When it comes to food, we like to know exactly what's going in our gobs. We might not order those eggs if there's a whiff they've come from cages, and a lot of people these days will pay the price to buy responsibly-fished tuna. And yet, somehow, that mindset doesn't appear to apply to the period products we put in our vaginas month after month. "People are so conscious of what they're eating or even of what they're wearing, but we're putting stuff inside of us when we have no idea what's in it," says Olivia Sealy, spokesperson for Veeda, one of just a few companies offering affordable and completely natural menstrual products here in the UK. "We're really trying to push natural products because they're better for you." In a country where we fought so forcefully – and successfully – for the abolishment of the tampon tax, you'd think we'd be more tuned into what actually goes into making those little cylinders. But although the debate around the safety of commercial tampons has been bubbling for years, it's only properly scratched the surface of the internet – and thus our consciousness – more recently. Major manufacturers are not required to list the materials and chemicals that go into their tampons and pads, owing to their status as medical apparatus. And studies have shown that those unlisted ingredients can include dioxins, carcinogens, and reproductive toxins. Crucially, Dr Philip Tierno – the leading expert on Toxic Shock Syndrome – has never linked the bacteria associated with TSS to cotton tampons, only rayon ones.
But is it really a big deal? Well, nobody is 100% sure. Vaginal tissue is one of the most porous parts of the female body, which means any dioxins are absorbed easily and can build up in the body over time. And given that the average woman who uses tampons will use somewhere in the region of 11,000 in her life, and spend close to 100,000 hours with a wad of potentially harmful cotton and rayon inside her, it's important we pay attention to what it is we're putting up there. "Our target market are savvy consumers, but until shockingly recently nobody thought for a second about what's in their tampons," Annie Lascoe from Conscious Period tells me. "We're really excited that people are starting to think about it, but there is still a big education curve." Based in LA, Conscious Period (co-founded by Lascoe and Margo Lang) is one of several newly-launched US start ups (see Lola and Cora for more) offering consumers a totally natural alternative to the major players. Cora's sustainable, biodegradable products are made from 100% organic, hypoallergenic cotton and are free of chemicals, synthetics and dyes. "Both Margo and I were really concerned about the toxins in commercial period products, and really dissatisfied with the options for pre-existing organic period products. We always wondered why someone couldn't combine the convenience of a commercial brand and the plastic applicators we prefer with the quality, health benefits of an organic tampon."
It's this combined health, eco and social purpose that typifies the new approach to menstrual management.
But perhaps the main point of difference with small businesses such as Conscious Period, Veeda, Cora and other, older eco brands, is their commitment to social change. Conscious Period operates on a one-for-one model: For every box of tampons sold, a box of pads is donated to homeless women. It's a similar story for Cora – another US start-up and subscription service which donates a box of sustainable pads to women and girls in India for every order placed. Veeda, meanwhile, has set up its own women's charity. It's this combined health, eco and social purpose that typifies the new approach to menstrual management. More and more, the future of periods is not just about focusing on our own needs and experience, but about helping to bring about change in other women's lives.
Of course, sustainability and sanitary care have long been friends. The Mooncup (the UK's foremost reusable menstrual cup) has environmentalism at its heart, but now its appeal is broadening beyond its original niche market. Like the tampon, the menstrual cup has been around in one form or another since the 1930s. But it was only in 2002 that Su Hardy replaced latex with medical-grade silicone rubber to create the Mooncup. Now, it's sold in 55 countries. "The growth has been substantial," says Kath Clements, Mooncup's campaigns and marketing manager. "The perception of the Mooncup seems to be changing as the conversation around periods is changing – that's helped us in becoming more and more normalised." Although the Mooncup may be beginning to hit the mainstream, the only way it's going to truly integrate into the wider industry in the future is if it is introduced as a viable option to girls at an earlier age. "Sanitary products are introduced in schools, then you sleepwalk through the habit of reaching for the same things every month until something wakes you up and makes you reflect," says Clements. "We need a less biased introduction of the options. We wouldn't necessarily say that a menstrual cup is the first solution for a young girl – for some it is, for some it's not. But if from the outset we sit in a position of holding the power of making a choice, then you can choose what's appropriate for you through many different phases of your life." Because, of course, there are other options, and one that has garnered a fair bit of attention of late is Thinx. Launched last year and marketed as "period panties" (that phrase might be the ickiest bit about them), Thinx are essentially knickers that you bleed into, wash and wear again. Designed to hold up to two tampons-worth of blood, and resolutely leak-resistant and anti-microbial, you can choose to wear the pants with other protection, or simply by themselves. But are they too much of a mental leap for women that have been taught to use tampons or pads for most of their menstruating life? "It's a no brainer once you get over the idea of bleeding into your underwear," founder Mili Agrawal told Refinery29. "The majority of women around the world wear pads which are uncomfortable, bulky and unhygienic. Thinx offers comfort, support, peace of mind and freedom. They let you forget about your period."
