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What will it take for period underwear to become truly mainstream?

It’s easier than ever to buy a pair of absorbent underpants to wear on your period. But these products still represent a fraction of period care purchases.

Ohne launched its period underwear in October 2021. (Photo: Ohne)
THE SUSTAINABLE PERIOD

Period care brand Ohne has a new best-selling product.

It’s not the tampons, pads or pain-soothing CBD oil that the brand has built its reputation on that has customers flocking to it at the moment. It’s a new product altogether: period underwear.

Launched in October 2021 after 18 months of development, Ohne’s period underwear is now its best-selling product among new customers (Ohne also has a recurring revenue stream selling tampons and pads via subscription). Sales of the underwear — which come in a bright orangey-red, peach, lilac and black — have been growing 50% month-on-month since launch, says cofounder Nikki Michelsen.

The launch has been so successful that Michelsen reckons this could even become the thing Ohne is best known for. “With period underwear, there’s a lot of room for expansion. We’re looking at different styles and absorbances, different use cases. We’re looking at prints and collaborations,” she says. “We definitely see period pants staying an important part of the business.”

Once a niche product, the period underwear category is showing all the signs of a near-future mass-market takeover. Market researchers are expecting the global market for period underwear will reach $279 million by 2026, up from just $67.2 million in 2017, while U.K. health and beauty retailer Boots reported in June 2021 that sales of such products were up 319% year-on-year. In February, hygiene products giant Kimberly-Clark announced that it had acquired a majority stake in Thinx, perhaps the best-known brand in this category.

And it’s not just Ohne thinking about how it can stake a claim in this market. Big retailers such as Uniqlo, Marks & Spencer, and American Eagle brand Aerie have all launched their own versions of these products, while Target stocks six different brands selling period underwear. Earlier this month, sportswear giant Puma launched a range of leak-proof sports underwear in collaboration with Modibodi, while a number of brands are experimenting with launching period swimwear. According to retail data company Edited, there were 273% more period underwear for sale in February 2022 compared to a year ago.

These products all promise the wearer that they can bleed freely without having to worry about the waste and discomfort associated with disposable products.

But while these products may be flooding the shelves — both brick and mortar and virtual — they still represent a fraction of the $19.24 billion feminine hygiene market, where pads and tampons dominate.

What’s so good about period pants?

To even get to this point, brands selling period underwear have had to do a lot of hard work to help customers to get over the "ick" factor often associated with blood-absorbing underwear.

Many brands have run into issues even getting the word out about their products — in 2015, Thinx struggled to get its advertisements approved for display on the New York City subway network, over concerns that the content (grapefruits cut in half, women in their underpants) was “inappropriate.” More recently, Modibodi had an ad showing blood pulled from Facebook (it was later reinstated).

Ruby Raut, the cofounder of Wuka, says she spent a lot of time leafleting about her product when it launched in 2017. “There were a lot of times where people would take the leaflets not knowing what it is, [see that] it’s period underwear, and literally drop the leaflet where they are standing,” she says. Attitudes have moved on since then, and Wuka’s products are now in stock in over 400 stores in the U.K.

Indeed, there are a lot of obvious pros when it comes to switching from disposable period care products to absorbent underwear. Because they don’t need to be replaced as regularly (you can expect a pair of period pants to last two years), they can help users to save money over the long term, while also reducing waste. People who menstruate typically get through 240 tampons or pads per year.

And if the period underwear companies can achieve their goal of getting customers to reach for them instead of a pad, as close to 100% of the time as possible, they could also outstrip their sibling in sustainability, the menstrual cup, in terms of sales: complete statistics are hard to come by, but one survey found that 62% of women surveyed used pads compared to 42% who use tampons (some, of course, will use both).

Bringing new period pants users onboard

People who do make the switch to using period underwear tend to take their time weighing up the pros (the sustainability angle, never having to dash to the shop on an urgent tampon run again) and cons (higher initial outlay, uncertainty over whether the product will work for them).

Price point is a commonly cited barrier for new customers. While a set of period underwear will bring savings in the long run, it’s not always enough to convince customers to hand over that first big sum of money.

On average, pad and tampon users spend $318 on these products over two years (the length of time most period pants are recommended to last); five pairs of Thinx’s best-selling hiphuggers will set you back $175.

Customers in this category largely rely on word-of-mouth recommendations before they’ll fork it over, says Cherie Hoeger, the cofounder of Saalt, a brand that launched in 2018 selling menstrual cups, and which launched period underwear in November 2020. “They’ve heard of it, they thought ‘I want to try that some day’, but they don’t pull the trigger until they’ve heard of it several times, and usually from trusted friends,” she says, describing the journey her customers usually go on before buying.

Those who do make the switch to reusable products, Hoeger adds, tend to stick around. In 2011, a Canadian study found that 91% of menstrual cup users surveyed would continue to use it and recommend it to friends.

The brands Thingtesting spoke to all said that an increased retail presence was top of mind when they consider the challenge of growing their audience, given that's where people most often purchase period products.

Hoeger's hope is for retailers to broaden their thinking when it comes to how and where reusable period products are stocked. “Retailers need to start opening up their categories,” she says, explaining that they often aren’t quite sure where to stock period pants — Saalts products have even ended up displayed next to sex toys.

Another problem can be convincing retailers to carry a number of different brands of period underwear — like they have no problem doing when it comes to pads or tampons.

Raut says she will soon no longer be able to sell with one of her retail partners, after they made the decision to try out a competitor. They weren’t keen on having two brands in the same space. “It shouldn’t just be three SKUs of reusable menstrual products and everything else is disposable,” she says. “We want to change the whole layout of the supermarket.”

That equation we did earlier also starts to look a lot better once brands build up their retail presence. Thinx’s For All range designed for Walmart comes in at $68 for five pairs — a much more reasonable amount to pay in exchange for a saving of around $250 every two years.