Aug 21, 2023

Study reveals period products aren’t as absorbent as advertised

It’s inherently clear that women find it much harder than men to have their bodies understood within the medical sphere.

Continually dismissed by male and female physicians (I speak from personal experience), the gender health gap is a prevalent issue that sees us taken less seriously by professionals, particularly in the field of female-specific illnesses such as endometriosis, perimenopause, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

But did you know that this negligence also applies to our time of the month? Despite affecting around 800 million individuals every day, periods remain grossly under-researched.

This was most recently made apparent by Stanford University, which reported that a search for ‘menstrual blood’ on the PubMed database brought up a mere 400 results from the last few decades, while a search for ‘erectile dysfunction’ had approximately 10,000.

Just how far-reaching the absence of information on such a fundamental part of so many people’s lives has only this week been truly realised, however, following an investigation into the efficacy of period products.

Conducted by Dr Bethany Samuelson Bannow at Oregon Health and Science University, it was the first study of its kind in history to test the absorption of pads and tampons using actual human blood.

The aim was to help consumers make better-informed decisions about sanitary products and to help doctors assess whether heavy menstrual bleeding could be a sign of underlying health problems, such as a bleeding disorder or fibroids, or could be causing anaemia.

Until now, manufacturers have typically used water or saline solution to estimate their product’s capacity for preventing leaks, which is problematic because menstrual blood is more viscous, and contains blood cells, vaginal secretions, and endometrial tissue which, in turn, impacts how it’s absorbed.

um? I assumed those commercials used water because they couldn’t show blood but it’s really because no one…thought to test actual blood?

— alana 🦋 (@alanaauston) August 14, 2023

For those 60 to 90 per cent of young women worldwide who suffer from dysmenorrhea (an abnormally heavy flow), this has made it unnecessarily difficult to find something that feels comfortable to use and that holds a decent amount of blood.

‘I might ask a patient, ‘what’s your period like?’ and she might say, ‘well, I soak a pad about every two hours’ – but I don’t necessarily have the time to ask what brand it is or if it’s super maxi,’ says OBGYN professor Dr Paul Blumenthal. ‘We’re sometimes operating on a very subjective basis.’

Published in the journal BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health and in an effort to demystify and destigmatise dysmenorrhea – which is measured according to how to how quickly an individual bleeds through a period product – the study compared 21 sanitary towels and tampons, as well as menstrual discs, cups, and period pants.

It found that menstrual cups have the greatest capacity for absorption (61ml on average), making their exclusion from the current measure for heavy bleeding all the more alarming.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the perineal cold pack pads – intended for postnatal bleeding – and one pair of period pants managed to hold just 1ml each.

This highlighted the inconsistency between reported and actual absorbent capacity of the products, specifically ‘that the product capacity labelling was discordant with our results,’ as concluded by the study.

‘The majority of products reported that they had greater capacity than our testing found. We suspect this is due to product testing with non-blood liquids.’

‘Further understanding of the capacity of newer menstrual products can help clinicians better quantify menstrual blood loss, offer diagnostic testing, and accurately treat heavy menstrual bleeding.’

Sofia (She/Her) – I’m the Feature Media Manager and a Senior Writer at Thred, specialising in exclusive articles and live interviews, fashion and beauty with a focus on sustainability, women’s rights, psychedelics, and Latin America. I studied Spanish at the University of Exeter and International Journalism at City, London. Follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and drop me some ideas/feedback via email.

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For the first time ever, researchers have tested the absorption of pads and tampons using actual human blood instead of water or saline solution. As it turns out, many of them are mislabelled according to their capacity for preventing leaks.TwitterLinkedInemail