheless, the level of change is the same: huge.
The taboo around periods is woven deep into our language and imagery, or lack thereof, both in day-to-day conversations and at a societal level. We have euphemisms galore for periods (“Aunt Flo,” “Mother Nature’s Gift,” “Monthly Visitor,” “On the Rag,” “Surfing the Crimson Tide,” “Shark Week,” “Exclamation Point”) and, as a society, we shy away from the topic. Even feminine hygiene manufacturers exacerbate the problem – the first and only time an advertisement depicted menstrual blood in red versus the non-threatening blue liquid was in 2011.
The first and only time an advertisement depicted menstrual blood in red versus the non-threatening blue liquid was in 2011.
For the majority of the population, the signals of change are still unseen and unheard. Most women continue to buy the same products from brands that have dominated the industry for hundreds of years, unaware of the budding revolution. Without conversation, consumer awareness, and pressure for change, household name brands of the pad and tampon industry succeed despite being laggard. The downfalls of current popular products range from eco-unfriendliness, to toxicity risks, to promotion of period shame, to products being priced at extraordinarily high costs.
The National Women’s Health Network reports that 12 billion pads and 7 million tampons are dumped into US landfills annually, and that’s just the disposal side. When you factor in the production, especially
of plastic applicators, the ecological footprint grows even larger. Perhaps even more unsettling are tampons’ possible effects on the body. Over the past 50 years, the composition of tampons has shifted from natural ingredients like cotton, to synthetic ingredients such as rayon and plastic, especially among the big tampon manufacturers. These synthetic materials, along with absorbency, can create an ideal environment for bacteria, resulting in toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal illness.
Most recent innovations in the pad and tampon industry have focused on comfort and absorbency, and have done little to change the social stigma around periods. Alternately, they have promoted period shame by creating “silent” or “camouflaged” packaging. It’s not that the pad and tampon manufacturers are hoping to exploit women’s insecurities about bleeding; they are simply answering consumer wishes. Perhaps, however, they should be leading the conversation instead of following it. Now, they’ve left a gap for today’s “period revolutionaries,” with strong voices and beliefs about not only shifting the conversation, but changing the industry altogether.
The global feminine hygiene industry is projected to reach $15.2 billion by 2017, based on market research from Global Industry Analysts, Inc. But today, radical shifts are already taking place with startups emerging across the globe. Lunapads is a Canadian-based startup that was founded on the idea that there is a better way to make menstrual pads from both a health and ecological perspective. They manufacture reusable pads and pantyliners which are used by thousands and help divert over 2 million pads and tampons from landfills every month. They also donate their products to low-income families domestically and in underserved populations of East Africa.
While Lunapads, among others, are helping support low-income populations, the cost of menstrual products is still an enormous problem. The United Nations reports that just 43% of girls in developing nations attend secondary school, largely due to poor access to feminine hygiene products. In 2010, an AC Nielsen and Plan India report found that in India, the situation is so atrocious that less than 12% of women use pads due to their cost, and that the majority of Indian women rely on old fabric, husks, dried leaves, grass, ash, sand, or newspapers for menstruation needs – leading to a whole host of health issues.
Arunachalam Muruganantham’s wife was one of these many women. When he discovered the women in his family were resorting to dirty rags instead of sanitary napkins during their menstruation to aid the family budget, Muruganantham was motivated to help. He spent five years building and testing a machine that could manufacture sanitary pads at a fraction of the price using local materials. This ingenious machine went on to win an innovation award from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai in 2006, and is now installed in 2,400 locations across India and 17 other countries, making his aim – for every Indian woman to have access to sanitary napkins and the chance of a livelihood – a reality.
Muruganantham was able to create a solution for a problem facing a specific demographic of female. With half the world population being women, the innovation doesn’t stop there. While local materials and manufacturing can achieve affordable menstrual products, so can reusability. Perhaps one of the most popular options comes from the slew of new companies producing so-called “period panties.” These reinvented underwear are absorbent, washable, and designed to be used in the place of, or in addition to, tampons or menstrual cups.
New York City-based THINX – launched in January 2014 – is one startup making such underwear. Their anti-microbial and leak-resistant panties come in six different designs and claim to hold up to two tampon’s worth of “flow” without the wearer feeling it. THINX, like its rivals Knix Wear, PantyProp, and Dear Kate, claims to have patented fabrics that are moisture wicking and leak resistant, cost a fraction of what the average woman spends on tampons per year, come in a variety of designs, and last roughly two years. With a value proposition like that, it’s no wonder they are all experiencing an increase in popularity. THINX alone has sold 200,000 pairs of thongs, boy shorts, and panties as of December 2015.
Tampons are getting a makeover as well. Cora and Conscious Period have both reimagined the tampon using non-toxic, organic, hypoallergenic, chemical-free, and biodegradable materials to combat the current health-, ecological-, and design-related issues. Similarly, the menstrual cup has recently gained significant traction due to the lack of harmful chemicals used in production, low cost, durability, and minimal ecological footprint. Cup vendors such as DivaCup, Lunette, Anigan, Intimina, and Mooncup claim that these reasons, as well as decreased menstrual pain, make the menstrual cup the most compelling option for women. Technavio predicts that this segment will have the largest growth through to 2020. DivaCup sales are reported to be growing at double digits in the US and Canada, and Intimina’s Lily Cup was crowdfunded on Kickstarter at 4000% of its goal.
And it doesn’t stop there. With the advancement of new technology, menstrual cups are being upgraded. The “smart” menstrual cup – developed by LOON Labs – measures, analyzes, and tracks period flow. This interest in tracking and understanding the body has sparked the development of over 200 period tracking apps for smartphones. These apps allow women to track everything from the dates of their cycles, to the amount of flow, sex patterns, pain levels, shifts in mood, cervical fluid, fertility, and birth control consumption. Clue, one of the fastest growing period tracking apps, claims to have over 2 million active users in 180 countries. Period Tracker by GP International has been downloaded more than 10 million times from the Android Store alone, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. One app product designer and user Shuangyi Hou explains, “If we as a society say women should be checking in on their periods, and we give them permission to talk about it, I’m convinced it will be beneficial for women’s health.”
Periods are more than just a minor inconvenience once a month. They are an integral part of a woman, and often by extension, a man.
Periods are more than just a minor inconvenience once a month. They are an integral part of a woman, and often by extension, a man. In parts of the world, they are an economic burden causing families to choose between the health of the women in their families and their ability to work and learn with everyday essentials. They are a reflection of how women are perceived, not only by our varying world cultures, but by themselves. Periods are an intertwined factor in the overall health of half the world’s population. A job like that deserves more recognition and innovation than it’s been given over the last 85 years. Some game changers can see that manufacturers who enjoyed a monopoly for the last century will soon be faced with the daunting reality that they better innovate to survive. Because the conversation is starting. The industry is changing. Period.