Juices for PMS, patches for cramps: Period care gets padded up

There are 336 million menstruating women in India, and 36% use disposable sanitary napkins, according to Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI). That’s 121 million women.

It’s no surprise then that the menstrual products market is growing. And fast.

Valued at $340 million by market research provider Euromonitor in 2017, the sanitary products market in India is predicted to grow to $522 million by next year. It is dominated by international FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) companies such as Procter & Gamble’s Whisper and Johnson & Johnson’s Stayfree, which, according to Euromonitor, have a retail market share of 50.4% and 24%, respectively. Their products are priced low to ensure maximum reach, especially in a country like India.

But not everyone is price-sensitive. Those who can afford it tend to seek quality alternatives. As in any industry.

So, despite the FMCG dominance in sanitary products, there’s been a flurry of menstrual products focused on health and comfort. From pain-relief patches to PMS-friendly juices to anti-rash creams to ‘naturally’ made pads, the Indian sanitary products market has, in the past few years, grown to accommodate more than just a basic need. Much like skincare, haircare, or even dental care, period care is a growing option available online.

And it’s catering to women who’d be happy to spend that extra buck for a comfortable period.

“It is a convenience-conscious market. There is a large audience that is not happy with their brands. They want value for money, but they want better products,” says Deep Bajaj, founder of Sirona, a Delhi-based online hygiene products company which offers tampons, cups and other products.

“It’s how [cab aggregator] Uber bettered the market from [competition] Meru. Now, even if it costs a little more, you are willing to take an Uber for the convenience,” he adds.

This shift is particularly interesting in the sanitary products space for it’s one marred with societal shame. Even today, sanitary pads are often wrapped in their trademark black plastic bags—to be used but not seen. Over the past few years though, India has seen its cultural mainstream, Bollywood, take on the subject with films like Pad Man and Phullu. Just a few months ago, the documentary Period. End of Sentence., which spoke about India’s menstrual taboos, won an Academy Award.

“It’s time we stopped whispering about periods”

Gauri Singhal, Founder, Floh

“About three decades ago, Whisper was the first brand to show a sanitary pad and mention the word ‘periods’, in our advertising. At the time, when we wanted to advertise on primetime, TV channels thought it was an inappropriate product to advertise,” says a spokesperson at Whisper, P&G which claims a double-digit percentage growth this year. Whisper’s iconic ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign in 2014 was well received for taking on period superstitions.

Of course, a lot has also changed. Enough to make period care products marketable if not popular. EcoFemme, a social business which makes washable cloth pads in Tamil Nadu’s Auroville, claims 44.63% growth since 2015, which was also the year it started its online store. ‘Chemical-free pads’ brand Azah, launched as recently as November 2018, claims 40-50% growth each month. And while these companies are still fairly small, they’re reaching their customers in ways FMCG companies aren’t. They have one-on-one channels between the buyer and the company via social media and monthly subscription programmes, eliminating the need for women to settle for a product that’s just about okay.

Comfort and environment, but not cost

A fair share of these period care companies, interestingly, started with providing sustainable alternatives to the FMCG companies’ sanitary napkins. A DownToEarth article, based on MHAI data, calculates that India alone generates 12.3 billion disposable sanitary napkins a year, most of which are not biodegradable.

EcoFemme launched in 2010 to aid menstrual education and provide a livelihood to the rural women of Tamil Nadu, and due to the philanthropic efforts of those who liked its washable cloth product, it grew as a business. “I began a small production with the idea of making the products available to women in Auroville. Some were inspired to start selling the products in their home countries (mostly in Europe). Within a few years, I had a small ‘business’ that had grown completely organically,” says EcoFemme founder, Kathy Walking. The company now sells five different sizes of reusable pads priced at Rs 230-275 each ($3-4).

The menstrual cup, also known as the moon cup, made of silicone, is possibly the most sustainable sanitary product. One cup lasts close to a decade, is reusable, washable. All it takes is a one-time payment.

However, that one-time payment can seem daunting to many. “Newer products such as menstrual cups are niche offerings as of now, since the numbers are small and unit prices are higher than what the vast majority of Indian customers may be willing to pay,” says Devangshu Dutta, founder-chief executive of Third Eyesight, a consulting firm in the consumer products and retail sector. “There is, no doubt, a case to be made for lifetime value comparison between menstrual cups and pads as well as the obvious environmental impact, but the first barrier in many consumers’ minds across product categories is unit price,” he adds.

