Using a tampon has long required a menstruator to fit themselves into one of very few boxes (light, regular, or super). But menstruators are not a homogenous bunch. They have diverse anatomies, purchasing values, and identities, and now, the tampon landscape is changing to reflect that reality. New tampon brands are reimagining the old standard so that it feels, looks, and works better for its users and for the environment, too. In 2023, we’ll toss the one-size-fits-all tampon and insert something fresh in its place.
The menstrual tampon has seen only small, gradual changes since Tampax patented the “modern tampon” design—a familiar-looking bullet of compressed cotton with a string in the middle, inserted with a cardboard tube—in the 1930s. According to historian Sharra Vostral, PhD, history professor at Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology and Toxic Shock: A Social History, you can blame stigma and sexism for this stymied progress. “Up until now, we’ve seen the wholesale dismissal of the vulva, vagina, and cervix—the active not-knowing about this physiology and anatomy—by the medical profession, and the very active cultural dismissal of it, too,” she says. (Case in point: In her book Under Wraps, Dr. Vostral writes that “in order to perfect the size of the cotton plug, [the male physician who invented the tampon] felt no compunction to measure the cervix or vagina because he had ‘seen so damn many of them’ that he felt he got the gist.”)
In recent years, however, the period-positivity movement—pushed forward by honest depictions of periods in product advertisements and a social-media celebration of the period—has brought more attention to the realities of menstruation. “[There’s] a rising tide of people who are demanding more for menstruators,” says Hannah Samano, creator of Unfabled, an online eco-friendly menstrual-care marketplace that launched in 2021.
Indeed, tampon innovations, starting with the advent of organic-cotton tampons, are propelling the tampon industry to new heights: The global tampon market is expected to be worth over $6 billion by 2028, growing by over 5 percent annually, according to market researcher The Brainy Insights. And the global organic tampon market specifically is poised to grow by over $300 million by 2026. Organic-tampon pioneers LOLA (launched in 2014) and Cora (2016) both report significant year-over-year growth since their initial releases, with sales spiking more than 30 percent in 2022 alone. The Honey Pot Company, which launched its own organic tampons in 2018, also tells us that sales of these products doubled in 2022.
Now building on this success are a slate of new eco-friendly tampon brands, adding sustainable options to a space overflowing with waste. The average American tampon user is estimated to use, in their lifetime, anywhere from 11,000 to 16,000 tampons, which are traditionally rife with plastic components that can take up to 500 years to break down in a landfill. And while reusable menstrual cups, discs, and underwear can certainly help solve this problem, it’s estimated that 70 to 86 percent of menstruators in the U.S. choose to manage their periods with tampons, creating a substantial market for eco-focused improvements within tampons themselves.
Largely, that’s resulted in innovations of the applicator, the primary source of plastic in tampons. A wave of plant-based versions has recently hit the market: In 2020, organic period-care company TOP launched tampons with sugarcane-based applicators while UK-based FLO’s organic-cotton tampons with sugarcane-based applicators became available in the U.S.; since then, the latter has quadrupled its sales, having launched this year in 3,600 additional U.S. stores. In 2021, Viv also launched organic-cotton tampons with sugarcane-based applicators, as well as pads made with bamboo and corn fiber. Having clocked 100 percent quarter-over-quarter growth in sales since the first quarter of 2022, the brand will also launch additional absorbencies and box-count sizes next year, while growing its retail presence.
Some companies are ditching single-use plastic in exchange for reusable applicators. In 2019, Dame launched its medical-grade reusable tampon applicator, and this fall, began crowdfunding for a $1.2 million seed round, which it’ll use in 2023 to make product improvements and launch period underwear. And in 2022, Every Cycle launched its reusable tampon applicator, along with organic-cotton (applicator-free) tampons to use with it, all packaged in biodegradable wrappers.
In the future, eco-friendly tampon innovation will move even a step beyond the organic and plastic-free options currently available. This year, Germany-based Vyld began beta-testing for a seaweed-based tampon called a “Kelpon,” which would not only be biodegrade on land and in water, but may also better support the health of the vaginal microbiome than conventional tampons. This fall, the company began a crowdfunding campaign for the next phase of development, with plans to launch in 2023.
Co-founder and CEO, Sequel
“There [are] so many period solutions out there—period underwear, discs, cups—yet people we interviewed were still unhappy. And to our surprise, we learned that [most people] still prefer tampons. We knew we had a unique opportunity to re-engineer the first-choice product and create a product experience that actually lives up to the high standards consumers should have—things like performance, comfort, transparency into supply chain, ingredients, and sustainability.”
