Considering half of the people on Earth are female, and women have some 450 periods during their lifetime, it's astounding how little innovation there's been in menstrual products — just three major ones in the last 200 years (the pad, the tampon and the menstrual cup). Now, that finally may be changing, as there has been a flurry of new menstrual products and innovations in the last few years.
Two of the more popular ones are reusable: washable pads and period panties. One prominent period-underwear company is Thinx, born in 2010. Thinx's thongs, boy shorts and panties contain an absorbent layer that supposedly can hold up to five teaspoons' worth of liquid, or about two tampons' worth. These panties can be worn alone or with a pad or tampon. Several other companies make period underwear as well and it is usually only available at their websites.
Reusable pads — an economical and environmentally friendly option — are manufactured by companies such as Lunapads and New Moon Pads, and also sold via sites such as Etsy. These cotton pads can be washed and reworn many times. They seem like a throwback to the early 20th century when women pinned baby diaper cloth (called "bird's eye") to their underwear and washed them out for reuse.
For much of history, women used whatever absorbent materials were at hand to sop up menstrual blood: grass, paper or cloth. True innovations in the field began in 1888, when the first disposable sanitary pad was unveiled, followed by the first commercial tampon in the 1930s. In the 1970s, adhesive sanitary pads hit the market, negating the use of a belt to hold the pad in place.
Then came the menstrual cup, which is inserted into the vaginal canal, where it collects menstrual blood. At least twice a day it needs to be emptied, washed and reinserted. Patents on crude versions were taken out as early as the 1860s. One menstrual cup did reach the market in the 1950s, but it was pulled after just a few years. Women didn't like having to clean it, and it wasn't that comfortable to wear. A latex rubber menstrual cup called "The Keeper" did debut in 1987 and is still around, but is not a good idea for women with latex allergies.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century and cups fashioned from soft, medical-grade silicone arrived, coinciding with a change in attitudes about the use of such a device. Slowly, menstrual cups have been gaining traction (CVS started stocking the DivaCup last June and told NPR that sales have been growing at double digits). A riff on this product is the Looncup, billed as the world's first smart menstrual cup and currently available for preorder. The Looncup tracks fluid volume and color and analyzes your cycle via a sensor that connects to your smartphone.
But today's innovators are thinking far beyond merely the creation of a better tampon or pad. One pair of researchers is working on a diagnostic test to detect endometriosis that can be performed on a used tampon. Similarly, a small study showed promise for the detection of ovarian cancer through the same means. And over at the University of Washington, scientists recently created a dissolving tampon-like device to help protect women against HIV. The "tampon," infused with HIV-killing microbicides, is inserted into the vagina shortly before intercourse, then dissolves within about six minutes, leaving behind its potent virus-killers.
Now that attention is finally being focused on menstrual products and related issues, who knows what the future holds? Most women would be happy with a menstrual product that contains a no-leak guarantee. It doesn't seem like too much to ask.