That tampon applicator and wrapper you just tossed in the bin? It will probably outlive you in a landfill by about 400 years.
It’s easy to feel appalled when we consider the harm done to the environment, but when it comes to taking action against leaving those same products in our bodies, we’re much less informed and less inclined to make a change. With generic feminine hygiene products typically made of and packaged in a combination of plastic, viscose, polyester and mass-produced cotton grown with pesticides, these can spell disaster for our bodies and the environment at large.
That said, we’re slowly getting ourselves out of our toxic period rut. Companies worldwide have been innovating on greener solutions to menstrual care, particularly with medical-grade silicone period cups on the rise, washable fabric sanitary pads, organic cotton tampons, or even period-safe underwear such as by Thinx or Hong Kong brand Modibodi.
Luüna Naturals, launched last year as the first female-led period care brand in Asia, has also created the first period subscription service. It is an unprecedented offering in Asia, and works to close the education gap by providing easy access to chemical-free and sustainable menstrual products to all women. As a socially conscious brand, Luüna also donates 10 percent of every purchase of a Luüna product to support grassroots initiatives such as FreePeriodsHK, which provides period education for women across the city. Luüna was founded by New Zealand-native Olivia Cotes-James, who began product research into menstrual health in Asia while working as a branding and marketing professional in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
We speak to Olivia Cotes-James about period taboo, misconceptions about the period cup trend, and what it takes to truly clean up your period.
We’ve been hearing a lot more lately about why generic menstrual health products that have been marketed innocuously in the past may be actually harmful for our bodies — can you outline exactly how and why? And how does Luüna work to change this in its products?
Over 90% of women we’ve spoken to in the last four years had no idea their pads and tampons were made of synthetics like viscose, polyester and rayon, and conventional cotton that’s grown with toxic pesticides. I was one of them. As soon as I stopped using them, the irritations I had blamed on my body for years, went away. This shows how harsh these ingredients can be on our sensitive areas and also, that we are conditioned to blame ourselves, not our products, for negative symptoms.
Unsurprisingly, given the low priority given to female health and specifically menstrual health across the world, research into the consequences of using these traditional products is still limited. Thankfully, this is changing: Results are showing that these products often contain links to dangerous chemicals, in some cases, ones proven to be carcinogenic and to be severe hormone disruptors.
When we consider that our vaginas are more absorbent than skin elsewhere on our bodies, and we use on average 11,000 disposable pads and tampons in our lives, it’s easy to understand they will have an impact on our health if made with harmful substances, even trace amounts. Yet typically, because of enduring taboos around the female body, we don’t think as carefully about the ingredients of our period care as we do about things like face creams. But we must.
What were your first steps to open up the conversation in a field that is traditionally taboo?
It all started when I realised many of my local friends wanted to explore products other than sanitary pads (four years ago, only two percent of women in Asia used tampons) but lacked the guidance to do so. So, I started holding ‘tampon workshops’ to help them successfully explore these options. These quickly evolved into talking about periods beyond just the products, and female health more broadly. It was powerful to see rooms full of strangers talking about intimate issues so openly, but terrifying to see how many of us, from all backgrounds and nationalities, were united by the same fear, shame and confusion about our bodies.
Where are Luüna products made and how are they ensured to be safe for the body?
We are obsessed with materials and knowing exactly what our products are made with (and crucially, without). Therefore, our tampons, pads and liners are made from certified organic cotton that has been grown without toxic pesticides (unlike conventional cotton products), they are never bleached or fragranced, and they don’t expose our bodies to harsh synthetics like big brand products.
Similarly, our menstrual cup is made from highly certified 100 percent medical-grade silicone. This is specifically made to be worn inside the body and be safe to do so for many years, making this an amazingly eco-friendly product.
All of our products, except our tampons, which are made in Germany, are produced here in Asia. Our goal, by the end of 2020, is to bring full production to Asia for existing and future products to reduce our carbon footprint.
We can personally attest to the high-quality and safety of these materials because we use and love them every month.
Is the period cup for everybody? With more and more brands out there, how do you know which period cup works best for you?
Super cliché and I really need a better analogy, but it’s like finding your partner: You might get lucky the first time, or you might have to try a few cups to find the one that’s right for you. With so many cups on the market, I think it’s safe to say there’s one for everyone. Just do your research first.
We may not be the right cup for you but check out some of our reviews. Most people love that we are one of the softest cups on the market (we made it that way on purpose). We are a nice starting point for new users, who appreciate the softness when getting used to it, and we also have experienced cup users making the switch to us.
Do people sleep with the period cup in, or what is the alternative method at bedtime?
Yes, absolutely yes! Sleep with it in, swim with it in, dance with it in. It’s made to keep you protected all through the month.
Are there still some misconceptions about menstrual health Luüna is hoping to correct? For example, in the past women would be afraid to use tampons if they weren’t yet sexually active, has this kind of belief cropped up with your introduction of period cups?
We often encounter this belief in our workshops and in the comments to our online educational content. It’s a deep-rooted taboo which is prevalent in cultures across the world, beyond Asia too. We call it the ‘hymen myth’ and see it as one of the many misconceptions that stem from an enduring mysticism around the female body; one that can be overcome through community and education.
Another myth we are working to ‘bust’ is that periods are negative experiences. I know, people often roll their eyes at this part, but it’s true. We aren’t doing the 90’s period ad vibe of ‘your period is a time to don a white dress and skip through a field of daisies,’ we’re just trying to encourage women who suffer bad symptoms not to dismiss them.
On one hand, there are natural lifestyle remedies that can lessen PMS which should be explored – sadly no one encourages us to do this. On the other hand, these symptoms can often be signs of underlying health issues that can be devastating, even life-threatening when untreated. This is a problem that’s a serious issue in both the west and in Asia. We have to encourage each other to more highly value our menstrual health, and see it as an insight into our wellbeing rather than a painful inconvenience.
How do you tackle the problem of waste with the Luüna products?
Our period cup can indeed be used for up to 5 years (even longer if you look after it really well!), therefore reducing the vast amount of plastic period waste caused by synthetic big brand products.
Our tampons, pads and liners, whilst currently keeping our bodies free from synthetics in the products themselves, still come in thin plastic wraps for hygiene purposes. We have dedicated time, money and resources to changing this and are delighted to announce we will have a plastic-free range of these by the end of 2020.
Can you share a few words on the impact people can make if they choose more conscious female health products?
We donate a period cup to low-income women and girls in Asia for every organic cotton subscription and period cup sold. Therefore, in choosing our products, you’re reducing your plastic period waste and that of another woman or girl, and inspiring a healthy approach to periods – in body and mind.
Learn more about Luüna Naturals here.