Kotex introduced the first mass-market sanitary pad way back in 1921. A decade later, the physician Earle Haas patented his invention for what became the modern-day tampon – and the physical design of a product used by a sizable chunk of the world’s population has barely changed since then.
Brands owned by large conglomerates are still in the driving seat of the $23 billion menstrual care product market. For as long as they've been around, these brands have focused almost exclusively on disposable sanitary pads or tampons, making minor variations to their products based on size. Even though scientific research shows that at least some of these products contain toxic chemicals, companies still don’t always need to show their components on their packaging.
The experience of buying period care products is also outdated. Supermarkets often place them out of sight and near jarringly different products, such as household cleaning items and pet food, adding to the stigma around menstruation.
But people are starting to demand more from period care products and the companies that sell them. ‘There are a lot of separate pressures forcing the industry to change,’ says Milena Bacalja Perianes, co-founder of the Menstrual Health Hub. ‘The environmental concerns, the cultural critique of corporations and bad branding and communication… We need less standardized and more personalized products.’
Market research firm Euromonitor reports that global consumption of tampons is declining. And the appetite for reusable products is steadily growing. The market for menstrual cups is due to grow 6% year on year, while leak-proof period underwear is predicted to grow by nearly 30% until 2024.
A new wave of menstrual care businesses is bringing this antiquated customer experience up to date. They’re responding directly to the need for biodegradable and reusable products that are free from harmful chemicals and more transparent than those offered by mainstream brands. They’re offering subscriptions and build-your-own boxes, allowing customers to tailor their period products to their own personal flow. And some are developing entirely new products in an industry that hasn’t shifted much in more than 100 years.
A sleepy industry wakes
From new products to subscription models, change is coming.
For Hannah Samano, who researched menstruation habits before launching Unfabled, a marketplace for modern period care products, the era of customers staying loyal to just one brand is over. People have stuck with one brand in the past, she says, simply because they’ve not had the choice to try new brands. ‘People on Unfabled are buying and trying different products month to month.’
In an industry that’s dominated by white labels – manufacturers who produce on behalf of a brand – it can be challenging to develop an entirely new innovation from the ground up. For example, despite being marketed as an environmental revolution, even menstrual cups haven’t changed much since the thirties, Milena points out.
But a few brands have taken it upon themselves to level up the existing market. Callaly pushed the category further by inventing the tampliner. Launched in 2020, the product combines a tampon and a mini-liner to stop leaks. Elsewhere, Cora brought its Disc to the market, a ‘self-emptying’ alternative to a menstrual cup. And Dame’s self-sanitizing reusable applicator eliminates plastic waste and fits any tampon size.
The way people access products is also shifting away from the traditional model. Take Yoppie, which launched in 2016 with a subscription-based service. Earlier this year, it raised £3.4 million in funding. ‘Adding tampons to shelves is not where change needs to happen,’ says CEO and founder Daniella Peri. ‘Menstruation isn’t one size fits all, and being online allows us to build a personalized customer relationship.’
Sustainable period care
Biodegradable or reusable? Two different solutions to a big problem.
It takes 500 years for a standard sanitary pad to decompose, while ones made with natural materials can decompose in a few months. That’s why the market for organic cotton pads is expected to grow by 7% every year until 2022, according to Research and Markets. The big companies have been paying attention, with Always and Tampax – both owned by Procter & Gamble – launching their own organic-cotton menstrual care products in 2019. Procter & Gamble even bought organic period brand This Is L back in 2019.
Bodyform went down a different route, revealing its own line of period pants in February 2021. Although reusable products are still a difficult sell to most people who menstruate, says Hannah, because they require a bit more mental energy.
Building a brand around biodegradable products also has obvious implications for the business model. They need to be bought repeatedly, which is why some of the businesses selling them have opted for subscription models and a high level of customer service to keep their customers loyal.
While the jury is out on whether biodegradable or reusable products are ‘better’ for the environment, brands are taking it into their own hands to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. Saalt, which sells menstrual cups and underwear, has earned a Plastic Negative certification in partnership with rePurpose Global, an organization that tackles plastic waste. This essentially means it has committed to taking more waste out of the supply chain than it puts into it. Canada-based Aisle includes a full breakdown of all the materials in its reusable products, as well as conditions in its suppliers’ factories.
As Milena points out, brands tend to focus on disposability rather than the environmental impact of their full supply chains and production processes. With no streamlined or centralized process for determining the environmental impact of a brand – and lots of new brands entering the period care space – the risk of greenwashing is high.
Innovation in the period care space has only just begun. Here are a few niche trends to keep an eye on.
Product expansions. While big brands tend to stick to one type of period care – usually disposable pads or tampons – new brands are expanding into related categories, such as balms and sexual wellness products.
CBD infusions. CBD not only eases menstrual cramps, but it also alleviates anxiety related to PMS, says Hannah of period marketplace Unfabled. Daye combines a period product and wellness with its line of CBD-infused tampons.
Gender neutrality. Trans-affirming period underwear is an important product development. WUKA has recently launched a line of boxer shorts for people who menstruate.
Period activewear. Leak-proof underwear brands are now competing in a new field: period-friendly athletic wear. Check out the super-absorbent ranges of bodysuits and leggings from Thinx, Modibodi and Ruby Love.
Menopause. An area of menstrual care that is rarely discussed is when periods come to an end. Pause helps people going through menopause with specialist skincare, while Kindra has a range of products tailored for different menopausal symptoms.
Medical-grade tech. NextGen Jane and Tulipon are both working on tech solutions that use menstrual blood and period products to help diagnose medical and fertility issues, says Milena of the Menstrual Health Hub.