By BONNIE WERTHEIM
November 15, 2016
It’s a great time to get your period.
Long considered taboo, girls and women are talking openly about periods. They have even put periods on the public agenda, demanding free feminine hygiene products in public restrooms and tax-free tampons and pads.
Some are also challenging the methods women traditionally have used to cope with periods, rejecting disposable pads and tampons altogether. Instead, they are using menstrual cups, reusable pads, special underwear or nothing at all.
To be sure, these alternative methods of menstrual management represent just a fraction of the $19 billion global market for period products. While they aren’t for everyone, they are catching on among some women who say the alternative products make menstruation more hygienic, less costly, more discreet and less wasteful.
Andrea Velázquez, 25, learned about a tampon alternative — the reusable menstrual cup — from a friend three years ago and hasn’t bought a box of tampons since. The major selling point for her was cost savings. Menstrual cups range in price from $20 to $40 and are replaced about once a year. By comparison, an annual supply of tampons and pads costs about $120.
“If you add it up, you end up using a good chunk of money on tampons and pads,” she said.
While tampons and pads are designed to absorb menstrual fluid and be thrown away, the cup is made of flexible silicone and is worn inside the vagina to catch menstrual blood. The cup is emptied, washed and reinserted twice a day.
The cup also appeals to Ms. Velázquez because it’s discreet. She no longer has to walk “home with a big box of tampons in a clear white bag” or hide tampons up her sleeve. “Especially once I entered the work force, I remember finding a way to sneakily bring them into the bathroom,” she said.
Carinne Chambers, co-founder and chief executive of Diva International, which makes the Diva Cup, said most consumers seem to learn about menstrual cups from one another. “A lot of women think they’re relatively content with their options because it’s all they’ve ever known,” Ms. Chambers said. “They’re not necessarily looking for something new.”
Other options include reusable cloth products, including Thinx period underwear, a moisture-wicking, absorbent underwear that is washed and re-used and is sold for $15 to $40. Cloth pads, like those sold by Lunapads and GladRags, consist of a holder and a set of absorbent fleece inserts which should be changed every two to six hours. Because they are made of breathable material, they resist strong odors. The companies also sell small carrying pouches with separate compartments for used and fresh inserts. Reusable pads cost $15 to $20.
Nora Lovotti, 27, was intrigued when she saw ads for Thinx period underwear on the New York City subway this summer.
“For me at this point, I take birth control, and my period is relatively light,” she said. “I was getting to the point where I felt like tampons were kind of excessive.”
Thinx markets its underwear as either an alternative to or a backup for disposable feminine products made with rayon or bleached cotton. They are made up of three layers: an external nylon layer; a moisture-wicking, antimicrobial, absorbent and leakproof gusset; and an inner layer of cotton. Some women opt for reusable products because they worry about long-term exposure to the chemicals in bleached products. Others are concerned about toxic shock syndrome, a rare bacterial infection associated with superabsorbent tampon use.
For Ms. Lovotti, the risk of toxic shock, although very low, still nagged at her. “I did have a friend in college who had toxic shock,” she said. “In the back of my mind, I was always concerned.”
Thinx also has gained attention on social media because it has featured Sawyer DeVuyst, a transgender male model in its ad campaign. Mr. DeVuyst said that, for about five years between his coming out as transgender and beginning hormone therapy, he continued to menstruate. While changing a pad or a tampon in a men’s room might cause embarrassment or even endanger a transgender man, wearing period boyshorts that resemble boxer briefs might make an alienating process a little easier, Mr. DeVuyst said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that some men do get their periods because it’s just not talked about,” Mr. DeVuyst said in a video.
A more extreme rejection of mainstream period products comes in the form of “free-bleeding.” The method gained attention when the musician Kiran Gandhi crossed the finish line at the 2015 London Marathon in bloodstained leggings. She had gotten her period the night before and decided that a tampon would be too uncomfortable to wear through the race, and she used the moment to make a statement.
“I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist,” Ms. Gandhi wrote on her blog after completing the marathon tampon-free. “I ran to say, it does exist, and we overcome it every day.”
Maggie Whalen, 24, a longtime Diva Cup user, said she realized that there were days during her cycle when she had a lighter flow and using the cup was irritating. Now on those days, she forgoes the cup entirely. “I’ve kind of started experimenting with it,” she said.
Miki Agrawal, chief executive and co-founder of Thinx, said that new interest in alternative menstrual hygiene is part of more accepting attitudes about periods as a natural biological function.
“Women now look at their uterine lining and really feel empowered by it rather than shamed by it,” said Ms. Agrawal.