Tampax/Getty Images

Tampax just introduced a menstrual cup, but is that a good thing?

October 23, 2018 6:00 am

Periods are having a moment. If the sudden rise of period parties, period coaches, period art, period pants, the period equity movement, and the launch of a new period startup every time you blink (from transparency-focused organic offerings to customizable subscription boxes to reusable period underwear) over the last few years doesn’t convince you, here’s the clearest sign of all: last week, Tampax launched a menstrual cup.

The new Tampax Cup, which purports to be more comfortable than others on the market because of its shorter length and unique V shape (as opposed to the usual U shape), is the culmination of just over two years of research involving conversations with hundreds of women, multiple consumer-use and clinical tests, MRI imaging, and collaboration with a practicing female obstetrician-gynecologist.

As promising as that all sounds, it’s important to keep the context in mind. One of the largest, most popular, and most influential tampon brands in the world suddenly decided to move into this space for the first time in the company’s history, which is nothing short of a game-changer. But it’s worth unpacking the decision, considering that the Procter & Gamble-owned company’s role in our still-fraught period culture doesn’t exactly square with the menstrual cup’s grassroots history and feminist appeal.

The menstrual cup and tampons emerged as readily available consumer products at around the same time, but despite the cup’s many benefits to vagina owners—being cheaper, more sustainable, and more environmentally friendly than tampons—Tampax spearheaded America’s full-throated embrace of the tampon as the go-to modern woman’s menstrual care product, in part through period shame-based marketing, and has capitalized on it ever since.

So what changed?

“We designed the Tampax Cup because women’s, especially millennials’, period needs are evolving, and they deserved an option designed to fit their bodies more comfortably and still offer the same protection they expect from Tampax,” said Melissa Suk, global Tampax marketing director, in a statement to HelloGiggles. “We’ve always put women at the core of everything we do, and each of our products have been created, updated, or advanced based on what women tell us they want. This is why the Tampax Cup is our most recent innovation to enter a small, but fast-growing segment to reach, connect, and delight millennials.”

Of course, what women need from their period products has not changed since the 1930s; they’ve always needed reliability, safety, comfort, and affordability. What has changed, though, is their ability and willingness to demand that companies that claim to serve them actually meet their needs. Tampax, which has for so long dominated the menstrual-care space, is finally heeding that call—thanks in large part to the work of pioneering menstrual health activists.

Although it had many ancient and early ancestors, the modern tampon was pioneered by Tampax. A Denver physician named Earle Cleveland Haas invented the compressed cotton tampon and its tube-like applicator (“to ensure that the tampon could be inserted and removed without having to be touched directly,” noted Ashley Fetters in her meticulously researched history of the tampon at The Atlantic). He patented the product in 1933 after himself naming it the Tampax, a combination of the words “tampon” and “packs.” He then sold it to an intrepid businesswoman named Gertrude Tendrich the following year, who started what is today the Tampax brand. Tendrich began aggressively marketing the product in glossy print ads and drugstores. As other large menstrual-care brands took note—like Kimberly-Clark, which had already been turning Kotex into a household name—similar competitor products began appearing with fairly hefty marketing budgets behind them.

The first modern menstrual cup also began to appear on store shelves around the same time. Leona W. Chalmers applied for the patent in 1935 for a “funnel-shaped receptacle of vulcanized rubber,” reports Natalie Shure at Pacific Standard magazine. Her Tassette menstrual cup hit the market shortly after Tampax tampons, but it met an early demise in the 1940s when World War II sparked rubber shortages that abruptly cut off production. Meanwhile, as women stormed the workforce, tampons became a go-to choice in the face of long work days. By the time Chalmers’ little company got another shot in the ’60s and ’70s, tampons had already become a staple for many working women. By 1973, more than 70% of American women used tampons in their hygiene routines.

Today, 98% of American women use a combination of pads and tampons, and while pads are the more popular of the two, 70% of menstruators use tampons at least some of the time. And yet, according to some sources, just 2% to 3% of American women report using reusable products, including cups, fabric pads, and sponges.

