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12 period products through history

For as long as humans have existed, we’ve had periods. But have you ever wondered what we used to absorb the flow before pads and tampons were invented? While today, there’s a choice of convenient and easy-to-use period products, some weird and wonderful things have been used in the past! Join us as we journey back through time and look at what's been used throughout history, and how these solutions evolved into the menstrual products we know today...

1. Papyrus

Ancient Egypt is well known for using papyrus as paper. However, it’s also thought that Ancient Egyptian women used this plant-based solution to create something similar to a tampon that could be inserted into the vagina to soak up blood. That sounds scratchy, and not very absorbent!

Papyrus wasn’t the only material the Ancient Egyptian women used to put in their vaginas… Crocodile poop was also used as an early form of birth control!

2. Pieces of cloth

Throughout history, from the Romans and Ancient Greeks, up to Victorian times, women have used small pieces of cloth between the legs to soak up period blood. It’s not the most absorbent of methods, and clothes would need to be washed and reused.

While using rags to absorb menstrual blood may seem like a historical practice, the truth is that many women and people who menstruate worldwide are doing so without proper access to period products. It’s estimated that 500 million people lack access to period products or hygiene facilities. It’s fair to say that while we’ve made progress in terms of period products, there’s still a way to go.

3. Sanitary aprons

Turning back to some methods we’ve happily left behind us, have you heard of the sanitary apron? It was invented in the Victorian era – and like so much of the attire from that time, it does not sound comfortable, or breathable! 

Composed of rubber with strips that ran between the legs, this apron prevented blood from getting onto the wearer’s skirts, or spilling out when they sat down. It might have spared the furniture from stains, but it sounds like it would be really unpleasant to wear!

4. Sanitary belts

Washable sanitary pads held in place with a belt were popular from the 1880s onwards. These had a band made of elastic that went around the waist, with a clip at the front and one at the back. You’d attach a sanitary towel to these clips to soak up the blood, although these early pads weren’t made from absorbent material – it must have been horrible for anyone with a heavy flow.

These belts remained a popular option until the 1970s when self-adhesive pads became a thing. While thankfully, the pads evolved over the years becoming more absorbent, the basic design of the belt remained the same for nearly 100 years!

5. Sanitary bloomers

Sanitary bloomers, sometimes called menstrual bloomers, were used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by those who could afford them. While they might sound fancy, they certainly don’t sound like a lot of fun.

Like sanitary aprons, these were made of rubber. The bloomers were designed to make it less obvious that women were on their period, by adding an extra layer of protection to prevent any leaks onto clothing or furniture. Like their Victorian counterpart, these methods seemed focused more on hiding periods, rather than actually being breathable, or comfortable for those wearing them.

6. Sea sponges

Next, let’s look at a more natural solution. In the late 19th century, some women used sea sponges as an absorbent alternative to washable sanitary napkins. They were easier to clean and therefore marketed as more hygienic. 

Some people still use sea sponges today as an alternative to tampons, but there have been some links to toxic shock syndrome so be sure to do your research and speak to your gynecologist before trying this method out.

7. Absorbent sanitary napkins

Disposable pads or napkins remain popular today, but they were first used by nurses who used bandages to absorb their menstrual flow. Finally, we had the makings of a method that was both absorbent and didn’t need to be re-used! 

The first commercially sold disposable sanitary pads were introduced by Johnson & Johnson in the late 1880s. They were called Lister’s Towels, were made from gauze and cotton, and were held in place with (yes you guessed it) a sanitary belt.

8. Tampons

Tampons have been around for a lot longer than you might think. The modern tampon as we know it today was invented in the early 1930s by Earle Haas, a physician who wanted to find a better solution to the rags his wife used as a period product. He came up with the cotton tampon and applicator and sold the patent and trademark in 1933 to Gertrude Tendrich, who started the Tampax company using Haas’ designs. 

Because there were still a lot of cultural, societal, and religious concerns around using tampons, pads remained the sanitary product of choice for many women until the 1960s and 70s. Medical opinion was divided on whether tampons were safe to use, and many people believed using tampons would break the hymen - this is a myth! Today tampons are one of the most popular period products available.

