Alex Friedman and Jordana Kier were classmates at Dartmouth when they bonded over an unusual thing: They found tampon shopping not only a nuisance, but also confusing.
"We couldn't figure out what were in the tampons we were getting off of the shelf," Friedman said, noting that chemical additives and dyes are listed ingredients in traditional tampons.
Dissatisfied with the options available to them, the pair took matters into their own hands: "We decided to create our own brand... to make a product we want to be using."
Their company, LOLA, is a subscription service for tampons that are 100 percent cotton, hypoallergenic, biodegradable and BPA-free. And they're not alone: The Honest Company has a subscription service that can include organic tampons and pads, and a similar startup, Cora, launched in 2014. These companies are responding to a growing trend among young women to think more critically about what's in their menstrual products.
The success of organic, plastic-free and eco-friendly products, including multi-use devices like the Diva Cup and Lily Cup, demonstrates a huge shift in consumer wants and needs, according to gynecologist Taraneh Shirazian of NYU Langone. This isn't surprising, she said, considering how much young people care about the impact of their consumption -- from where their food is sourced to the ethics of fast fashion. By contrast, previous generations of consumers focused more on the convenience factor.
"Three or four decades ago, women fought to really have a lot of products at their disposal that were easy to use, convenient, and could be thrown out," Shirazian said, adding that when it comes to both menstrual products and things like birth control, now "the trend seems to be going towards more eco-friendly, natural and hormone-free."
Indeed, the growing use of non-hormonal methods of contraception, such as IUDs and even -- distressingly -- the pullout method, indicate a desire to go chemical-free. According to Shirazian, diaphragms are also making a comeback. In fact, the first new diaphragm since the 1960s came on the market this year. The same desire is now altering the landscape of menstrual products.
Julia Wells, a 28-year-old holistic health coach, just switched to LOLA and said she feels embarrassed for only recently considering what might be in tampons, despite her long-time personal focus on eating only high quality food and using all natural health and beauty products.
"In terms of switching over [to organic tampons], it's mostly that I feel better knowing that I'm using a natural product inside my body," she said.
Entering the mainstream
There have long been organic menstrual products on the market, but they've typically been relegated to shelves at health food stores, rather than the corner CVS. Natracare, for example, has provided organic cotton plastic-free tampons and compostable pads for 25 years. And the Keeper cup, a reusable plastic menstrual cup, has been around since 1987. But now the options are growing and they're more readily available online and even traditional store shelves. Supermarket favorite Seventh Generation is getting in the organic tampon market, and the small, but growing community of menstrual cup users are making their presence known.
"On Kickstarter, [the Lily Cup] raised over $200,000 with a goal of something like $25,000," noted Shirazian. According to menstrual cup users, these items also help women who experience discomfort with traditional pads and tampons.
Angela Vitello, 25, has used the Diva Cup for about four years. "I started originally because I was interested in the idea that they were healthier for you TSS-wise," she said, referring to toxic shock syndrome, a mix of potentially fatal bacterial infections often stemming from the use of superabsorbent tampons. She also had general concerns with putting bleached cotton in her body.
Should women be worried about traditional tampons?
In April, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who is not a doctor, suggested that harmful chemicals like dioxin lurked in tampons, and this could be troubling for women's health. She said that tampons and other products like menstrual cups aren't properly monitored by the FDA. Maloney and her supporters also pointed to fact that only very limited research is available into the possible side effects, and there has been no study of long-term use of tampons as they're mass produced today.
But it turns out Maloney's comments are more indicative of a skeptical consumer base than supported by medical opinion. According to Dr. Alyssa Dweck, an OB-GYN and co-author of V Is For Vagina, women don't need to be too alarmed.
"Run-of-the-mill tampons are not bad at all," she said, adding that if anything, "some women are just particularly sensitive to fragranced tampons and certain combinations of other ingredients." (And in case you were wondering, yes, fragranced tampons unfortunately exist.)
TSS can still be an issue, so Dweck explained that women should follow normal precautions, like never using a single tampon for longer than 8 hours and picking sizes that are the most appropriate for personal flows. As for dioxon, an environmental pollutant, the FDA does actually regulate its use in tampons. According to the World Health Organization, you're more likely to encounter dioxin in food than in hygiene products: "90 percent of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish," read a WHO report.
Before launching LOLA, Kier and Friedman conducted market research and found that women are interested in talking openly about issues like periods and reproductive health -- something they hoped to further facilitate.
"We want to make it so that women do feel more comfortable talking about periods and feel more empowered about the choices they make and the products that they use," Kier said
"This is a normal part of reproductive life, to get your period, and I think that has to be focused on," agreed Dweck. "I think it should almost be looked at like a sign of healthfulness and fertility rather than a dirty situation."
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