But those sorry numbers haven’t stopped dozens of menstrual cup brands from emerging over the last several decades, including the The Keeper, DivaCup, Lunette, Lena, and many others, most of which were started by and continue to be owned and run by women. The cup has also got a bit of a cult following: Many people who try it absolutely love it, and users evangelize it with passion and delight. One study found that 91% of women who have tried the cup said they’d keeping using it and tell their friends about it, and when one of the last iterations of that early Tassette menstrual cup went out of business in the 1970s, about 20,000 women wrote “desperate letters” to the company frantically asking where their favorite menstrual product had disappeared to, Pacific Standard reports.

The menstrual cup has many benefits for people who bleed that its competitors do not: First and foremost, cups can hold up to 12 hours’ worth of blood and therefore need to be changed far less frequently than the typical tampon, which safely lasts anywhere from two to eight hours, tops. On top of that, cups are totally reusable and can last several years if properly cared for, meaning they’re much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than disposable options, which in addition to the fibers they’re made from are also packaged in several layers of plastic and paper. And cups are also the more affordable option—most cost about $20 to $40 for a cup that will last years, whereas a person might spend more than $80 each year on tampons alone.

Then there’s health and safety to consider: Menstrual cups today are usually made of just one material, a 100% medical-grade silicone that’s BPA-free. Tampon companies aren’t required to disclose all their ingredients, and some experts and studies have expressed concern about allergy-causing fragrances and possible toxic ingredients that may be lurking inside them.

Finally, there’s the autonomy and empowerment that comes with using a menstrual cup. Not only does it free menstruating people from having to constantly feed a lifelong purchasing relationship with a profits-driven corporation, but the cup also naturally guides users toward developing a deep intimacy with their bodies as they insert and remove it.

“In American society, there really isn’t a lot of conversation around body literacy, and [the culture here] is not as permissive as say Europe or as in Canada where [the cup has] been a popular option for many, many years,” she explained. “A lot of that just has to do with the puritanical undercarriage of our culture here that limits easily talking about the vagina.”

The experience of using a menstrual cup sharply contrasts with the experience of using tampons, which were developed at a time when the period was seen as dirty and embarrassing. Indeed, Tampax played a major role in popularizing the applicator, which was geared around making sure women didn’t have to directly touch their bodies or their blood. In the early 20th century, when the product was first unveiled, there was still substantial cultural anxiety around the idea of women touching themselves and experiencing orgasmic pleasure. Today, we can reflect on this bizarre past and understand this anxiety as an extension of patriarchal fear of female bodies in general and what their autonomy from men and male pleasure might mean—and we can argue about whether that fear is truly gone. But what definitely remains are two of its by-products: a dearth of comprehensive sexual education that teaches people to be comfortable with their bodies, and the tampon applicator.

In 2018, these mega tampon companies continue to cultivate the idea that periods should be kept hidden, creating entire product lines and advertising campaigns around helping women be “discreet” about their periods. The word appears all over Tampax’s current website: “Tampax Pocket Pearl offers all the protection and comfort you expect from Pearl in a discreet size.” “Comes with our quietest CleanSeal resealable wrapper for quick and easy discreet tampon disposal.” The company’s commercials throughout history have also reinforced this point. “You stand out. Your period doesn’t,” said a 2012 commercial for Tampax’s Radiant collection, which featured softer wrapping around tampons to prevent loud crinkling in a purse.

Women today are still trying to shake off the message that no one should know you’re on your period.

“For so long, these large corporations have played a role in the hush-hush shame around periods,” said Nicole Jardim, a women’s health and functional nutrition coach. “They did nothing to help destigmatize it in the last 50 years. It’s really only happened with the rise of these startup businesses that have really put a real face and real emotions and real feelings to actual periods.”

