As if suffering from cramps, mood swings and the intense desire to eat everything in sight every month wasn’t bad enough, periods are (bloody) awful for the environment too.
Sanitary products are made from approximately 90 per cent plastic and, along with their plastic packaging, generate a mammoth 200,000 tonnes of waste per year in the UK alone. That’s plastic which can take up to 500 years to decompose and potentially release harmful chemicals into seas and rivers if not disposed of correctly. Fish have even begun ingesting it, causing damage to their insides.
Statistics show that the average woman in the UK uses more than 11,000 disposable menstrual products in her lifetime and spends over £18,000 on the luxury of having them. In 2010, a UK beach clean found an average of 23 sanitary pads and nine tampon applicators per kilometre of British coastline. As demand is so high, companies pile up more stock than necessary, and stores end up disposing of new, unopened packages that aren’t bought, says Hayley Smith, founder of Flow Aid, an organisation that campaigns for free sanitary products for homeless women.
Plastic is so damaging to the environment that last year supermarkets started charging for plastic carrier bags following an intervention from the government to cut down on their use. With periods still far more taboo than what we carry our groceries in, the discussion of the environmental impact of disposable sanitary products has remained largely niche.
But one startup is trying to change that, with reusable period pants that aim to reduce the amount of waste we generate. New York-based Thinx was founded in July 2011 by Antonia Saint Dunbar, Miki Agrawal and Radha Agrawal, selling period-proof underwear that you can wear in place of, or alongside, other sanitary products. The underwear looks like your average pair of pants, but the groin area is comprised of four layers of patented material called THINX QuadTECH. Thinx, which recently introduced a new range of cotton pants, isn’t alone. Dear Kate has been selling moisture-wicking active wear and period pants since 2012. It’s a growing trend, but one that’s use to make it into the mainstream.
How do Thinx work?
- The first layer is a 95 per cent cotton blend, and is moisture-wicking. This means it wicks (or moves) the menstrual blood out to the next section – a thin cotton layer that’s supposed to help absorb the liquid.
- Moisture wicking
- Moisture-wicking fabrics are used in sports-wear to prevent sweat stains, because they are woven in such a way that the material is highly permeable; the moisture is forced through the gaps in the weave so it can find, in this case, the next layer. The most successful wicking fabrics are usually synthetic.
- On top of the first layer, Thinx uses an anti-microbial treatment: silver. The silver ion (Ag(+) is biologically active and interrupts the bacteria cell’s ability to form the chemical bonds essential to its survival. Silver metal and inorganic silver compounds ionise in the presence of water, body fluids or tissue exudates, meaning it helps break down the bacteria in menstruation blood which can create odours.
- The third layer is known as the barrier layer because it is made of impermeable polyurethane. This is meant to stop the liquid leaking onto the final layer, which is simply the outside of the garment.
Thinx tested around 50 different fabrics, with varying thicknesses and levels of wicking and absorbency. The work started in the lab, before being tested on people. A second iteration of the underwear launched last year. The company advises people to cold wash and reuse the organic cotton undies after each period until, well… they fall apart. But that advice has proven controversial. “Anything less than a hot machine wash on 40 won’t clean them properly and will shorten their lifespan,” says Flow Aid founder Smith. “If the blood isn’t washed out properly, bacteria in the liquid can fester and lead to health problems such as toxic shock syndrome,” she adds. Thinx sees itself as bridging the gap between technology and menstruation. Its adverts promise “pussy-grabbing-proof underwear”, riffing on offensive comments made by then presidential candidate Donald Trump. Ironically given the none-too-subtle joke, Thinx has also faced accusations of sexual harassment.
Siobhan Lonergan became vice president of the company after cofounder Miki Agrawal stepped down following harassment allegations. Back in March, Former Thinx employee Chelsea Leibow filed a complaint with the City of New York Commission on Human Rights, alleging that Agrawal made inappropriate sexual comments, touched employees’ breasts without consent and changed clothes in front of them, generally creating a hostile work environment. The allegations were settled in May and Agrawal secured a book deal just two months later.
For Lonergan, the company is bringing long-overdue new ideas to the industry. “There was no innovation for menstrual products since 1937 when the menstrual cup came about, so we created Thinx,” she says. “We are creating innovative solutions to empower people who live with periods. We are simplifying the period experience.”
But behind the marketing speak, the promises don’t stack up. “I am a massive advocate for reusable sanitary products, and people who use reusable products do cut down on their use of disposable ones, but even if you swear by Thinx, you will end up buying a pack of tampons or pads as a back-up – which doesn’t solve the problem,” she says. “Thinx have potential to help solve the issue, but the price of the knickers is too ridiculous; it’s fashion over function.”
A taboo topic
Despite attempts to remove the UK’s tampon tax, being able to bleed into a pad or tampon is still seen as a luxury. A 2013 study by Free The Tampon Foundation found that 86 per cent of American women have started their period unexpectedly in public without having any sanitary supplies. This made them feel embarrassed, panicked, annoyed and anxious, the study found. This anxiety often comes from shame.
Premenstrual mood disorder is a thing and you can blame your genes
Like many, I went to a school where girls hid tampons up their sleeves out of fear of anyone knowing they were on your period. Whilst period stigma is being fought against in the West, periods remain taboo in other countries. In 40 societies across South America, it is commonly believed that menstruating women must be kept at a distance because they are in some way harmful to men. A long-standing tradition in Japan dictates that women cannot be sushi chefs because their sense of taste is thrown off by menstruation. This is being challenged by some, but in many places women still face adversity within that field of work. In Kenya, girls are often forced to use leaves and sticks during menstruation because men have control over buying pads. Even then, girls in Kenya miss an average of five days of school a month because of their periods.
