From cramp-curing devices to ultra-absorbent underwear, period products are finally receiving the attention they – and we – deserve. As the first ever large scientific study into sanitary products find menstrual cups are as reliable as tampons and pads, we test out all the innovative new products worth knowing about.
More than 800 million people in the world menstruate, and have been doing so since the start of human existence. So why is it that the selection of period products available to us has barely advanced beyond the first consumer tampons of the Thirties? And even though the first menstrual cup was patented back in 1937 – designed, of course, by a woman (American actor Leona Chalmers) – it’s taken 80 years for them to become a common option.
For way too long, we’ve resigned ourselves to a set of basic choices: pad or tampon, applicator or non-applicator, paracetamol or ibuprofen. Even when emojis came into our lives and represented random objects like dragons, bombs and aubergines, periods were totally ignored. It took a campaign by women’s rights charity Plan International UK and votes from 54,600 people to finally get the drop of blood emoji designed and ready to hit keyboards later this year.
Thankfully, a revolution in the world of feminine hygiene is finally here. New technology and a shake-up in the way we approach menstruation has led to a raft of new (and often female-owned) brands working tirelessly to deliver period products to better suit our lifestyles and our bodies.
“The way people manage their menstrual health has, until recently, been limited,” says Nikki Michelsen, co-founder of organic tampon delivery service OHNE. “Now, women are starting their own brands and designing their own products, the period industry as a whole is a far more exciting place.”
This comes hand in hand with period shame being dismantled. At last, menstrual pad adverts have largely stopped using blue fluid as a stand-in for blood when demonstrating absorbency. Protests are triggered if social media censors a photo of someone’s period blood. When poet Rupi Kaur first posted an image of menstrual blood leaking through her trousers in 2015 it was removed by Instagram for violating its community standards. The ensuing outcry and Kaur’s complaint that, “Their patriarchy is leaking. Their misogyny is leaking. We will not be censored,” led to the image being reinstated and ushered in a new era of more open attitudes towards menstruation.
OHNE co-founder Leah Remfry-Peploe emphasises the importance of having women leading the movement, saying that, “We don’t want old men in suits sitting in boardrooms trying to make money off women’s bodies. Just people who menstruate asking for what we want, creating what we want and shaking up the way we buy what we want.”
Today, we can shop a wide assortment of eco-friendly tampons and menstrual cups in every colour, size and flexibility. We can get menstrual product advice from countless YouTube reviews and tutorials. We are not so quick to shun period sex (advocates believe it helps ease menstrual cramps) and have the option of using a new mess-free cup that manages blood flow while allowing intercourse.
The language used by these new period brands is a far cry from the coy, shaming marketing of the past. Periods were considered to be a cause of embarrassment and the public image of menstruation reflected this stigma of a dirty, monthly secret. Adverts of the past showing sporty women in bright white tennis skirts bore no relation to the reality of having a painful, messy period. But now brands like TOTM (Time Of The Month) regularly post provocative yet beautiful imagery of used pads on their Instagram feeds, and share anecdotes and period hacks from their customers.
Reframing the conversation about menstruation has triggered numerous positive changes. Period poverty, causing people to skip days of school and work every month because they can’t afford menstrual products, was an overlooked issue holding back people around the world until the growing conversation about periods allowed it to be highlighted and addressed.
Plan International UK reports that one in 10 UK schoolgirls have found themselves unable to afford sanitary protection and 40% have used toilet roll as a cheaper alternative. Their work, as well as campaigns led by activists like Red Box Project and Amika George’s #FreePeriods movement, have led to the government announcing that free sanitary products will now be provided in schools, hospitals and police custody.
Many of the new innovators aren’t stopping there: they’re aiming to benefit the planet, too. Brands like DAME are responding to the growing discomfort around our use of single-use plastic by ditching the throwaway plastic applicators and wrappers currently haunting our landfills in favour of sustainable packaging and reusable applicators. Some have invested in biodegradable cardboard and paper applicators to improve the smoothness of insertion that led us to plastic in the first place.
Others are working to achieve the standards we demand in the rest of our lives, bringing us ‘clean’, chemical-free products to put inside our bodies. As environmental, welfare and health issues increasingly play on our minds, we’re willing to pay a little bit extra in the short term for conscious sanitary protection that helps the environment. Especially if, in the long run, we can save ourselves money by reusing it.
Some of the innovations would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. Impressive fabric technology in period-absorbing underwear is making ruined knickers a problem of the past, and there are wearable gadgets that can melt away cramps using pain-inhibiting technology for those reluctant to rely on painkillers. And, thanks to tampon delivery services, we might never be caught out again.
Above all, this new generation of period products arms us with the power to decide what we put on and in our bodies, when we do it and how much we allow menstruation to affect our daily lives. Read on to see how the Stylist team got on when they put today’s most innovative menstruation products to the test. And welcome in your most hassle-free period yet.
