The First Ever Period Product Study Involving Actual Blood Just Proved Why We Needed It

It's 2023, and menstrual health continues to be grossly under researched.

It’s no secret that women’s health has a history of being woefully overlooked. 

From anecdotal tales of medical negligence, to studies that show concretely how women are both diagnosed and treated differently to men suffering the same symptoms, the issue is far reaching and difficult to define.

So it likely comes as no surprise that menstrual bleeding – despite affecting around half of the world’s population, or 800 million people each day – has been largely under researched.

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Just how under-represented this topic is was quantified by Stanford University, who reported that a search for ‘menstrual blood’ on medical database PubMed brought up just 400 results from the last several decades, while a search for ‘erectile dysfunction’ had approximately 10,000 results from the same period. 

In keeping with this trend, the first study comparing the absorption of different period products using actual human blood (as opposed to water or saline solutions) was only published in August, 2023.

The study was conducted by Dr Bethany Samuelson Bannow and a team of colleagues, in an effort to demystify and destigmatize heavy menstrual bleeding which, as it turns out, actually affects around one third of people who menstruate.

For context, abnormally heavy menstruation is measured according to how quickly an individual bleeds through a period product – needing to change your pad or tampon more than every hour is the current measure of abnormality. Also important to note, this measure has not been updated since newer period care products came onto the market, like menstrual cups and period underwear.

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In huge news for menstruating individuals, the study found that many period products are mislabelled according to their capacity for absorption, with most having a lesser capacity than previously thought when tested using actual blood. 

Prior to this research, manufacturers of period products have typically used saline or water to estimate the absorption of their products. This is problematic, because menstrual blood is more viscous than water, and contains blood cells, vaginal secretions, and endometrial tissue which, in turn, affects how it is absorbed. 

It also found that menstrual cups have the greatest capacity for heavy flows, making their exclusion from the current measure for heavy bleeding all the more alarming. 

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It goes without saying that these findings have huge implications for people with periods. 

In the arena of women’s health, working out exactly how absorbent period care products are, and how different varieties measure up with each other, would help doctors properly diagnose their patients.

Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Paul Blumenthal, an emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Stanford University, said, “I might ask a patient, ‘what’s your period like?’ and she might say, ‘Well, I soak a pad about every two hours’ – but I don’t necessarily have the time to ask what brand it is or if it’s super maxi.”

“We’re sometimes operating on a very subjective basis.”

It also highlights our need for a better understanding of what actually constitutes a ‘normal’ period. It’s near-impossible for women to recognise the signs of abnormal bleeding when there is no proper directive around exactly how this is measured. (For context, only tampons undergo industry-regulated testing for absorption capacity). This, in turn, further contributes to the silencing of women’s pain, and the stigmatisation of period-related disorders. 

So while studies like these are essential to making strides towards a better understanding of women’s health, they also prove just how far we still have to go before we get there. 

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