When asked about Tampax’s historical role in perpetuating a culture of period shame, Suk provided this statement to HelloGiggles:

Suk was not available to comment further on why Tampax waited until now to offer a menstrual cup.

Tampax’s entry into the menstrual cup market is a sign that mainstream attitudes toward periods are evolving. But in many ways, the reason those attitudes need to evolve at all is arguably because of the standards set by companies like Tampax. Menstrual cups have always been around as a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and chemical-free alternative to tampons, but Tampax led American culture toward enshrining tampons as the go-to menstrual care product. Menstrual cups free people with periods from having to constantly purchase products to manage their flow, but Tampax is a company that’s built on the maintenance of that purchasing cycle.

Moreover, as Jardim pointed out, Tampax’s belated entry into the menstrual cup market—now that it’s been shown to have some increased popularity—reads less like a company that earnestly cares about what’s best for women’s health and more like a corporation moving in to capitalize on the work female entrepreneurs have been doing for years.

It’s not all bad, though. Several experts in the period space said they’re not worried about the Tampax Cup and actually view it as a move in the right direction.

“There obviously is consumer demand, and it’s a really great example of what happens when we make certain choices with our purchasing power,” Cohen said. “It’s just a reminder that the more we start to purchase products that are not necessarily offered by these larger companies, they’re going to get the message and start producing them…This is the hope. The hope is we make these buying choices, and Big Box listens, and we start to see more of what we want.”

Alissa Vitti, founder of a virtual health center called FLO Living and author of WomanCode, even suggested considering Tampax’s menstrual cup launch as a “feminist win.” After all, how often does a giant, for-profit company actually bend to the demands of ethical consumers?

Furthermore, Vitti believes having the cup available from a well-known brand like Tampax may act as a gateway for menstruators who’ve never heard of or considered the cup and may introduce them to competitor brands that haven’t had the financial resources to fund extensive marketing and educational campaigns—one of the reasons why the original Tassette cup failed in the first place.

“It’s not necessarily negative to the preexisting companies in the sense that more awareness in the mainstream will drive more awareness to their brands as a whole,” Vitti explained. “Each of these menstrual cups are shaped and made in different ways [anyway]. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. Every vaginal canal is slightly different, and every woman’s bladder is placed differently in her pelvic cavity, and everybody has different lengths and sizes and shapes.”

A rising tide lifts all boats, then. That certainly rings true for at least one company: Lunette’s founder, Heli Kurjanen, sounded thrilled when we discussed the new Tampax Cup over the phone, calling it an “exciting development” that will inevitably create a larger base of cup users who she believes will eventually find their way over to her company’s products.

“I started the company in 2005, so we have been doing this for 13 years. And, basically, this is telling us that the work that we have been doing is actually valid work, and we are making a change, and menstrual cups are now coming to be a really mainstream product,” she said. “Basically, this just proves that we have been doing a good job.”

Only time will tell if any of these predictions come true. All eyes are on Tampax to see how it will choose to advertise its new menstrual cups, and whether this change might encourage other small-but-powerful changes across the period-care industry.

We already have one good example of such a change. Kimberly Rosas and Amanda Hearn, who together run the popular menstrual cup review website Put A Cup In It, shared in their review of the Tampax Cup that they personally witnessed the company’s willingness to listen and change. Rosas and Hearn called out the gender-exclusive language that appeared on the Tampax Cup package, which read, “Made by women, for women”; they noted that it ignored the many people who don’t identify as women who also menstruate and use these products. After the pair strongly suggested that Tampax remove the words “for women,” Tampax later let them know that it had taken the criticism to heart and would remove the words from future packaging.

As complicated as its history might be, Tampax’s willingness to come to the table, listen, and make changes is a move in the right direction, and one that other companies should take notice of.

“I do think this can be a really good harbinger of things to come,” Vitti said. “I hope it’s something we look back on and say there was enough groundswell on social media and with women purchasing from companies that are female-founded and maybe smaller-scale that really started to really change menstrual health care in this country.”