Tampons are a very popular choice of sanitary product. It's hard to track down exact numbers, but consumer reports predict the global tampon market to be worth $2.58 billion this year. It is an extraordinarily simple technology but it has its down sides (tampons can leak, they're relatively expensive, and sometimes they even get stuck). This got me wondering, considering half the people on the planet will go through as many as 16,800 of these bad boys in their lifetimes...why haven't we come up with anything more advanced than tampons?
We have drone boats that suck up oil spills, couldn't we come up with some nano "woombas" to suck up a couple of ounces of blood every month? In almost 80 years, the best option we've developed is to shove some cotton up there.
If you don't have a vagina, or just don't quite remember what a tampon is, here's a quick health lesson for you: a tampon is a dense cotton plug with a string attached. It's inserted into the vagina, either using an applicator (which functions like a little plunger) or by hand, where it soaks up the menstrual blood. It is removed by tugging on the string. And no, a woman can't feel it when it's in there.
There's evidence that tampons in some form or another existed in the ancient world, but the tampon as we know it today didn't come on the scene until 1936, when Tampax put the first commercial version on the market. Tampons had been used as a way to administer vaginal medication, but not as a menstrual product. This was a new frontier.
But they weren't an easy sell. It was the 30s, and this was a product designed to be placed internally, rather than externally, like the pads women were wearing at the time. There were concerns about the safety, the efficacy, and naturally, whether or not this would affect a young, unmarried woman's virginity, according to Lara Freidenfelds, reproductive health historian and the author of The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America.
"It took doctors who worked hard to tell everyone that tampons were smaller than the vaginal opening, even in a teenager, and therefore were not going to harm their virginity," Freidenfelds told me. "In the 1940s, Consumer Reports actually came out with an article saying 'yes, tampons are safe for virgins to use.'" Because a woman's comfort was not nearly as important as her future husband's knowledge that his dick was the only thing that had ever been inside of her, but I digress.
Still tampons didn't really pick up steam until women had a real good reason to switch: fashion. As skirts became shorter, thinner, and tighter, and bathing suits (and eventually, bikinis) finally came on the scene, the bulky, belted, diaper-like pads women had worn suddenly seemed really impractical, Freidenfelds said. Women started to take to the tampon, and never looked back.
Over the ensuing decades, women still used pads, and would alternate or sometimes combine the two options. Pads really made a comeback when the belt was eliminated and the stick-on pad invented in the 70s. In the 80s, with the invention of the "wings" (they wrap around the crotch of the underwear), pads were really able to compete with tampons.
But not a lot has happened in the world of sanitary protection technology since. There have been alternatives that have tried to break into the market over the years, without much success. The most obvious example is the menstrual cup. It's just what it sounds like: a cup that is inserted into the vagina, collects menstrual blood, and is emptied out. They're reusable (some for up to ten years) but that's part of the reason why they haven't taken off, according to Freidenfelds.
"You don't throw away a lot of stuff, but it also means you don't buy a lot of stuff, so who has the incentive to develop it and market it and make sure it's in all the stores and advertise it?" she told me. "The companies that make pads and tampons have a good reason to get you to buy them every month and the companies that make the cups don't have the same budget."
Cups are also a little tricky to use, and if you insert or remove it incorrectly, you can end up with a really big mess. You also have to rinse them out, which could be a little awkward in a public restroom. That makes them hard enough to switch to, and especially intimidating for a young girl going through puberty and choosing a product for the first time.
Other options have cropped up throughout the years, too, like diaphragms (which are kind of like cups but are usually used for contraception), sponges (just, yeah, it's a sponge), and reusable cloth pads, but none of them have been able to top the comfort and convenience of the tampon.
The thing is, the companies who would be the ones to develop new advancements in menstrual technology really have no incentive to replace the status quo.
"What's happened is instead of genuine advancements in terms of new products, the industry has put its research efforts into just beefing up the existing products and creating a need for additional products," said Karen Houppert, a writer and author of The Curse, a book about the sanitary protection industry. "It's an effort to repackage the old as new and continue to alarm women about the prospect of anyone knowing that they bleed. That's their stock and trade."
In fact, rather than advancements in robotic blood collection, the biggest threat to the tampon industry may be the end of the period altogether. New contraceptive options like birth control pills that only give you four periods a year and hormonal IUDs that eliminate menstruation altogether are gaining in popularity. While still a small part of the market, the use of long-lasting, period-reducing contraceptives doubled over a five-year period from 2011-2013.
But Houppert isn't convinced Big Tampon has anything to worry about.
"Most women, by the time you're in your 20s, are pretty used to getting their period," Houppert said. For many women, their period is a way of getting a monthly "check-in" on their bodies, she said. It's a signal that a woman isn't pregnant, that she's healthy, that things are functioning the way they naturally do.
"We're all aware when something is off through that. It's a casual check in that women do with their bodies consciously or unconsciously," Houppert said.
The good news is women do have lots of options, and it just so happens that lots of women decide the tampon is the best one for them. If a new product is able to top the tampon, it will have a big battle on its hands trying to compete with a billion-dollar established industry, but as the tampon proved so many decades ago, if it's better, women will buy it.
I, however, am holding out for that nano vacuum-bot.