We've been coping with periods for as long as human females have experienced menstruation. The Egyptians used pessaries made of goose fat or elephant dung (though possibly not for period purposes), while English women of the 19th century wadded up fine wool at that time of the month (itchy). But what does the future of menstrual products look like? Will we have self-cleaning sanitary pads? Tampons that can give off Wifi? A pill that we can take to turn menstrual blood into something more useful, like money?
Not quite. But the medical establishment (and venture capitalists) have gradually been waking up to the potential of menstrual products to do everything from help dispense medicine, aid women's health, and possibly make a few bucks. The period aisle of the drug store in the future may contain everything from home-testing kits for cancer to tampon-like inserts that administer HIV medication. And some, like THINX panties, aren't even in the future: they're already here.
So no, alas, you will not likely be able to turn your period into puffs of smoke; but it is likely that, one day, your Aunt Flo may actually serve a diagnostic purpose, or at least be less annoying, through technology.
1. The Tampon That Can Diagnose Disease
The innovation in menstrual technology that's been making headlines recently is the invention of a high-flying Harvard engineer, Ridhi Tariyal, along with her business partner Stephen Gire: a tampon that provides blood and material that can be used for disease diagnosis. When you think about it, it's so simple it's astonishing nobody thought of it earlier: menstrual blood contains cell linings shed from the uterus, which can be probed for diagnosis of various types of disease, from the venereal to the treacherous (like cancer). "There’s lots of information in there,” Tariyal told the New York Times, “but right now, it’s all going in the trash.”
It's not yet clear what the future of the diagnostic tampon will hold; whether it will be specially designed to be able to "catch" certain bodily products that could hold the key to diagnoses, and whether the tests will be done at home or in a lab (or your local pharmacy). But it's a pretty cool way to waste not, want not.
2. The Tampons That Can Detect Cancer
In 2014, some researchers made a discovery that may go on to save lives. They tested the tampons of ovarian cancer patients, and found that almost 60 percent of the tampons showed tumor DNA. But the study was very small and seriously limited, and only used ordinary tampons. Still, it's a pretty amazing step, and here's why.
The scientists were only testing 33 women, and of those, only eight had sufficiently advanced cancer for the tumor DNA in the vagina to be likely. And of those eight, three had their fallopian tubes tied, meaning there was no way for any DNA to move from the ovaries to the vagina. So the test ultimately only involved five women, and three of them showed the particular DNA, a cell mutation called TP53, of ovarian cancer tumors. So things are very, very preliminary in this particular area of life-saving science; but it's pretty amazing that an ordinary tampon bought from a drug store could one day be used to diagnose one of the biggest dangers to women's health.
And ovarian cancer isn't the only reproductive cancer that tampons may, one day, help to pick up and eventually beat. The Smithsonian reported in 2015 that a scientific team was investigating the possibility of using tampons to diagnose endometrial cancer, or cancer of the uterus lining.
The team identified that women with endometrial cancer showed a certain chemical process in their tampons: methylation. Methylation of a certain type is associated with "masking" tumor suppressive genes, or genes that would normally keep tumors from developing. The methylation findings from the sampled tampons were also, crucially, identical with the results of an older, painful and invasive cancer diagnosis procedure, where cells were scraped from the uterus to be tested. If we could use tampons to do the same diagnostic job, it'd be less painful, less risky and possibly let us know quicker. Boom.
3. The Smart Menstrual Cup
I genuinely thought this was an April Fool's joke when I first saw it, but no: the menstrual cup, which gathers menstrual blood in the vagina and is removed for washing and disinfecting between each use, has gone high-tech. The Loon Cup is at the forefront of menstrual cup technology, even if right now it's still a project on Kickstarter.
It's basically a menstrual cup with a sensor that can send information to your phone. It can "precisely track your fluid volume, fluid color, and analyze your cycles," according to the makers, stuff which may be of particular use to people with reproductive disorders. It's also designed to tell you how full your cup is and track your period month-to-month; it appears the sensor is embedded in the small "tip" of the cup, so it won't be easily damaged or cause any problems with your bits.
4. The Vaginal Insert That Can Dispense HIV Medication
This isn't strictly a menstrual product, but it'll likely be produced and applied like a tampon if it actually makes it to market, so it definitely deserves a place in the future of our vaginas. In 2014, the University of Washington revealed they'd been doing preliminary studies on a new way of administering HIV medication to women: through a tampon-like insert into the vagina. The specific materials used in the "tampon" were filled with an HIV drug, and when inserted into the vagina and moistened by natural bodily lubrication, the "tampon" dissolves into a medicated gel.
It's actually designed more as a method of protecting reproductive health than of controlling periods. The insert is designed to dissolve almost immediately, and the hope is that it'll protect against HIV in any sexual encounters in the period after it's inserted. The researchers are still a long way from getting the idea onto the market, but don't be surprised if it pops up on your pharmacy shelf in 10 years.
5. The Period-Proof Panties
In this case, the future is now. THINX period-safe underwear created a storm when its ads were banned on the New York subway in late 2015 for the apparently grievous sin of referencing menstruation. But all publicity is good publicity, and THINX has gone on to dominate the conversation about a future free of tampons, pads or menstrual cups: one, in fact, where you can trust your underwear to do the entirety of your menstruation protection and have no worries whatsoever about leakage or hygiene.
THINX panties are designed to hold up to two tampons' worth of liquid, while also being moisture-wicking and anti-microbial to prevent infection. You can wear them as extra protection with a tampon or pad or, if your flow is lighter, just on their own (yes, really). It's a brave new world of unstained jeans out there.
Want more women's health coverage? Check out Bustle's new podcast, Honestly Though, which tackles all the questions you're afraid to ask.