Mar 11, 2024

Period products not testing human blood points to a much larger problem in India

By Saachi Gupta

I write this, fuelled by rage, as I spent the night tossing and turning, bleeding too much on my period. It has been over ten years now since I first stepped into the bathroom to find my underwear stained red, and my mother taught me how to correctly wear a pad. Still, the process hasn’t gotten any less uncomfortable: on the first two days of my period, I am barely able to get out of bed, my body bent into a question mark as I contort around my cramping stomach. On the worst of days, my sanitary napkins leak, leading to stains on my clothes and bedsheets. At best, I am still irritable, ill at ease due to the moistness of the napkins and their chafing against my skin. To find out now that no study of menstrual products ever actually used human blood, even as a multi-billion dollar industry proudly advertised their products’ absorption capabilities, feels like a slap in the face.

The first study that used human blood to test the effectiveness of menstrual products was, in fact, only published this month in the British Medical Journal’s Sexual & Reproductive Health. Prior to this, water and saline water were used as substitutes for blood: as these liquids are not nearly as viscous as menstrual blood which also contains vaginal secretions and the endometrial cells of the uterine wall, it is unsurprising that the absorbency of menstrual products has largely been overestimated. This may also be the reason why it is so easy to bleed through supposedly high-absorbency products.

To understand the absorption capabilities of period products, the current study conducted two trials: the first used O+ blood that had expired 33 days ago, and the second reused this same unit of blood 58 days post expiry. The results showed that menstrual discs are better equipped to handle heavy menstrual flow than both pads and tampons.

The limited research surrounding menstruation is no surprise: it points towards a larger trend of women’s health continually being ignored in medical science, leading to data gaps and a concerning lack of information. Dr Paul D Blumenthal, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Stanford University, highlighted this issue in an editorial, noting, “A PubMed search of “menstrual blood” resulted in one publication between 1941 and 1950, followed by a steady increase to and plateau of only 400 publications in the last several decades, during which time there were approximately 10,000 publications related to erectile dysfunction.” It is hard not to be furious at this neglect when there are approximately 800 million people across the world on their period right now, and we spend approximately seven years of our life menstruating.

By Prabal Sharma

By Lisa Stardust

By Sanaa Sharma

It is no secret that menstruation has always been a taboo subject, whispered about in classrooms, hidden behind brown paper bags and newspapers. This stigma surrounding periods has trickled into scientific research, causing neglect and harmful tropes. But these tropes are only reinforced by the media in their depictions of menstruation. Before 1985, the word ‘period’ had never been uttered on American television. Until I first got my period at the age of 12, I never quite understood what sanitary napkins were. Advertisements on TV only showed cheerful girls confidently playing sports in white pants: in fact, I was once in one such advertisement, kitted out in a white outfit to happily play badminton. The blue liquid showcased on sanitary napkins only added to mine and my peers’ confusion, and we often wondered what these mysterious periods entailed. Of course, the taboo surrounding menstruation is why blood was never shown in advertisements up until recently; instead, blue liquid gave period products a clinical and hygienic look, evoking images of cleaning products instead of bodily fluids. Only recently, companies for menstrual products have realised that audiences are looking for more authentic depictions of menstruation, and after the brand Always showcasing a red spot on a pad in a 2011 advertisement, Bodyform in the UK became the first to ditch the blue liquid in favour of red for a 2017 advertising campaign #bloodnormal. India, however, still had to wait three years: in 2020, a campaign by Rio pads starring Radhika Apte first showed drops of red blood dripping out of a red balloon.

In many ways, menstruation is still considered toxic and impure, in line with age-old beliefs that prevented girls from entering temples or kitchens while bleeding, or even relegated them to confinement in single rooms or separate huts. This disgust surrounding menstruation means that women’s health is pushed to the sidelines and disregarded repeatedly. It is this lack of concern for menstrual health that has led to remarks like those of IAS officer Harjot Kaur Bhamra, who, in 2022, chastised a school girl for asking if they could be provided with free sanitary napkins at a cost of INR 20. Bhamra had snapped, “Today, you are asking for sanitary pads; tomorrow you will ask for condoms. You’ll suggest tomorrow that the government can also offer jeans. And why not some beautiful shoes after that? You will soon expect the government to provide you with family planning options, as well as condoms.”

The present study on menstrual products promises scientific advancement and consideration for those menstruating. Maybe there will come a time when I am able to wear a sanitary napkin comfortably through the night, and not wake to write a wrathful article on how far behind medical science is on women’s health.

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