After decades of little innovation within the menstrual product market, an influx of feminist forward-thinkers and straight-talking start-ups are aiming to disrupt the market and change the way women think and feel about their periods.
Tampax introduced the disposable tampon to the commercial market in the 1930s and it remains the most popular brand among American women today. Yet over eighty years later, it seems the menstrual market is finally ready for a shake-up. In fact, 2016 was named “the year of the women-led period startup” by Forbes, due to a fresh wave of potentially game-changing period products.
Thinx, which exploded onto the scene last year with its period-proof panties promises to make menstruation simpler. Its absorbent underwear can be worn during lighter days, or as a back-up to a tampon or cup, then thrown in the wash for reuse. The garments combine moisture-wicking fabrics, commonly found in sportswear, with anti-microbial treatments to prevent bacteria and ensure the wearer is kept comfortable and odour-free.
But it wasn’t just the product itself that made headlines. Thinx managed to disrupt the market with its advertising too. Rather than the demure language and subtle imagery commonly associated with period products, Thinx went for a more straightforward and playful approach, teaming tongue-in-cheek lines with suggestive images of halved grapefruits and broken eggs. The adverts were so unusual that they were almost banned from the New York subway for being too provocative. Yet they appeal to a desire for frankness and honesty from consumers, particularly women who are increasingly associating their personal wellbeing with their politics.
“We are experiencing an amazing surge of consciousness and empowerment in the sphere of women’s issues. Menstrual care and period poverty consciousness are part of this movement, so it makes sense that women are taking bold, creative and positive actions in this space” says Tara Chandra, founder of Flo, an organic tampon brand that channels 5% of its profits to provide menstrual products to women in need.
Chandra launched Flo on crowd-funding site Kickstarter after learning about the chemicals and pesticides used in mainstream feminine care. Unlike cosmetic products, tampon or sanitary pad brands are not obliged to display their ingredients and many contain undisclosed amounts of plastic and bleach-based chemicals that have been linked to reproductive issues and cancer.
Flo is breaking the norm by producing 100% organic cotton tampons that are naturally sanitised with oxygen and feature no dyes, fragrances or pesticides. The British startup is part of a wider chemical-free trend, with the global organic and natural feminine care market set to grow annually by 7% from 2017-2021 –– a shift that’s in-line with rising enthusiasm for natural products across beauty and wellbeing categories.
However, while many US-based organic brands, such as Cora and Lola, which closed a $7 million Series A round of venture capital financing last year, sell their premium products primarily through subscription services, Flo wants to be accessible, affordable and make it onto supermarket shelves. A smart move considering that this is where 66% of UK-based women purchase their menstrual products according to data from Mintel. Flo tampons are packaged in brightly-coloured ice-cream style tubs and retail at just a fraction over the cost of the leading tampon-brand (£3.69 for 15 vs £3.15 for 18).
A rising tide of sustainably-minded shoppers are also seeking out reusable menstrual care products to avoid throwing away the average of 11,000 tampons used over a person’s lifetime. Although only 1 in 10 people are currently using reusable solutions, there is significant room for growth in this field. In fact, Menstrual cup brand Lunette has grown around 50-70% over the last few years as its products have become a more mainstream choice for consumers, a representative tells Welltodo.
Lunette Founder & CEO Heli Kurjanen puts this growth partly down to a more open attitude from women around periods. “I believe that especially young women, are sick of hiding and being ashamed” she explains. Online culture also plays a part in this, giving rise to women’s voices and helping people talk anonymously about more taboo subjects. “I’m sure that we can thank the internet for making the information so easily found. As a small company we have had to rely on our customers spreading the word,” she adds.
As part of this taboo-busting approach, Lunette recently launched a special-edition menstrual cup with Swedish youth fashion brand Monki. “Until now no-one has combined periods and fashion in this sense. We saw the huge possibility to change attitudes and encourage people to talk about their periods, and even be proud of them” says Kujanen.
The millennial pink Lunette cup has already sold out, but fans of the brand can still get their hands on the accompanying “Periods are Cool” range, which includes underwear, pin badges and socks with period-and female-positive messages.
However evidence shows that, although these campaigns may be well received, the outspoken voices have not completely broken the stereotypes around periods yet. A recent survey by ActionAid revealed that 54% of British women aged 16-24 still shy away from discussing their period, demonstrating that this gradual social shift still has some way to go.
The need for education and empowerment in non-western countries is also being tackled by a number of innovative organisations. Dignity Period supports educational schemes in Ethiopia, a country where stigma around periods is high, with many young women not receiving the right information or access to sanitary products. Also aiming to tap into the sisterhood mentality, subscription service Freda is one of several brands who donate products to women in need with every purchase.
In China, the stigma also remains, although not necessarily around periods themselves but around the use of tampons. Only 2% of women in China use tampons, with most saying they avoid them due to a lack of experience, education and availability, suggesting opportunities for new brands that can help make tampons more commonplace and accessible in this market.
Consultancy firm Pearlfisher recently created a new brand called Femme that aims to address the desire for tampons from modern Chinese women. The range features contemporary and stylish packaging to elevate a basic product and align it with ideas of a high-end lifestyle. The designs are discreet yet feminine and feature educational details that intend to empower rather than patronise the consumer.
The traditional taboos around menstruation aren’t going to change overnight. Yet as women increasingly align the needs of their periods to their general wellbeing and lifestyle, the conversation will open up in tandem with a diversification of the market, enabling consumers to make the choices that are right for them.
As Kujanen of Lunette argues, “Of course we are a company, so we want to sell, but we also understand that not everyone wants to use our products. We believe that everyone should know about different period care options.”
Yet as the market grows with innovative offerings in terms of product, packaging and delivery, expect these new, innovative brands to be underpinned by a common purpose. With 46% of consumers increasingly buying from companies that ‘make them feel good’, the role of brand in educating and empowering should not be underestimated. The brands that will thrive in this new menstrual market will be those underpinned by a mission to give women the confidence to think differently about their periods.