In Nepal, ‘chaupadi’ was technically outlawed in 2005 but is is practiced by up to 95 percent of families in western and mid-western parts of the country. The practice sees women as impure and unclean during menstruation, so they are isolated from others and sent to live in sheds, often without access to food or clean water.
In countries like this, pricey period pants aren’t going to fix ingrained traditions. But Marje Isabelle, managing director of Intelligent Hormones, thinks the growing number of people in Western countries who want to remove the stigma on periods is a major selling-point of alternative sanitary products. “I think any product that brings the female condition to the forefront of awareness, so it becomes the norm for the younger generation to talk about something which half the population go through each month, so they aren’t embarrassed when they go into work and they can open up about the symptoms, is important,” she says. It’s a pertinent point. Last month, a man reported his female colleague to HR for using a water bottle to soothe menstrual cramps. She tweeted about her experience, reminding her followers and her colleague that “people menstruate”.
Thinx, says Isabelle, is also trying another tactic: making periods feminine. “Something that makes you feel sexy is more likely to sell. From puberty to our last cycle we are told that our time of the month is not sexy, but period wearables are super sexy – they are how modern women want to view themselves rather than shying away,” she says.
Beyond all the stigma-smashing and planet-saving conversations, does Thinx really work? The short answer is it depends who you ask.
For Yasmine Wassfy, a boutique owner in Montreal, Canada, Thinx did better than expected. “They are extremely functional and comfortable. You feel like you are wearing nothing. It’s insane,” she says, adding that they are a welcome alternative to conventional menstrual products. That’s because Wassfy, along with 176 million other women worldwide, suffers from endometriosis – a condition that causes extreme cramps if using tampons and moon cups. For airplane pilot Shannon Cowie, the pants helped with unpredictable periods and frustrations with not having enough time to change tampons and pads at work. “They give me the flexibility to keep doing my job while not having to wear disposable pantyliners,” she says. “On my lighter days I found I didn’t really need to wear tampons at all [with Thinx].” Many of the stories show women using fewer menstrual products as a result of switching to an alternative product. “The menstruation industry isn’t sustainable. I think it’s up to every single person to make choices that positively impact the environment,” says Lonergan.
Revolutionising the sanitary-pad market in India
Jezabel Vel Mar, who lives in Mexico, decided to switch to Thinx for this very reason. “In June, I used a menstrual cup and Thinx underwear together. Call me a drama queen but I haven’t felt peace like that since ‘those days’ appeared,” she says. Vel Mar summarises what I hear from most women: products such as Thinx can only be used alone if you aren’t heavy, which makes them more of an accompaniment instead of an alternative to disposable products. “It’s a revolutionary product but it needs more development, it can’t be used by itself except on your lightest day,” she says. “It does help you listen to your body and feel comfortable with its natural process.”
That change in attitude is important. Thinx’s adverts, featuring suggestive grapefruits, continue to cause controversy. Usually, period pad adverts can be frustratingly cheery, featuring painfully smiley women, jumping and running to prove that you – yes you! – can still be happy and have a life during that time of the month. It’s refreshing then for a company to ditch the euphemisms for blood and refer to the shedding of the uterine lining.
“We want to encourage people to do what they need to when on their period, whether that’s running around or curled up and binge-watching a series,” Lonergan says. But the question remains, why bother with both a tampon and period pants? Part of the appeal of Thinx is that they are much better for the environment than disposable menstrual products, so suggesting you use them with throw-away tampons makes the product a little redundant. Thinx’s solution is to sell organic tampons, which come without an applicator.
Organic is definitely an improvement on traditional pads and tampons, as non-organic sanitary products are made from cotton that has been sprayed with chemical pesticides, which destroy biodiversity and cause potentially lethal pesticide poisoning in cotton workers.
Never mind the environmental aspect, for some women, an alternative to pads or tampons is a conscious choice to protect their health. Conventional menstrual products used to be bleached white, and this process creates the chemical dioxin, which the World Health Organization has linked to immune system suppression, reproductive issues and cancer. The US Food and Drug Administration looked into this link and found that whilst some tampon brands do contain the chemical, for a 50KG female who uses 24 tampons a month, the level of dioxin they would absorb would be less than harmful. The bleaching method has now been replaced with a chlorine-free bleaching process.
However, dioxin is still detected in 100 per cent cotton tampons. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that’s because dioxin can be found in the air, water, and ground following decades of pollution; thus, small amounts of dioxin may be present in the cotton or wood pulp raw materials used to make tampons. According to Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Medical Centre, even trace amounts of dioxin are cause for concern because tampons come into contact with vaginal tissue, which is covered in penetrable mucous membranes leading directly to the reproductive organs. The cumulative effects of using thousands of tampons in a lifetime would, therefore, be worth acknowledging.
The highly absorbent viscose rayon used in tampons has also been linked to the rare but fatal toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Essentially, using tampons and pads isn’t risk-free. Whilst the sanitary product industry has improved, it remains flawed. But for Smith, alternatives have some way to go yet. “Thinx are not a life-long product. Because you are bleeding straight into them, I recommend changing them at least every six weeks, or every other period. But that would be expensive,” she says.
Thinx has a product that could solve the disposable problem, but it won’t unless it lowers the cost, says Smith. Most women, she concludes, can’t bring themselves to fork out $34.00 (£26.05) for a pair of Hiphuggers.