The moon cup came to India in 2016, with Sirona launching it at under Rs 400 ($6), followed by Boondh, a Bangalore-based social enterprise focussed on sustainable menstrual health practices, which currently sells it at Rs 700 ($10).

Sirona had previously found success in launching the disposable female urination device ‘PeeBuddy’ in 2015 (Rs 20/$0.30 a pop). While this wasn’t a menstrual product, it marked disruption in the feminine hygiene market, having sold over 2 million units to date. Soon, Sirona was selling pain relief patches (Rs 290/$4 for five patches that last 12 hours each), anti-chafing rash cream (Rs 375/$5), disposal bags, tampons and panty-liners.

Another brand Carmesi, which takes its name from the colour ‘crimson’, launched its pads in November 2017, with the promise of both comfort and being “chemical-free, environmentally friendly”. Its products cost Rs 200 ($3) upwards while the FMCG alternatives start at as low as Rs 40 ($0.5), for a pack of 10.

The Carmesi website


“We…made this industry care for a woman’s experience with her period products at a time when the conversation was restricted only to affordability. While we acknowledge the problem of affordability of sanitary pads, we don’t dismiss the need for better products. The personal care industry has advanced so much. Then, why not menstrual hygiene?” asks founder Tanvi Johri.

Being Juliet, meanwhile, saw an opportunity in playing concierge for menstrual needs. With as many as 18,000 regular customers, the service solves the delivery problem by sending a box of menstrual hygiene products (and goodies) to one’s doorstep for Rs 500-900 a month ($10-12). Which is a bit steep.

Being Juliet’s subscription plan

“As a society, we are conditioned to see women as selfless beings who don’t spend on themselves. That’s how the affordability pitch comes in,” argues Ankur Goyal, the founder and CEO of &Me, India’s first ‘period drink’. The &Me drinks come in different flavours, for women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), costing Rs 320 ($4.5) for a pack of four. It aims to bring the focus back to menstrual health, targeting nutritional deficiencies and symptoms like mood swings and night sweats.

When India’s first menstrual drink was launched last year, it was called Rhythm. “We decided to put the words PMS directly on the bottle and it made no difference in our sales. The time for hidden words and sentences to signal menstruation are over,” says Goyal.

Comfort and cost, but not the environment

Shashwat Diesh overheard his sister complaining about rashes from pads. He couldn’t understand why women with her income didn’t have access to better products. He along with Aqib Mohammed (both co-founders of Azah) conducted a survey with a sample size of 300, and over 50% had suffered period rashes. “We looked at the products in the market and realised they used a lot of cheap raw material and harmful chemicals that caused skin irritation,” he says. After some material research and time spent on design, they launched Azah, a pad with a soft, organic cotton top layer. Azah, priced at Rs 240 ($3.5) for a box of 12 pads, has over 12,000 regular customers, and while it isn’t biodegradable, it promises to be in two months.

Azah’s website

Pads are far from the ideal sanitary product, but it’s what the market demands. “We thought of sanitary pads first because Indian and other South Asian women still don’t want to use invasive products. It is more cultural conditioning than anything else, but it is difficult to change,” says Swathi Kulkarni, co-founder and CMO of Mumbai-based chemical-free sanitary brand Nua. Launched in May 2018, it claims to have acquired 60,000 unique customers with 50% residing in tier-II and tier-III cities.

Then there’s the minority of tampon users in India. Globally, the tampon market share is predicted to attain an overall value of $6.34 billion by the end of 2025, according to market researcher Transparency, and some companies have seen the opportunity in India. While Sirona sells tampons, Floh, also a digital-first market entrant, launched in May 2018 as ‘India’s leading tampon brand’.

Floh claims a 40% monthly growth, with founder Gauri Singhal stating that 50% of its orders come from tier-II and tier-III cities. Early this year, Floh introduced an ‘all-natural, cramp-free’ period patch. “Besides, sanitary napkin is a monopolistic category,” says Singhal. A view Sirona’s Bajaj echoes when he says pads aren’t conducive to much innovation.

Most women still favour the pad, and in a comfort-led market, they’re only willing to be environmentally-conscious if the product ticks all the other boxes. “The environmental impact of disposable sanitary pads, or for that matter of any other product, is not yet a big purchase influencer for most Indian consumers,” says Dutta of Third Eyesight.

