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The Future of Periods Will Be High-Tech, Messy, and Might Involve Jellyfish

In the future, there could be computerized tampons that tell you when to change them, dissolvable tampons that can release HIV-prevention medication, and tampons that even detect ovarian cancer.

Tori Telfer

An embroidered uterus. Photo via Flickr user Hey Paul Studios

Women have been menstruating for, like, ever. Despite this, there have only been four imperfect products to staunch our collective oceans of menstrual blood: pads, tampons, menstrual cups, and period-proof underwear. All have their pros, whether it's convenience, eco-consciousness, or the ability to be worn for 12 hours straight. But let's not sugar-coat the industry. There is no perfect period product. Pads are bulky, underwear leak, many tampons are scarily synthetic, and menstrual cups have an ick factor that we just can't scrub away.

Sure, people are occasionally throwing money at the problem. A 2001 patent for a tampon applicator with a lubricated tip seems promising, until you realize that lubricated tampon applicators came and went in the 70s. Is there nothing new under the bloody sun?

The period is having a bit of a "moment" these days, whether it's a history of tampons in The Atlantic or a controversy over visible menstrual blood on Instagram. Are we entering a new era where period technology catches up to the rest of the world? Where tampons grow sensors that tell us when to change them; where scientists take a closer look at nature's most absorbent materials; where billions of dollars are funneled into finding the perfect alternative to the pad? Or will feminine hygiene remain in the dark ages for decades to come?

The future of your period could come in many forms. Here are some of them.

The Diva Cup. Photo via Flickr user menstruationstasse

A World Where Menstrual Cups Are the Norm

Reusable menstrual cups have been struggling with one big PR issue for a couple of decades now: People think they're gross. A woman who uses a menstrual cup will engage directly with her blood—like, she'll have to dump it out of the cup and into the toilet. She'll also have to touch herself to insert the cup, which is something that the original tampon applicator was actually designed to prevent. This idea of grossness is such a thing in the menstrual cup biz that the DivaCup, the best-selling reusable menstrual cup in North America, even includes a section on their website under Frequently Asked Questions called "The 'Ick' Factor."

The first patented menstrual cup came around in the 1930s, at the same time as the first commercial tampon. Unlike the tampon, though, the menstrual cup was patented by a woman, who appeared in advertisements claiming she had "found the solution to a problem as old as Eve." It was mailed out in plain packaging and given coy, diminutive names, like the Tassette, the Foldene, and the Daintette (manufactured by The Dainty Maid, Inc.). It did not sell well at all. Even a very diffident billboard—featuring a flower and a few drops of water (get it?)—was slammed for being "in bad taste."

Today's menstrual cups are much more popular than those early models. Most are made of soft, medical-grade silicone, and sometimes they're even sold alongside sex toys, giving the whole industry a feel that's more sensual-woman-in-charge-of-her-flow and less medieval-torture-device. There are even innovations happening in the field, and the field seems happy to accommodate them: Last fall, a Kickstarter for the first-ever collapsible menstrual cup earned more than 4,000 percent of its goal funds.

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The ladies who work at Diva International, which launched the DivaCup in 2003, believe that the menstrual tides are changing. "What may have started out as an eco-friendly niche product ten years ago is now becoming mainstream," says Daniela Masaro, the company's brand marketing manager.

Sophie Zivku, their communications and education manager, agrees. "The reusables industry is growing in double digits every year, which is insane," she says. "We're sold at CVS, at Whole Foods." They couldn't provide specific numbers, but over the past year, they've seen a 50 percent increase in questions, testimonials, and other inquiries coming from their customers. The cup is also being used in both the medical market, where nurses are learning about menstrual cup usage, as well as the educational one, where Sophie fields inquiries from junior high teachers hoping to add DivaCup to their sex ed classes. "I would argue that [menstrual cups] are common," she says. "They're no longer this revolution."

A world where everyone uses menstrual cups would be a world where women treat their cycles with familiarity, not fear. "We're seeing a shift in mindset," says Sophie. "We're seeing consumers become more opinionated and aware about their menstrual health in general because of the cup. A woman realizes, I had no idea what's going on with my cycle and because of this [cup] I now do."