Other brands, meanwhile, are focusing on design innovations that improve the feel, fit, and function of a tampon inside a vagina. “We all have personal preferences, from the way the insertion feels, to the shape and size that suits our body best,” says gynecologist Melisa Holmes, MD, FACOG, cofounder of The Period Education Project. “Having more options increases every menstruator’s ability to find a product they like and can use confidently.”
Simone Godbout, co-founder of Marlow, was inspired to create the brand’s flagship product—a tampon that comes with a lubricant dip to make insertion smoother—after being told by her gynecologist that she should spit on her tampon in order to reduce the pain she felt while inserting it. “This suggestion blew us away and demonstrated how little innovation has been done in this space,” says co-founder Harit Sohal.
While inserting a classic tampon is not necessarily painful for every menstruator or upon every insertion, it certainly can be for folks experiencing a lighter flow, as well as first-time menstruators and those with vaginal dryness, vaginismus, or pelvic-floor conditions, says Sohal. And to be clear, this set of menstruators and circumstances is far from niche: A TikTok from Marlow about tampon-insertion pain went viral this year with over 8 million views, 1.2 million likes, and thousands of comments from individuals who also experience this pain. (Anywhere from 5 to 17 percent of people in the U.S. with a vagina are estimated to have vaginismus, and a quarter have a pelvic-floor condition.)
Hearing similar concerns regarding insertion pain from period-care brand August’s community of menstruators, co-founder Nadya Okamoto designed the tip of the brand’s tampon applicators to be smoother and rounder than that of a traditional tampon, “to prevent the discomfort of the tip pinching vulva lips,” she says. (August is also committed to sustainability: The brand invests in carbon offsets to bring emissions to net zero.) Also innovating a tampon to tackle pain is Daye, which launched in 2019 with a tampon coated with CBD oil to help soothe period cramps. (Though there aren’t yet studies beyond ones conducted by Daye to show that this works, research points to the anti-inflammatory effect of CBD in the body and its use in a tampon is considered low risk.) In 2022, the company also created a flushable tampon wrapper that dissolves in water and raised a Series A round of $11.5 million, which it’ll use to launch an at-home vaginal microbiome screening kit that uses a swab inserted like a tampon.
Freeing menstruation from the dark cloud of stigma sheds new light on opportunities not just for improving the experience of menstruating but also increasing access to basic menstrual resources for the millions of people who struggle to afford them.
Aside from discomfort, leakage is another issue tampon-users have long faced. In the past, brands like Callaly and Moons have addressed this by combining tampons and liners, either into a single product (the “Tampliner” from Callaly) or by packaging them together (Duets from Moons). But to former college athletes Amanda Calabrese and Greta Meyer, both of whom have dealt with tampon leakage, the solution seemed to lie in the design of the tampon itself. The women, Well+Good 2023 Trends Advisors, are now utilizing their engineering degrees and $5 million of funding raised in 2021 to launch Sequel, a brand that reimagines the tampon’s shape as a spiral to avoid what they call the “red line effect.”
“This is what happens when you take out your tampon because it leaked, but what you see is a mostly white tampon with one red line down the side,” says Meyer. By contrast, Sequel’s tampon is made to “absorb period blood evenly from top to bottom,” she says, drawing it up helically to prevent leakage. She anticipates receiving FDA approval and launching the Sequel tampon to market in the first half of 2023.
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Freeing menstruation from the dark cloud of stigma sheds new light on opportunities not just for improving the experience of menstruating but also increasing access to basic menstrual resources for the millions of people who struggle to afford them. In turn, 2023 will also bring programs that expand the availability of the tampon. Several are already underway: This fall, CVS lowered the retail price of CVS-branded menstrual products (including tampons) by 25 percent and began covering the “tampon tax” in 12 states where sales tax for “nonessential products” applies to tampons, while menstrual-care brand Rael partnered with IPSY to donate 10,000 period packs filled with tampons and pads to menstrual advocacy nonprofit PERIOD. Rael also recently partnered with SOS, a network of smart vending machines dispensing wellness essentials in public areas, to give away 200,000 tampons and pads throughout 2023.
“These changes may be popping up in different ways across the tampon industry,” says Dr. Vostral, “but it’s all part of a broader challenge to shame and a rejection of centuries-old prejudice.” ✙
Photography by Tim Gibson, Art Direction by Jenna Gibson for Well+Good
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