The P&G vow

P&G aims to be able to recycle absorbent hygiene products (AHP) in 10 cities by 2030, according to its latest sustainability agenda. In the long term, it hopes to use 100% renewable or recycled materials for all products and packaging. Mostly because it contributes to the problem. Quite a bit.

However, there are a few brands in the market that sell biodegradable sanitary pads, often at steep prices. These promise women an eco-friendly solution without the hassle of adapting. Laura O’Connell, communications officer at EcoFemme, though is quick to caution. “We are concerned about this type of product because often ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ menstrual products need very specific conditions in order to be broken down. If you dispose of them in a plastic bag [they] cause just as much harm as conventional disposable menstrual products,” she says.

As such, FMCGs producing disposable sanitary pads are also making an attempt to recycle the waste they add to the landfills. “We have committed to establish an Absorbent Hygiene Products Recycling facility… India will be the first country outside of Europe where we will launch this,” promises the Whisper spokesperson. “The technology upcycles sanitary waste to deliver high-quality secondary raw materials such as recycled cellulose, recycled plastic, and recycled superabsorbent.”

The rural question

While FMCGs are quick to promise waste-management solutions, they’re less keen for a change of tack.

“In reducing the margins between sustainability and affordability, it is important to consider that a large percentage of the population still do not use the right products to manage their menstrual hygiene—which can pose significant health hazards in the long run,” says Manoj Gadgil, Marketing Director, Johnson & Johnson.

For the newer brands, rural markets, which FMCGs have access to, are still a distant dream. “Distribution and dialogue are a challenge and something that small brands will only be able to address with investor funding and government support,” says Bajaj of Sirona who also admits that he has written several letters requesting the government to switch to cups in its awareness programmes. “If we are proposing a sanitary pad solution to these women, we will face the additional problem of them landing up in our landfills in the next 10-15 years. Besides, a cup does away with buying stocks every month,” he adds.

More options in the offing

Boondh is also working on a reusable menstrual disk. “It’s similar to a diaphragm (female contraceptive) and will be easier to use,” says Kannan.

So far, at the policy level, the cup is barely acknowledged. The GST exemption in 2018 was a singular effort aimed only at sanitary pads. “Most menstrual cup sellers refer to US FDA guidelines. They are not categorised as a drug or medical device and hence do not fall under any standardising or regulatory body,” explains Bharti Kannan, Founder, Boondh, who has filed an RTI with the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation to understand the status of menstrual cup regulation in India.

The industry, especially the kind demanding policy change, has a long way to go. But entrepreneurs aren’t giving up yet and believe the solution to all menstrual health problems ultimately lies in the tenets of awareness and reuse. “We hope to see a lot of change in the next five years. But, one thing is certain, the future will not be a pad-only story,” says Bajaj.

The urban shift

While Bajaj appeals to the government, Singhal of Floh is happy to have started a conversation with the slogan “Have a bloody good period”. What Carmesi does with its name, Floh does with its use of blood red ink in its campaigns instead of the usual cerulean blue.

“It’s time we stopped whispering about periods,” says Singhal, aware of the pun.

Kulkarni of Nua sees a promising trend in eliminating taboo—free and open two-way communication. “We receive several messages seeking advice and product details on our social media as public comments, not private messages. These aren’t restricted to tier-I cities either,” she says.

Kannan of Boondh admits the boom is heartening but is careful in her analysis of the situation. “The emergence of new players and the rise of feminist politics have indeed played a role in dismantling taboos, but it is not like there is no shame. We still have a long way to go,” she adds.

Reusable methods are also “a means to avoid the synthetic ingredients in pads and tampons”

Dr. Geeta Komar, Consultant-Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Columbia Asia Hospital

Both P&G and J&J declined to comment on these new players. There is a lack of formal data to establish the period care companies’ presence or growth story, but the stakeholders aren’t too concerned yet. “It is essentially a new category and it is too early to talk in percentage terms. It holds value mainly for the disruption it is causing. When we sell 7,000 menstrual cups a month we are ensuring these women stop buying sanitary pads altogether,” explains Bajaj. “More players only mean more options for women,” he adds.

Azah’s Mohammed suggests there’s one other thing that keeps them going. “Catering to a niche, comfort-driven market is not an incentive for traditional players yet.”

Yet.

Edited by Durga M Sengupta.

Clarification: An earlier version of this copy carried a typo in place of Swathi Kulkarni’s name and missed Shashwat Diesh’s name altogether. These errors have been rectified. We regret the same.

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