I can never find a hair elastic when I need it, but I can always scrounge up a tampon. They’re scattered like Tic Tacs at the bottom of my purse. They roll around like misplaced baby carrots in my bathroom, and sock and underwear drawers. Tampons rule the $15-billion global feminine hygiene industry, and they’re the blood soppers of choice for 70 percent of menstruating women in North America. Over the past 80 years, since the invention of the tampon, period tech has changed remarkably slowly, but the crimson tide is about to turn. Increasingly aware of what we’re putting into our bodies, whether it be gluten and refined sugar or bleached cotton and synthetic fibres, women are reading labels and seeking indie alternatives to mass-produced plugs.
“For the most part, we don’t know what’s in tampons, because there’s no federal agency saying you’ve got to label this stuff,” says Sharra Vostral, author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. This past fall, though, Procter & Gamble (Always, Tampax) and Kimberly-Clark (U by Kotex) started listing ingredients on their tampon boxes in response to consumer demand. The call for greater transparency has given natural options their in. Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company just launched a line of organic cotton tampons, while Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, the arbiter of upmarket health trends, recently posted a Q&A with a gyno who made a compelling case for organic fem hygiene, too. Goop and like-minded green tampon advocates argue that cotton crops are sprayed with pesticides and then treated with chlorine bleach that can leave behind traces of dioxin, a toxin that can interfere with hormones and immune-system function. Health Canada deems mass-made tampons 100 percent safe—containing too little, if any, of the offending chemicals to impact health—but many women enjoy the peace of mind of going au naturel. For them, the decision is like choosing locally farmed, organic kale: why not, if you have the access and extra cash?
This is the same health-conscious bunch fuelling a microtrend in period panties. New York City–based brand Thinx sells cute boy shorts and lacy briefs outfitted with an absorbent polymer layer. They’re designed as backup or for free bleeding—menstruating entirely sans tampon or pad.
One pair can supposedly hold up to two tampons’ worth of blood without looking (or feeling) like a glorified diaper. The company’s media-savvy CEO and co-founder, Miki Agrawal, recently promoted the line with a controversial NYC ad campaign featuring remarkably vaginal grapefruit halves and raw eggs dripping with the uncanny viscosity of menstrual blood. Since launching in 2014, Thinx has sold more than 250,000 pairs, an impressive number given the fact that each one costs around $45 and building a seven-day “cycle set” costs upward of $300. (A portion of sales goes to helping Ugandan girls access feminine hygiene products.)
But chia-munching, barre class–loving young women are willing to shell out in the name of wellness. Jaclyn Parsons, a 29-year-old Torontonian, is a devout Knix Wear customer. The Toronto-based Kickstarter-funded brand specializes in what its founder, Joanna Griffiths, calls “smart” undies, equipped with a super-absorbent odour-repelling gusset that backs up your menses-catching method of choice. Parsons pairs her high-performance panties with The DivaCup, which, she enthuses, works better than tampons. “I can go longer using it than I can with tampons, and I also like not putting cotton with pesticides into my body.”
She’s not alone. DivaCup, maker of the original leach-proof, eco-friendly soft silicone inserts that hold 12 hours’ worth of fluid, reports that its sales are growing 20 times faster than those of traditional pads or tampons. It’s also spawned copycats, including a new Swedish one called Lily Cup that folds conveniently into a compact carrying case and, like Knix Wear and LoonCup, was a Kickstarter smash: it exceeded its capital goal by 4,075 percent, making it one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the crowdfunding website. There are more fringe options too, like adorable bird-print fabric maxi-pads and hand-knit tampons that look like strange tubular doilies, both popular on Etsy. There’s even a U.S.-based business that sources sea sponges from the Mediterranean and sells them as tampon substitutes. The proliferation of such DIY methods signals a heartening new era in personalized period care. After decades of the same old options, Agrawal says, “it’s time we stopped hoping and looked for a product that works for us.”
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