She says that even men are joining the conversation, "which never happened ten years ago." They call in and ask her what's best for their daughters, girlfriends, and wives. And then there's the ecological factor to consider—no more throwing away thousands of tampons in a lifetime! The whole thing smacks of utopia, but why not?

A World Where We All Use Organic, 100 Percent Cotton Tampons

Dr. Philip Tierno has been quoted in almost every article about tampons and Toxic Shock Syndrome on the internet, and for good reason: He's been researching the two for decades. He's still one of the only (expert) voices openly connecting the synthetic ingredients in tampons—particularly viscose rayon—to TSS, but he's insistent about the link between the two. In a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases in Obstetrics and Gynecology, he found that all-cotton tampons did not produce the TSS toxin from Staphylococcus aureus bacteria and concluded that they "lower the risk for tampon-associated TSS." For many, that's more than enough reason to buy the slightly more expensive hippie stuff.

But big tampon brands—who aren't required to disclose the ingredients present in their tampons, since they're classified as "medical devices"—take care to stock their FAQ sections with reassurances about the safety of synthetics, presenting studies that totally contradict Tierno's. From the FAQ section of U by Kotex: "These studies refute the notion that all-cotton tampons are safer than tampons containing rayon." So perhaps it's not surprising that indie organic cotton tampon manufacturers are still getting the side-eye from the general public.

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Take Rebecca Alvandi, the "Chief Flow Rider" of Maxim Hygiene Products, seller of organic, chlorine free, hypoallergenic, biodegradable, 100 percent cotton tampons. Her father founded the company eight years ago, and Rebecca, a staunch feminist, soon hopped on board. There wasn't much of a demand for organic tampons at the time, she says—Maxim was the first US brand with a full range of 100 percent cotton tampons and pads. And people thought they were crazy.

"Eight years ago, my dad and I presented our line to some mass market retail store giants that looked at us like we had two heads," says Rebecca. "Those same retailers are now developing and stocking their own private label brand copies of our Maxim brand! Now we just have to get Congress to stop looking at us like we have two heads."

Rebecca says that she's witnessed more dialogue about menstruation and feminine hygiene products during the last six months than she has during the rest of her time in the industry. She sees organic cotton tampons and pads as a grassroots movement that is finally coming to fruition. "The feminine hygiene industry in the US alone is a multi-billion dollar industry. Organic cotton tampon sales in the US hover well below that in the double-digit millions," she says. "But the momentum is building for all that has yet to come." Today, Maxim Hygiene is joined by brands like Seventh Generation, Natracare, and Dr. Mercola.

The irony is that while organic cotton tampons may be a growing trend now, they're really more of a throwback. The first commercial tampon was made of cotton, inspired by the cotton plugs used in surgery at the time. And while the material has changed, conventional tampons still strive for a cotton-esque look and feel. A U by Kotex tampon may be composed of 100 percent elemental chlorine-free bleached rayon with a polyethylene/polyester cover, but it's still white and fluffy.

Even though cotton tampons are more of a return than a revolution, they still have the capability to radicalize the industry—if we start buying them en masse. A global demand for 100 percent cotton organic tampons would mean that the three major tampon brands—Kotex, Playtex, and Tampax—would have to change the way they manufacturer their product, or risk being trumped by the indie brands. The numbers aren't even remotely there yet, but the idea is pretty futuristic.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A World Where the Robin Danielson Act Finally Passes

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has been fighting the impossible fight for years: pushing a menstruation-related bill in a largely male Congress. Her bill, the Robin Danielson Act, would like to "amend the Public Health Service Act to establish a program of research regarding the risks posed by the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers, chemical fragrances, and other components of feminine hygiene products."

The FDA has historically relied on data that is self-reported by feminine hygiene products manufacturers, which is obviously not the most transparent or ethical way to research tampons. The Robin Danielson act hopes to throw some independent, peer-reviewed research into the mix. Despite this seemingly reasonable request, the bill has been killed nine times before coming to a vote. Maloney says she knows why: "We have a Congress that is 80 percent male, and the safety of tampons is not something that is on the minds of most Representatives."

Maloney wants to emphasize that the Act does not make "pre-judgments about products." There will be no tampon-burning when the Robin Danielson Act passes, nor will Kotex be thrown into a fiery pit. "We're just asking the National Institutes of Health to conduct an independent review to help women make the best health decisions for themselves and hopefully inspire the industry to take a close look at the materials they use for feminine hygiene products," says Maloney. In short, it gives women the most radical thing of all: more information.

