On average, American girls will experience their first period at age 12 and their last when they reach 51. Theoretically that’s 468 periods in a lifetime (for those who get them regularly and consistently), amounting to thousands of tampons and pads, and maybe a cup or two. Ultimately, women in the United States spend over $2 billion on vulvar and vaginal care products every year. Most of that money goes to three brands—Procter & Gamble (Tampax and Always), Playtex, and Johnson & Johnson (Carefree, Stayfree, and o.b. Tampons). But lots of smaller brands are making huge strides in sustainability, progressive marketing, and social justice—plus, they’re all founded by women. Here’s why your dollar might be better suited supporting them instead:
If you’re concerned with environmental waste…
Tampons have existed since at least the 18th century. But Earle Cleveland Haas’s 1933 patent added a design for a telescoping cardboard applicator, which allowed women to insert a tampon without touching their own vaginas. The design was a hit, as author and menstrual hygiene historian Sharra Vostral notes, because of stringent patriarchal notions of sexuality. Applicators soon became part of a North American understanding of menstrual care—in 1973 Playtex introduced the smooth plastic ones we’re accustomed to today. Because menstrual products are federally classified as medical waste and cannot be tracked, it’s hard to say exactly how many single-use plastic applicators wind up in landfills, but it’s estimated that a menstruating person can use 11,400 tampons in a lifetime.
Something that doesn’t use single-use plastic applicators. Interestingly, around the same time Cleveland Haas developed his telescoping applicator, women were devising other, less wasteful ways to deal with menstrual blood. In 1937, American actress Leona Chalmers patented the first modern menstrual cup. And a year earlier over in Germany, gynecologist Judith Esser-Mittag created the o.b. “digital” tampon, which you inserted with a finger. In 2020 you can still buy the original (though o.b. is now owned by Johnson & Johnson), but smaller, women-run brands Lola and Cora both make a version, too. If you love applicator tampons, you might be interested in Dame’s reusable applicator, which you can use to insert digital tampons, wash, and reuse. Or, try a silicone menstrual cup—Saalt, Divacup, Lena Cup, The Honey Pot, and Hello Cup make comfortable, sustainable, cups in all different shapes. Washable period underwear, like the kind made by Black woman-owned Ruby Love, is another good-for-the-planet option.
If you’re worried about chemicals…
Those who were shocked when the President suggested disinfectant injections might treat COVID-19 might be surprised to learn that Lysol was actually advertised for intravaginal douching first. And to add insult to injury, the harsh corrosive was used to fix a problem that… wasn’t even a problem to begin with. “The core idea that the vulva and vagina are dirty and need some kind of special cleaning certainly has patriarchal origins,” says gynecologist Jen Gunter. While Lysol is strictly used to clean non-human surfaces now, modern douches—especially the fragranced ones—lead to increased yeast infections, make STDs more readily transmissible, and disproportionately exposes users to diethyl phthalate, a hormone disruptor and possible carcinogen. Biased medical care and marketing has made Black women particularly vulnerable. In “An Odor of Racism,” Michelle Ferranti notes that the first documented reference to douching was in 1803, in a medical manual suggesting enslaved West Indian women douche twice daily. She also found that throughout the 1970s, more douching ads appeared in magazines with predominantly Black readership. This kind of targeted messaging is what The Honey Pot founder Beatrice Dixon grew up confronting. “Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven,” she says, “and my mother taught me early on that douching was bad.” Regardless, brands continue to make and market scented tampons and douches. As former Tampax spokesperson Bruce Garren told The Village Voice, “There is a body of consumers who believe there may be an odor…and we want to give our consumer what she wants.”
Not supporting brands that use added fragrance in their menstrual care products! Tampax, Always, and Playtex all still sell and market scented menstrual products—Kotex is a drugstore option that doesn’t play to odor insecurity, but it’s just as easy to buy from women-founded companies like Cora, Lola, Sustain, The Honey Pot, and Rael, who all employ more positive branding. Dr. Gunter is wary of brands that market cleansers specifically for use on the vulva, because many of them also make fragranced douches. She instead suggests using the same kind of fragrance-free, low pH cleanser that’s good for the skin on your face (and everywhere else on your body, for the record).
If you’re concerned with justice…
Taking a look at the charities your tampon brand contributes to is an obvious first step. Under Procter & Gamble’s menstrual division, Tampax donates one pad or tampon for every specially marked box of pad or tampons purchased, and Always donates two months worth of tampons for every like, comment, or share on their #EndPeriodPoverty influencer posts. While both of these initiatives are positive strides, big brand budgets certainly beg the question of how much more good work could be done.
Another benefit of shopping with one of the many new tampon startups is that they have social impact baked into their business models. Sustain donates 1-percent of all sales to women’s health organizations in the US; UK-based brand Flo donates 5-percent of revenue to charities to stop violence against women; for every month’s supply of tampons or pads you buy from Cora, they help supply a month’s worth to women in Kenya, India or the US; Lola not only donates (around 5 million products thusfar), but also works with lawmakers to end the “tampon tax” in the US. Pretty much every small, woman-founded menstrual care brand has a program like this—if there’s a brand you like, poke around on their website to find out more. Beyond charitable contributions, look at a brand’s language and messaging. Nonbinary activist and model Rain Dove recently launched a campaign with Hello Cup to celebrate their switch from gendered to gender neutral branding. “Taking the label ‘for women’ off of menstrual products doesn’t take away from girlhood or femininity,” they explained, “but now everyone who needs them can shop without fear, shame, or stigma.”
Dove added they’re aware it’s an incredibly bold move for a menstrual company—yet, to younger consumers it might seem more obvious. As the role that brands play in our lives seems to become more and more important, a new generation of shoppers are demanding more from a new generation of companies.
Photo via ITG