9. Super-absorbent tampons

In the late 1970s, Procter & Gamble created a new type of superabsorbent tampon, called Rely. It expanded widthways as well as lengthways, and was designed to be left in place for the full length of a woman’s period – indeed, they were said to be capable of absorbing nearly twenty times their own weight in fluid.

However, they were withdrawn in 1980 as several incidents of toxic shock syndrome were linked to the use of Rely tampons. But it wasn’t just Rely tampons that were causing TSS. By June 1983, more than 2,200 cases of TSS had been reported to the CDC, and more than 80% of these cases were menstruating women wearing tampons, from various different brands.

It took scientists several years to figure out the link between tampons and TSS (namely, that tampons that are left in for too long can encourage bacteria to grow, and that tampons can stick to the vaginal walls, which can cause tiny abrasions when removed). 

Guidelines around safe tampon use were updated, particularly when it comes to using super-absorbent tampons, and the number of TSS cases related to tampon use has gone down dramatically since the 1980s. To stay safe, it’s important to follow the instructions on the packet when using tampons.

10. Menstrual cups

Menstrual cups have become hugely popular in the last few years with those looking for a more environmentally-friendly alternative to pads and tampons. But did you know that these period product alternatives aren’t new? They’ve actually been around since the 1930s!

The first cup was patented by Leona Chalmers in 1937. Unlike today’s cups, which are mostly made of silicone, hers was made from rubber – however, the small but mighty menstrual cup didn’t gain popularity for many years. 

It wasn’t until the 2010s that the menstrual cup started to take off, as more of us were looking for a greener way to manage our menstrual flows. Cups are easy to wash and reuse, and since you only need to buy a cup once, it’s also a wallet-friendly period product that could end up saving you money in the long run.

11. Adhesive pads

Finally, in the early 1970s, women could wave goodbye to the sanitary belt, as sticky self-adhesive pads were invented. What a game-changer! By the1980s, this was the most popular choice, and belts were largely a thing of the past.

Today if you visit the pharmacy, you can see shelves full of adhesive pads ranging in size, absorbency level, and design. It’s safe to say the humble period pad has come a long way in the last one hundred years.

12. Period underwear

Period underwear may seem to have burst onto the scene very recently, but in fact, they’ve been around since the 1990s. They look like regular underwear, but are made from absorbent material to soak up blood, and can either be worn alone or with other products like pads, tampons, or cups for extra protection. 

Like menstrual cups, they are a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly option as they can be washed and reused over and over again. Today there are loads of choices when it comes to style and absorbency levels, including everything from thongs to full briefs. Did you know you can even get period swimwear if you’re concerned about swimming on your period

Normalizing periods

Period products have come a long way over the years – and what’s more, the discourse around them has evolved, too. We are becoming more empowered to choose the period products that are right for us, whether that’s pads, tampons, cups, or period underwear.

However, while things have progressed, there is still a stigma around periods, and period poverty is a real problem. All over the world, girls and women miss out on education or work because of the stigma around menstruation, and because they lack access to menstrual products. Menstrual Hygiene Day takes place on the 28th of May each year and aims to make menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030.

As creators of the world’s first birth control app, we’re passionate about busting myths and breaking down stigma when it comes to reproductive health. It’s so important we have access to all the options and the information to choose what’s right for us, and that’s something we’ll continue to strive for here at Natural Cycles. If you’re interested in learning more about your body while preventing pregnancy naturally, why not check out hormone-free birth control today?

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Written By

Lauren McKay

Lauren McKay is a writer and journalist with more than ten years of experience writing across a variety of topics. She is a passionate advocate for driving women’s health knowledge and is a trained yoga teacher. She earned a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and currently lives in Scotland.

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Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

Dr. Jack Pearson is a previously HCPC registered Embryologist with a PhD in reproductive medicine. Prior to joining Natural Cycles leading Medical Affairs, he worked for more than 10 years in a clinical setting working at some of the busiest fertility clinics in the UK. Today he spends most of his time working with experts at the world’s leading institutions to carry out important research with the vision to further the field of female health. He earned his PhD from the University of Sheffield specializing in Sperm Metabolism and currently lives in London.

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