If the Robin Danielson Act passes, Maloney anticipates a shift in the feminine hygiene marketplace. "[The market] will adapt to address women's concerns," she says, "and publishing research about any health risks posed by feminine hygiene products will drive the discussion." And yes, maybe a product or two will hit the chopping block. "I think we'll begin to learn what risks are out there," says Maloney.

Photo via Flickr user gaelx

A World Where Everyone Wears Period Underwear

Identical twins Miki and Radha Agrawal, along with their friend Antonia Dunbar, came up with the idea for THINX, or "period-proof underwear," when the twins were literally washing period blood out of Radha's swimsuit bottoms. Cue two identical "there has to be a better way!" infomercial faces. But the two became hyper-aware of the real lack of innovation in the feminine hygiene industry when Miki traveled to South Africa for the World Cup in 2010. There, she met a girl who was missing a week of school because she didn't have the means to deal with her period.

"Over 100 million girls [in developing countries] are using unimaginable things to try and stop their blood," says Miki. "You look at the feminine hygiene industry—in the 1930s, the tampon was invented by a man. You're telling me that in 80 years, the tampon product hasn't changed? The last real innovation in pads was in 1969, when they put the adhesive strip at the bottom of the pad. That's crazy."

THINX is not the first period underwear on the market—"Lunapanties" are an alternative—but they're so high-tech that they certainly feel like a product of the future. Each pair has four built-in layers, designed to wick away moisture, fight bacteria with an "invisible silver treatment," absorb up to two tampons' worth of liquid, and prevent leaks, respectively. And for every pair sold, THINX sends money to Afripads, a company that provides reusable cloth pads to girls in Uganda.

Click around on the THINX site and you'll find a tiny section titled " Sound Gross?" (Why yes, yes it does.) This miniature block of text illuminates something key about the feminine hygiene industry: Women are still reluctant about the idea of sitting down and straight-up dealing with their period. This will always be the appeal of the tampon—it makes your period as invisible as possible.

Both THINX and menstrual cups use cute, sassy copy to combat their respective ick factors. "No, you don't have to change them during the day, no, they don't feel like diapers, and no, it's not like sitting in your own blood," runs the THINX website. "Boom." But by even admitting that the ick factor is there ("sitting in your own blood" is not a phrase most consumers expect to encounter online), the reusables industry is forced to start out on the defensive. For them, marketing is already an uphill battle—not just against the big commercial players, but against women themselves.

"Yes, hello? It's your period calling." Photo via Flickr user Garry Knight

A World Where Tampons Could Save Your Life

Plug the word "tampon" into Google's patent search, and the first result is a patent by one Kevin B. Larkin, filed on August 16, 2010. Larkin's " Cell Phone Based Tampon Monitoring System" dreams of inserting sensors into tampons, thus making the tampon able to communicate with the tampon-wearer's cell phone. Using this "wireless tampon signal," the tampon-wearer will receive an alert like when the first spot of blood hits the tampon, as well as subsequent alerts marking the "tampon saturation progress," "tampon leakage," the "tampon full forecast," and "tampon full." The resulting information—cycle durations, cycle regularity, cycle intensity, blood conductivity, and fertility periods—can be shared with relevant third parties, like doctors.

Larkin's tampon may not be in existence, but a March 2015 report on the tampon industry, released by Global Industry Analysts, shows that the tampon-as-medical-device is already on the minds of the biggest players in the tampon game.

The report details potential future iterations of the tampon that will do far more than just sop up blood. Some help adjust the vagina's pH, some can be used to detect ovarian cancer. One even takes the form of a dissolvable tampon that, once inserted, turns into a gel that releases HIV-prevention medication. The idea is that this tampon-like medicine can be used to protect women against otherwise unprotected sex.

There's also something in there about turning jellyfish into super absorbent tampons. The jellyfish population is booming , but jellyfish tampons? Talk about "ick factor."

None of these futuristic tampons are currently available at the grocery store, of course, but the general idea makes so much sense. Why not turn it into a proactive tool rather than just a passive sponge? I mean, it's in there anyway. It might as well do some good.

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