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Menstruation and modern materials

Published: 7 May 2020

Find out how different materials—ancient and modern—have been used in menstrual care, and what the future of sustainable periods might look like.

Period care in antiquity

There are very few records of menstruation from the past, so it’s quite difficult to tell what people used before the advent of plastic applicators and disposable adhesive pads.

There is also a long-standing taboo around menstruation which has persisted, despite being nonsense. For example, Pliny the Elder suggested in his work Natural History, published in 77 AD, that:

Contact with it (menstrual blood) turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, [...] hives of bees die.

Pliny the Elder

Drawing of Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard (1862–1919)


Most early sources were written by men and the majority didn't deem menstruation worthy enough to document.

But there are occasional clues. For example, in the 4th century, Hypatia (the first female mathematician) is said to have thrown a used menstrual cloth at a man in an effort to get him to go away.

This not only tells us that Hypatia could stand up for herself, but also that people in the Roman period most likely used pieces of cloth to soak up menstrual blood. 

Both women and men wore the subligaculum in ancient Rome, which was essentially a loin cloth.

Presumably, a small piece of cloth could easily be placed between the legs to soak up blood, but it’s also likely they might just have bled onto their clothes. 

The arrival of modern period products

The use of cloths and free bleeding were quite universal ways to deal with menstruation around the world, and these remained the main methods of period care for thousands of years.

It was only in the Victorian era that menstrual products started to become more available—and in comparison to the Romans, we're now overflowing with new products.

Two sanitary napkins from the late 19th century
Science Museum Group More information about Two sanitary napkins from the late 19th century
Packet containing a single Southalls sanitary towel, for supply by vending machine, 1945–1965
Science Museum Group More information about Packet containing a single Southalls sanitary towel, for supply by vending machine, 1945–1965
Advertising image for a sanitary belt, c.1930s

Towards the end of the 19th century, we start to see the introduction of the sanitary belt. Used between the 1890s and 1970s, these belts played an extraordinarily large role in menstrual care in the 20th century and were the precursor to the disposable menstrual pads which came to prominence in the 1980s.

The belts are essentially a waistband of elastic that would sit on a person’s waist with two clips attached, one at the front and one at the back.

A towel would be attached via the clips in order to pass from front to back and would soak up the menstrual blood.

These belts were the main option up until the 1970s, yet they're largely forgotten today.

Tampons—or similar solutions—also have a longer history than you might expect, but modern tampons as we would recognise them today weren't invented until the late 1920s and early 1930s. One suggested origin for the idea of using cotton in this way is that nurses in the First World War realised the wadding used in soldiers' wounds would also be good for soaking up menstrual blood.

What are modern menstrual products made from?

The variety of products we now have available to us has thankfully progressed quite a bit from Roman times and encompasses a wide range, from tampons to menstrual cups. 

Many of the tampons and pads available today have one common key ingredient: cotton.

Organic cotton is generally better for the environment as it’s grown on farms that focus on traditional as well as contemporary growing methods that do not use toxic chemicals. This is beneficial to animal life as well as the natural ecosystem.

Fluffly white balls of cotton on a plant India Water Portal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Image source for Fluffly white balls of cotton on a plant
Organic cotton growing on a farm in India

There are often discussions in the media about which type of cotton is better, and comparing the risk of toxic shock syndrome from organic and regular tampons.

It’s important to remember that there are health and safety guidelines in place to protect us from nasty side effects. But menstruation is typically seen as a female ‘problem’ and is underfunded in medical research—so there may be issues with the standard of these guidelines in the first place.

We might also assume that tampons and pads are all made from cotton, organic or not, but the other major ingredient in menstrual products is plastic.

When testing has been done on certain examples, chemical agencies have reported finding various hazardous chemicals. They advise that these chemicals are low in concentration and therefore don't pose a risk, but here too we might raise questions about how standards are set.

And in addition to potential health concerns, keeping plastic out of landfill and the ocean is extremely important for our environment.

Environmentally friendly period products

Menstrual cups have seen a resurgence in the past few years, but they have a longer history than you might think. The first cup was patented by Leona Chalmers in 1937 and was made of rubber.

Modern cups are made from medical grade silicone. Instead of absorbing blood and then sitting in the vagina for a few hours like tampons do, cups collect the blood in a bell-shaped vestibule which can then be emptied, washed and re-inserted.

The economic value of using a cup is one of the reasons they have become so popular. Many cups retail at around the £20 mark but can be used for up to 10 years, saving an extraordinary amount of money over a lifetime.

Menstrual cups are incredibly good for our bank accounts, but they are also brilliant for the environment. Reusing products like cups—as well as other alternatives like washable period pants and pads—massively reduces the amount of waste going to landfill, which can be on average 11,400 individual period products over a person’s lifetime.

Colourful cloth menstrual pads Science Museum Group Collection
Reusable menstrual pads made by Rovtop, first available May 2018

The question of how to have a more sustainable period is a difficult one. We already have many social laws governing our bodies and uteruses, and it's important to use whatever products you feel most comfortable with.

But it's encouraging that more ecological, sustainable and body-friendly options are becoming increasingly mainstream and accessible.

Because menstruation has been a taboo subject for so long, starting discussions about periods and the products we use is important. Knowing more about what those products are made of is a step in the right direction towards both menstrual equality and environmental sustainability. 

Find out more

Online 

Books

  • Sharon Golub, Lifting the Curse of Menstruation: A Feminist Appraisal of the Influence of Menstruation on Women's Lives, 2017 

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