The period pioneers
The pill-free pain reliever
If you suffer with monthly cramps, the Livia device promises to start ridding you of pain within 60 seconds. The square gadget straps onto a waistband around your middle (it has been designed to be undetectable under your clothes) then sends gentle pulses to the site of your cramps via electrode gel pads. Once the nerves in the area are stimulated, they stop pain signals passing to the brain making for an all-round more comfortable cycle without popping any pills.
“Every month, I’m hit with pain so extreme it can leave me bed-bound, so the cynic in me wasn’t sure that this could help – but it did,” says beauty writer Hanna Ibraheem. “Discreet, easy to use and comfortable; I just placed the two gel pads on either side of my stomach, 10cms apart. It took longer than 60 seconds, but within 15 minutes I started to feel less pain. It didn’t get rid of my cramps entirely, but it dulled them a lot and I could get on with my day.”
£119 including a 3-month supply of gel pads, mylivia.com
The reusable applicator
An estimated 100 billion period products are thrown away every year. Plastic from applicators and packaging then breaks down, polluting the environment and entering the food chain for a lifetime. In contrast, the reusable DAME D applicator is made from medical grade, hypoallergenic, self-sanitising plastic called Mediprene and can be used endlessly.
“I’ve always steered clear of non-applicator tampons (too messy), but my guilt about the environment has been growing,” says junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitcher. “This reusuable applicator is a game-changer: I just pop a tampon into the device, insert it as normal, then rinse the applicator in the sink. Granted, it’s not convenient when access to running water is limited, but the handy snap-on lid temporarily solves that. It comes with a sleek tin for storage, and a tiny pouch that fits the applicator and a few tampons – they really have thought of everything.”
DAME D. The Reusable Applicator, £24.99; wearedame.co
The magical underwear
Thinx machine-washable underwear allows you to get through your period without using a single tampon, pad or cup (unless you want to). Made from layers of specially designed material that is highly absorbent, odour-controlling and leak-resistant, it soaks up blood and smells. From thongs to boxers, there are styles to cater for every flow.
“I took the plunge and tried Thinx’s thong (for the lightest flow) towards the end of my cycle. Usually, I don’t like to waste tampons and pads at this point, opting for thin liners instead, but these knickers eliminate the need completely,” says Ava. “I kept waiting for the moment where I’d feel a leak, but they absorbed everything with no tell-tale stains. The only drawback? I didn’t like the idea of going all day without changing something. I tried taking a second pair into work which helped, but I was still carrying dirty knickers in a plastic bag on the bus home.”
Thinx, from £28; asos.com
The mess-free sex cup
Period sex is a divisive subject and not for everyone, but this petal-thin reusable cup aims to make it a less messy and more appealing prospect. The Intimina Ziggy cup is inserted higher up than a traditional menstrual cup to allow extra room for your partner and collect blood right under the cervix. Made from medical grade silicone, the cup has a leak-proof double rim and works for every flow and position.
“Being a menstrual cup user already, I thought I could handle this version with no problem,” says Ava. “It took loads of tries to insert it properly – higher up than a regular cup and with one end tucked behind the pubic bone. It kept its word and everything stayed leak-free, but my partner could definitely feel it (even though I couldn’t). Taking it out, however, was such a mission – I honestly thought it might stay up there forever and had to panic-wrestle it out. For that reason, it’s destined to stay under my bed for special occasions only.”
Intimina Ziggy Cup, £34.9; amazon.co.uk
The cramp-melting oil
Fun fact: the vaginal canal has the highest amount of cannabinoid receptors in the entire body, making it the fastest way to absorb the benefits of CBD oil into the bloodstream. Made with 1% fullspectrum CBD (which contains a range of cannabinoids) and vagina-safe essential oils, OHNE’s Anti-Teardrops CBD oil can be applied to tampons, tummies and baths to ease inflammation and cramps. The company also helps to provide menstrual education for schoolgirls in Zambia.
“I get nauseating, throbbing cramps every single month without fail,” says beauty director Shannon Peter. “Although I still need to take a couple of paracetamol when they first set in (they’re that bad) I’ve found that massaging a couple of drops of this oil on my stomach stops the cramps from rearing their ugly, painful head later in the day. Plus, it’s way more office-appropriate than clutching a hot water bottle to my belly during important meetings.”
Ohne Anti-Teardrops 1% CBD Oil, £27; ohne.co
The bespoke subscription service
Choose your ideal combination of tampons, liners and pads to match your monthly flow, and a specially selected mix of TOTM products will be regularly delivered to your door to sync up with your period so you’ll never have to do an emergency tampon shop again. All the products included are 100% organic cotton so they’re rayon, chlorine, pesticide and fragrance-free.
“The fact that I can use these applicator tampons without contributing to landfill waste (the applicators are biodegradable) is such a draw,” says Stylist contributor Naomi Joseph. “No fragrance, rayon or chlorine bleach means they don’t cause me harm, either. They weren’t irritating at all, and I wasn’t constantly reminded that they were there. I also love the convenience of the subscription, which means no more last-minute dashes to the shop when I unexpectedly run out.”
TOTM applicator tampons, from £2.70 a month, totm.com