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Why haven't women's menstrual hygiene materials been updated in almost 100 years?

Written by Emma Beifuss, a World Changer Co. intern based in Laie, HI.

I’m just here to help a girl out. If we we're all too shy to talk about periods, then all girls would learn from is... marketing. Marketing doesn’t have our best interests in mind.

You know what I see a lot of ads for? Tampons and pads. NOT menstrual cups and period underwear. Why? Because single-use products have to be sold again and again.. and again.


Lets take a look into the history of pads and tampons

Sanitary pads/napkins

Disposable pads or napkins are still a go-to today. They were actually first used by nurses who used bandages to handle their period flow while on shift. Then, in the late 1880s, Johnson & Johnson rolled out the first disposable sanitary pads for sale. They called them Lister's Towels, made from gauze and cotton and were initially held in place with a sanitary belt.


Tampons have actually been around longer than you might realize. The modern tampon, as we know it today, was actually invented back in the early 1930s by Earle Haas, who was a physician. He saw the need for a better solution than the rags his wife used during her period. So, he came up with the cotton tampon and applicator. In 1933, he sold the patent and trademark to Gertrude Tendrich, who then started the Tampax company using Haas' designs.

Despite this innovation, pads remained the go-to period product for many women until the 1960s and 70s due to cultural, societal, and religious concerns. Medical opinions were split on whether tampons were safe to use, and there were myths that using tampons could break the hymen, which, by the way, is totally false. But now, today tampons are one of the most popular period products out there.


Okay so, pads and tampons were invented over 100 years ago, shouldn't there be some new innovations?


Menstrual cups, originally patented by Leona Chalmers in 1937 using rubber, have recently surged in popularity as eco-friendly, money-saving alternatives to pads and tampons. Despite their long history, it wasn't until the 2010's that they gained widespread acceptance, coinciding with growing interest in sustainable menstruation. With their easy cleaning and reusability, menstrual cups offer both environmental benefits and long-term cost savings, making them an increasingly popular choice for managing menstrual flow. Not to mention, the lesser health effects than tampons.


Is one better than the other?

Short answer ... yes!


Tampons are now being flagged as potentially risky personal care products, experts say. Unlike things you ingest, things you put in your vagina doesn’t always follow the body's usual elimination processes, explains Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental health at George Washington University. Turns out, chemicals from tampons can get absorbed right into the vaginal tissue and enter your bloodstream pretty quickly.

According to Zota's research, scented feminine products might crank up your exposure to phthalates, which are suspected of messing with hormones and have been linked to issues like lower IQs and more asthma. Plus, there's another worry: dioxins. They are byproducts of the bleaching process used in making tampons, and the World Health Organization labels them as "highly toxic" and a "known human carcinogen." Not to mention tampons and pads can take 100s of years to decompose. Though of course, that’s not our fault.

Menstrual Cups:

Many prefer menstrual cups for increased comfort, less interference with activities, reduced irritation, decreased odor, and longer wear time compared to pads or tampons. While tampons or pads cost $50 - $150 annually, a menstrual cup, priced at $20 - $40, can last up to 10 years, offering significant savings. Menstrual cups can be worn for up to 12 hours, reducing the need for frequent changes and the hassle of carrying extra products. They also prevent first-day leakage and odor, suitable for women of all ages. Lastly, menstrual cups are eco-friendly unlike disposable, single-use pads or tampons. They are made of medical-grade materials, addressing concerns about potential chemical exposure from tampons.

Side note from Emma, the author: Saalt is my favorite!

Are there other options as well?

Menstrual Disc:

This is honestly a great option! A menstrual disc is super similar to menstrual cup except that you can have sex with it in because it sits deeper. That being said, it is a bit more difficult to insert and remove. You can also find these for sale at Saalt.

Period Underwear:

Period underwear is a reusable option that soaks up menstrual blood to stop it from leaking, giving you another alternative to tampons or pads. According to Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist and author, these undies give you peace of mind against leaks and can be worn alone or with another period product. Made with layers of quick-drying, breathable fabric, they're comfy and protective. You can pick your size, style, and how much they absorb, depending on your flow. While most brands say not to wear them for more than 12-hours to avoid leaks and smells, many pairs have odor and infection preventatives. Plus, they can come in handy for postpartum bleeding, vaginal discharge, and dealing with urinary leaks.

Some of the best sustainable, PFA free, and ethnically made with natural material brands are Modibodi and Awwa!

Cloth/Reusable Pads:

Reusable pads are basically the same thing as a single-use pad, just cloth instead. They are healthy, cost efficient, and eco-friendly. You are probably already guessing the cons, yes they are bulky if you have a heavier flow, and with the snaps they don't stay in place as well. They also need to be hang dried, which is kind of a funny sight to see if you have housemates.


Now listen, I have my own experience with tampons/pads vs menstrual cups, but I wanted to see someone else's opinion and their experience with the switch. Brianna Green wrote on a blog post for UMKC World Press as follows:

I started my morning by boiling my menstrual cups. Now, you might wonder, "Why would you do that?" Well, most menstrual products, like tampons and pads, are made from a mix of absorbent fibers, including cotton and rayon, so boiling them would be a mess. However, menstrual cups, made from silicone, are an eco-friendly alternative. I paid $25 for four cups, each lasting 3-5 years. I sanitize them before and after each cycle and clean them with hot water and odor-free soap. Unlike tampons and pads, I can wear cups for 12 hours without changing them every bathroom break.

Now, you might ask, "What's the catch?" Well, they can be pricey upfront; name-brand cups like the DivaCup can cost up to $32 each. Plus, they're messier to clean, requiring washing instead of tossing in the trash. There's also a learning curve for insertion and removal, as you need to fold and ensure proper unfolding to prevent leaks. Despite these downsides, I love their eco-friendliness, longevity, cost-effectiveness, and hassle-free 12-hour wear. If interested, start with one cup and transition slowly.


After reading all this, if you’d like to stick to tampons and pads, choose organic, bleach free options like Cora, Veeda, Public Goods or Lola.

A note from Rosalie, founder of World Changer Co. “What’s my ultimate combo? Always a menstrual cup, paired with an Awwa thong for a little security. I forget I’m on my period every single time.”

Honestly I'm just trying to help a girl out. Why use bleached, chemically infused, single use tampons or pads when you can use an eco-friendly menstrual cup that can last you 10 years?

Point of the matter: tampons and pads were invented by men decades ago ... the Iphone gets updated every year, shouldn’t our period products?



Natural Cycles - 12 Period Products Through History:

Time - The Truth About Your Tampons:

UMKC World Press - My Experience With Menstrual Cups (Brianna Green):

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