On 28 May, it's Menstrual Health Day, which means - surprise! - we're going to be talking about periods.
And, this year, there's more than ever to talk about. Menstrual Health Day - also known as Menstrual Hygiene Day - was started because women and girls in low-income countries often suffer from poor menstrual hygiene, because of the costs and availability of period products, as well as social taboos.
I'm lucky enough to have been able to take period products and good sanitation for granted all these years - but there's still a lot of new menstrual tech that I'd never even heard of before.
Now, when I’m on my period, the last thing I feel like doing is being adventurous. (By the way, if you’re sensitive about oversharing then you should probably stop reading now). Given that I have an extremely heavy flow, I value reliable protection and always turn to the same combination: tampons, a hot water bottle, and paracetamol.
But then I thought, I don’t use the same mobile phone I had 15 years ago. Why am I still using the same period products as when I started menstruating aged 12?
There are now period pants that are said to miraculously absorb your flow directly into the underwear’s material, where it seems to disappear into thin air. There's a machine that promises to relieve period pain, while a Bluetooth-enabled tampon that will - in theory, at least - reduce the risk of toxic shock syndrome by sending a message to your mobile phone when it’s time to change it, is expected to be on the market next year.
Women finally have a far wider variety of options than just 'medium absorbency' or 'super plus'. So I decided to bring my periods into the 21st century. I tried out five of the newest options on the menstrual market, from a tampon-meets-panty-liner, to period pants.
Here’s how it went…
Wuka period pants, £30
If you’ve been dealing with pads and tampons your whole adult life, the feeling of just putting on a pair of pants, and then heading off for the day is unimaginably weird. But, if you can get past that, these pants really, really work.
How can these normal-looking knickers protect me in the same way as my super plus tampon? The product description says that they hold four tampons’ worth of period blood but, initially, I wasn’t convinced.
I wore them out and about for an entire day on the second day of my period - typically my heaviest day - and I didn’t have a single leakage problem. Afterwards you just stick them in the wash, and can carry on wearing them for years to come, which makes the price really reasonable.
They were also really comfortable. I’ve always hated using sanitary towels, because they feel a bit like wearing a nappy. This was totally different. I could almost forget that I was on my period at all. And, no - no smell either.
Callaly Tampliner, £4-8 a month
I was all ready to love tampliners. The idea is good – it's basically a regular tampon with a tiny panty liner attached to the bottom, to catch any leaks. This seemed genuinely great. After all, who hasn’t had a tampon leak ruin a favourite pair of knickers?
But tampliners were a disaster for me. I couldn’t get the liner into the right position without serious gymnastics and, even when I managed it, it irritated my labia beyond belief.
It did absorb some leaking, but I felt like I could have just achieved that by using a higher absorbency tampon in the first place.
The biggest downer, though, was when I tried to have a wee I ended up with a pee-soaked panty liner to deal with. Maybe I just didn’t manage to get the positioning right. But, personally: never again.
Not only do I have super heavy periods, I also get horrific cramps (I really did win the menstrual lottery).
The Livia is an electronic device that claims to switch off your period pain. It’s a little box – maybe half the size of your phone - with two wires, which you stick onto the painful area. It works by sending pulses through your body, which prevents the pain signal your uterus is sending from reaching your brain. It uses a similar technology to TENS - transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation - a method of pain relief involving the use of a mild electrical current.
Once you’re all stickered up you can clip the box to your clothes or carry it in your pocket and just get on with your day as normal (though heavy activity could dislodge the stickers).
I wasn’t pain-free, but then I’ve never had a completely pain-free period in my life. I decided to combine it with some paracetamol, something which has very little effect on my cramps when used solo. The combination was amazing. Even though it's expensive and not everyone will be able to invest in it, I spent the first day of my period with zero pain for the first time in a decade.
Flex, from £13 for 24 discs
Flex is a disc-shaped piece of plastic that you insert into your vagina. It’s somewhere between a menstrual cup and a diaphragm, except it’s made from a special kind of polymer, which uses your body heat to mould itself to your natural shape, creating a leak-free seal. One of the other great things about it is that it sits so high up in the vagina that you can have sex while using it – not an option with a tampon or a menstrual cup.
I would not suggest attempting to use a Flex for the first time while drunk. I managed to make it into a kind of menstrual blood-soaked Frisbee and left crimson splatters all over the bathroom wall.
But when I used the Flex sober, I had no leakage and it was very comfortable during sex. Putting it in and taking it out proved a little tricky, but got easier with practice.
Dear Kate Leggings, from £70
Going to the gym on my period is my preferred way to deal with cramps. But I’m often hyper-aware of my tampon or pad while working out. So leggings that absorb your blood, leaving you to work out without wearing a tampon or pad, sounded brilliant.
They're a bit like the period pants - but way weirder in that you have to go commando to the gym (and could end up with blood around your knees).
I found they were great as general leggings. They’ve got a slightly thicker crotch than usual, but other than that they just feel like high end leggings – soft and thick, with great support.
But these leggings just couldn’t handle my flow. Yes, I’m a tough test subject, because my period is like that blood scene from The Shining. But on day three of my period, I wore them to a high intensity exercise class. Result? Leakage.
It wasn't anything too traumatic, but I certainly wouldn’t have sat down on a cream-coloured sofa in these leggings. In the future, I would wear them as a back-up plan with a tampon at the same time. And for someone with a more moderate flow than me, they might even work on their own.
So what did I make of all these?
I’ve decided I’m not consigning tampons to the dustbin of history yet - but it’s always good to have options, especially if those options can save you money, do the environment a favour, and even take your killer cramps away.
This article was originally published on 3 May 2018.