Given hundreds of thousands of units have been sold worldwide, it seems that women are not only grappling with the concept just fine, but actively embracing it.
Much of the innovation in commercial period products over the last few decades has been about making our periods as discreet (read: invisible) as possible. Tampax Compak was designed to be mistaken for a boiled sweet, remember? And the less said about Tampax Pocket Pearl and that applicator, the better. The honesty and boldness of a product like Thinx shows how we might be becoming more comfortable and open with the idea of our own menstruation. And if we find period pants a bit gross, that only goes to show how, as Clements suggests, we have become "indoctrinated into this notion of shame." As with most areas of our lives in 2016, we can also take care of our periods via the click of a button. A number of period subscription services have popped up over the last couple of years – among them Period Box, Sanitary Owl, My Lady Bug, and this month, Flux – each of them promising to make menstruating that little bit easier for young women with busy lives. They're pretty much a Deliveroo for your period – choose your favourite products, and have them sent out to you. Currently, the offering from most boxes (bar Sanitary Owl) is resolutely traditional insomuch that you only get to choose from the major brands. For them to be truly revolutionary they need to start thinking outside of that and highlight those options many of us don't know about. "For the initial launch we're just getting the major brands, Apoorva Thakur, co-founder of Flux tells me. "But we're looking to broaden our offering as soon as possible because we realise that sustainability is really important. Our message is about choice and empowerment and ultimately feminism – we really want to see a feminist company that also has a quality product that people will like."
Although having our tampons and pads delivered straight to our door might liberate us from a late night dash to the shop, there's also a chance that it will push those products further from view. After all, the first commercial tampons reached women by mail order, wrapped in brown paper. In some ways, the future of periods may well lie in the past. Reusable cloth pads are age-old, but new packaging – see the likes of LunaPads – and greater exposure in the media, coupled with our growing desire to seek non-toxic alternatives, means they could be making a real comeback. Then there are sea sponges – absorbent sponges found at the bottom of the ocean and trimmed to fit your requirements – which have been used for thousands of years. You can buy yours at (the charmingly named) Jam Sponges.
Women are woefully under-informed when it comes to understanding their menstrual cycle and, subsequently, their health.
Taking care of your period is one thing, but how much do you actually know about them? That they come once a month? Will Sacks, co-founder of fertility tracking app Kindara, thinks women are woefully under-informed when it comes to understanding their menstrual cycle and, subsequently, their health. "A lot of the history of medicine has been about dissociating women from the bodies or just to tell women that their bodies are somehow shameful," says Sacks. "It's a travesty, because [that knowledge] is so important. We need to start seeing the menstrual cycle as a vital sign." Period tracking apps like Kindara, Glow and Clue are becoming increasingly popular in helping women harness health information from their periods. Based on the Fertility Awareness Method, Kindara asks women to enter information about their cycle so they can learn, each day, if they are fertile or not and take action accordingly. And with the launch of Kindara's Wink – a basal body thermometer – later this month, users will be able to get an even more comprehensive and accurate picture of their menstrual cycles. Since its launch in 2012, Kindara has helped 100,000 women get pregnant, despite the fact it was originally intended to be used as an alternative form of birth control. "I don't think it's ever going to be as popular as the pill," says Sacks, "but some form of tracking hormones is, I think, the future of birth control." These apps can tell you more than whether or not you need a condom on Tuesday night, too. "Kindara can tell you if you have a propensity to miscarry, it can help you with endometriosis or PCOS or any kind of cycle irregularity that you're trying to figure out," says Sacks. The future of periods is more than just the products you use – it's women reclaiming control over and knowledge of their own bodies.