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Period underwear could be toxic. Should it be regulated?

“To restore faith in our category, we need to push for better regulation,” says the CEO of Knix, a Thinx competitor.

Period underwear could be toxic. Should it be regulated?
[Photo: courtesy Knix]

It’s been a turbulent start to the year for brands that sell period underwear. In early January, Jessian Choy, a journalist from Sierra magazine, sent samples of period underwear from two brands—Thinx and Lunapads—to a lab at the University of Notre Dame. Choy reported that the Thinx underwear was found to contain a toxic chemical called PFAS in the crotch, while the Lunapads products were free of PFAS. PFAS is associated with all kinds of health problems, including cancer and reproductive problems. In the aftermath of Choy’s story, consumers began to worry that all period underwear, regardless of brand, may be toxic.

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Knix, a Toronto-based brand that makes underwear for period, postpartum, and incontinence, wasn’t mentioned in Choy’s story. But Joanna Griffiths, founder of Knix, wishes it would have been. “I am confident our products are PFAS-free, but the fact that we weren’t mentioned at all raised questions about the safety of our products,” she says.

Griffiths says that her brand hasn’t seen a decrease in sales. But, at the same time, there has been an uptick in questions from customers about product safety on Knix’s social media channels and customer-service lines. Knix points customers to a report from an independent lab dated January 20 showing that the brand’s products are free from PFAS and other toxic chemicals, but there is still a lot of anxiety. “Consumers are understandably worried,” she says. “There’s just not enough transparency about materials or chemicals in period underwear. To restore faith in our category, we need to push for better regulation.”

This push comes at a crucial time, Griffiths says. When she launched her brand in 2013, Knix was one of just three period underwear brands on the market, including Thinx and Dear Kate. Now, however, the industry has exploded, with dozens of period underwear brands popping up on Amazon search results. The vast majority don’t offer any details at all about what materials are in their products. And yet, there are many different ways to construct period underwear, ranging from picking absorbent fabrics to coating fabrics with chemicals that make them more absorbent or moisture wicking. In the case of Knix’s leakproof underwear, the company uses materials that are inherently absorbent, since a chemical treatment may wash off, making the product less durable. Instead, the gusset of Knix underwear features a fabric made of cotton, woven with carbon and spandex that contains microscopic holes in it that make it extra absorbent. “People tend to think that all period underwear is made the same way, but it’s not,” she says. “If you cut up period underwear from three different brands, all three could be made differently.”

What regulation could look like

Knix has just launched a petition on Change.org to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a U.S. government agency, to demand stronger regulations for all period underwear. (At the time of publication, the petition had more than 800 signatures.) In a post on Instagram, she points out that the period underwear industry is expected to reach $400 million by 2024, but it’s “one without any regulation, consumer oversight, or advertising standards.” She’s now making it one of Knix’s priorities to help establish better industry regulation. Griffiths says she has already spoken to the founders of Lunapad, another period underwear brand, who are equally eager to bring regulation to their industry.

In Griffiths’ mind, regulation would come in two forms. First, a third-party institution, like a university, could establish  guidelines about what constitutes safety when it comes to period underwear, and then independently certify the safety of products. Secondly, brands could ask be be included in regulations relating to the wider period-product category. In 2017, Grace Meng, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, introduced a bill called the Menstrual Products Right to Know Act, which would require “menstrual products, such as menstrual cups, menstrual pads, tampons, and therapeutic vaginal douche apparatuses, to include a list of ingredients on the label.” For the time being, period underwear is not included in the bill, but “we could lobby for period underwear to piggyback on this bill,” says Griffiths.

Griffiths also makes the case that it would be beneficial for third parties to verify marketing claims that period underwear brands make. For the time being, many brands promise their products are “leak proof,” “stain resistant,” “anti-microbial,” or “anti-odor” but they don’t need to back up their claims with any verification, or explain what ingredients 0r materials they are using to imbue their products with these features.

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Brands in other product categories are also pushing for better regulation of their industries. Skincare and makeup brand Beautycounter, for instance, has an entire division of the company devoted to lobbying the government for better oversight of ingredients in personal-care products. The company regularly sends teams of employees and people who sell products on behalf of the brand to Washington, D.C. to lobby their senators and representatives to push for stricter laws. In 2018, Senators Diane Feinstein and Susan Collins introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, and Beautycounter is now pushing for it to be signed into law.

At first blush, it seems counterintuitive for brands to be asking for more regulations in their own sectors. After all, this means jumping through more hoops during the product-development process, then paying for third parties to certify their products. But there are many reasons why brands would do this. For instance, in the case of Knix, Griffiths believes all period underwear brands could be affected by concerns about unsafe materials and, by the same token, brands will thrive if there is better oversight across the whole sector. Also, it can be beneficial for brands like Beautycounter and Knix to be well-versed in product safety, and self-regulate their products. After all, if stronger safety laws are passed, their brands will be ahead of the curve.  “It’s the Wild West in our industry,” says Griffiths. “But the period underwear industry is expected to keep growing over the next few years. It’s the right time for us to ensure that the products coming out of this sector are safe to use.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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