How innovation is transforming period care

01 February, 2021

Menstrual products have been in use for thousands of years – from ancient pads and tampons fashioned out of fabric and plants, to the commercial versions we know today. Menstrual pads hit British markets around the end of the 19th century, while the first commercially available tampon was Tampax, patented in 1933.

Though these were game changers of their time, both pads and tampons have remained virtually untouched by innovation for decades. Tweaks have been made to size, comfort and fit, with options to purchase with or without wings or applicators, and the addition of scents, ‘discreet’ packaging, or more compact versions – but the basic design remains relatively unchanged.

Even advertising for period products has remained shrouded in taboo, shying away from the ‘unmentionables’ of our monthly cycles for decades. It wasn’t until 2017 that Bodyform became the first ever brand to show period blood in an advert, breaking away from the ubiquitous blue liquid more commonly shown.

Recent years have also seen an explosion of innovation across the period care sector. The cultural backdrop to this innovation has been the growth of activist-led, ‘period positive’ movements against menstrual stigma, and high-profile campaigns to tackle period poverty.

Notably, growth in this sector has largely been driven by forward thinking, female-founded start-ups, seeking to fill gaps in the market with products designed by women, for women.

These brands are engaging in taboo-busting conversations around the realities of menstruation. They’re also, crucially, keeping pace with growing consumer demands for sustainability, inclusivity, natural solutions, and transparency.

Growth in this area can be divided into three broad categories: menstrual care (or feminine hygiene) products, pain management, and cycle tracking. Consumers of all three groups of products are proactively engaged with their own health and interested in ‘natural’ solutions for managing their natural bodily processes. But they’re also socially and environmentally aware – and expect brands to be the same.

They seek brands that understand them and their individual needs, while also being eco-friendly, ethical, and inclusive of BAME and LGBTQ+ menstruators in their advertising and language.

Menstrual care

After decades of homogenous packets of tampons and pads lining supermarket shelves, competitors are emerging that feel mindful and refreshing.

In this category in particular, sustainability is a key driving force. In line with the growing consumer interest in sustainability, so-called ‘environmenstrual’ campaigners have highlighted the environmental impact of the hidden plastics and chemicals in conventional menstrual care products.

According to the Women’s Environmental Network (Wen), big brand menstrual pads contain up to 90% plastic. Each year, two billion menstrual items are flushed down Britain’s toilets, and tampons, pads and applicators generate 200,000 tonnes of waste.

In response, we’ve seen the emergence of a growing plethora of eco-friendly, reusable and plastic-free products. These range from organic cotton pads and tampons with recyclable packaging and applicators, to reusable options like menstrual cups, period pants and cloth pads, and the world’s first self-cleaning reusable tampon applicator from eco brand DAME.

Bigger brands are now leading the way in addressing this, with P&G brands Always and Tampax respectively launching pads with a 100% organic cotton top sheet and an “organic cotton core tampon”.

Personalisation has been another significant factor, with period start-ups offering monthly period care subscription boxes. These allow consumers to order regular, conveniently home-delivered period packages, containing a selection of products tailored to their preferences. Some also tap into the wellness trend for ‘self-care’ by including toiletries, cosmetics and sweet treats in each box.

Pain management

Self-care also feeds into this emerging area, with consumers seeking more ‘natural’, and even indulgent, options for managing their period pains.

These are consumers who are wise to brands repackaging paracetamol and ibuprofen as “period pain killers”, in shiny pink branding with an overinflated price tag. Instead, they want solutions that tie into their self-care routines – from CBD-infused chocolates and pamper oils, to heat pads, bath bombs and adhesive essential oil patches.

Start-up Daye created the world’s first CBD tampon, combining sustainability and transparency about their ingredients, with a focus on tackling period pain through research and development. Their tampons are plastic-free, made from unbleached organic cotton, with “a patented formula for safe, effective and localised CBD application”.

Cycle tracking

Cycle tracking products – primarily smartphone-based apps, or wearables – fall at an interesting intersection between the fertility and period care sectors, and again tap into consumers’ desires to understand and engage with their own natural hormone cycles.

They offer a broad range of uses – from planning or preventing pregnancies, as a form of the ‘fertility awareness method’ of contraception, to tracking and analysing period symptoms.

Again, there is a strong emphasis on natural solutions, possibly driven by the growing scepticism and wariness about the side effects of hormonal contraception. As well as replacing the traditional diary method for tracking when each period begins and ends, some of these products track metrics like body temperature and cervical mucus to predict ovulation and identify women’s fertile and non-fertile windows.

Others track hormonal symptoms, like mood swings, acne and bloating. These apps often have built-in digital storefronts, offering natural supplements to tackle whatever hormonal issues the user is afflicted by.

However, many of the apps and solutions are unhelpful or inaccurate, for example only based on a 28 day cycle, which isn’t the norm. Many are also targeted at people either trying to get pregnant, or trying to avoid pregnancy, neglecting the large parts of the population that have different needs such as young users, women entering menopause, the LGBTQ+ community, etc.

The future of period care

Brands, big and small, are beginning to recognise the potential of the period care market, and the value of appealing to people who menstruate as individuals rather than a homogenous ‘niche interest’ group.

The broad scope of all of these products encourages lifetime use. Brands of absorbent period underwear like Modibodi, for example, offer teen, adult and maternity ranges to support their consumers through each of their different life stages – as well as being suitable for incontinence in postnatal and post-menopausal women. Likewise, period and fertility tracking products are likely to encourage loyalty, and daily inputting of data, from menarche all the way through to menopause.

In the medical space too, innovations like the NextGen Jane Smart Tampon hold exciting potential for the future of diagnostics. The idea behind the smart tampon, is to use cells collected from menstrual blood to identify early signs of reproductive health issues like endometriosis, or even gynaecological cancers. Given the current challenges in diagnosing many of these female-specific conditions, this could be a serious game-changer.

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