Tampon wars: the battle to overthrow the Tampax empire

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The long read: For decades, one company has ruled the world of tampons. But a new wave of brands has emerged, selling themselves as more ethical, more feminist and more ecological

The Queen of Tampons, one of several nicknames, is a jubilant woman called Melissa Suk. Four years on the throne as the associate brand director of Tampax, Suk holds court at the head office of the multinational consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) in Cincinnati, Ohio. From there, she oversees an empire spanning 70 countries, filling bathroom cupboards in cities, towns and villages across the globe. When it comes to tampons, Tampax is the undisputed overlord, with a 29% global market share. (P&Gs nearest rival in the sector, Johnson & Johnson, still has less than 20%.) Last year, more than 4.5bn boxes of Tampax were bought worldwide. And yet, somehow, there are still corners of the earth untouched by Tampax. If your potential territory is all of the worlds bleeding vaginas, there is always opportunity for further conquest.

On a recent chilly afternoon, I met Suk, beamed in from Ohio on to a giant screen in a meeting room in P&Gs European headquarters in Geneva. The multinational occupies a vast white block with blue glass windows, a design best described as hospital chic. Perhaps because the conglomerate owns so many cleaning-product brands, every surface had an antibacterial gleam and every staffer appeared to have just passed through a delicates cycle, shining with corporate hygiene.

In the gamut of P&G meeting rooms, ranging from mountain-view to bleak, we sat in one in the death-zone category, a basement chamber that contained the ghostly echoes of dial-in codes gone wrong. One wall was plastered with a mural-style photograph of the P&G dream: a woman holding a baby wearing a P&G Pampers nappy, while doing the laundry using P&G Ariel washing powder, next to a sink on which sits P&G Fairy washing-up liquid. Now that its been done by Sport England in a recent This Girl Can advert, they could also include a tell-tale Tampax string descending between the womans legs. Altogether, it is the ultimate commercial vision: a life in which brands are so braided into our existence, and that of our mothers before us, that their presence is as invisible and unquestioned as love.

Though it was dawn in Cincinnati, Suk was undimmed. She held a pink breakfast milkshake, her blond bob was immaculate and she spoke of her millions of customers her subjects in the very brightest of voices: We have a commitment to let her live a life without limits, whether shes on her period or not. And: Weve really played a role to teach her what is a tampon, how she should use it and why she should use Tampax. From a day of listening to Tampax staffers and watching their presentations PowerPoint is P&Gs love language it was clear that the Tampax-buyer is never a consumer or a client or a user. Shes she. Like a friend, just one whose name you dont know but whose menstrual cycle you are deeply familiar with.

The Tampax team know her intimately. Like all big brands, they run a rolling programme of focus groups, talking to hundreds of women every month. They want to know how she feels about her tampon, whether shes using it right, what would make it more comfortable, more convenient. They are led, always and exclusively, they like to say, by her needs and desires. What they dont say, but is implicit, is that they are also led by the need and desire to sell more tampons.

For Tampax, like any longstanding empire, has inherent weaknesses. Over the past few years, according to market researchers Euromonitor, the global consumption of tampons has been in steady decline from a high of 17bn boxes in 2007, down to 15.9bn in 2018. Back in the meeting room, Suk rattled off five contributing factors to this drop-off in a way that suggested this list was a feature of many panicky Cincinnati brainstorms:

1) Period cessation.

2) Abundance of options.

3) Education of the form. (In other words, women having misconceptions about tampons.)

4) Concern over ingredients.

5) Concern over sustainability. (Probably the lowest, noted Suk.)

Never mind about 3, 4 and 5 for the moment. In No 1, Tampax is facing perhaps its greatest existential threat the growing number of women choosing not to have periods at all. Last year, the faculty of sexual and reproductive healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists issued an updated guideline, stating that there was no health benefit to taking a week-long break from the pill to have a sort of faux-period. Women simply no longer need to shed blood if they dont want to.

In threat No 2 abundance of options Tampax is reckoning with the possible fate of any long-time ruler: the rising howl of revolution, a potential coup. Over the past few years, an array of new tampon brands and period products have appeared on the market. Obeying some unwritten law, they all seem to have cute, single-word names Lola, Cora, Callaly, Ohne, Freda, Flo, Thinx, Modibodi, Flex, Flux, Dame, Daye. And they all want to topple Tampax, offering women what they see as more ethical and ecological options to replace Tampaxs single-use plastic applicators and a marketing strategy that often emphasises discretion, as though a period should be something to hide. Its ripe for the taking, said Celia Pool, co-founder of Dame, about Tampaxs hegemonic grip on the market. A brand like Tampax has dominated for so long with such hideous messaging and hideous products in such a personal area of a womans life which they use every month.

So far, the startups strategy seems to be working. People are leaving the big brands, Roshida Khanom, category director of beauty and personal care at the market research company Mintel, told me. Women are switching their loyalties and trying these new disruptors. The disruptors, meanwhile, have their eye on a vast consumer base about 2 billion people, if you calculate that around 26% of the global population is of reproductive age and therefore likely to be menstruating. Periods, seen afresh, present a seductive retail opportunity: a naturally occurring regular event that requires a monthly purchase and continues for approximately 40 years. Get a customer signed up early and then for life and shes locked in for about 480 periods, 8,640 tampons, at least 1,500.

No wonder much of Tampaxs communication is geared towards pubescent first-timers. On its UK website, next to first tampon stories and a tampon quiz, theres a teen chatbot called Alya who has a 90s-Disney, skater-girl vibe and a long wave of jaunty red hair.

Hey Girl, shall we chat? asked Alya. Im Alya, here to answer your body and puberty questions.

Alya, I replied, Tampax has dominated the menstrual market for years: can it hold on?

To be fair to Alya, it was not in her programmed brief to answer such a question, but she gave it a go anyway: Did you mean: What are TAMPAX made from / Can a tampon fall out / Can I skip this puberty thing / None of the above.

None of the above, Alya, none of the above. But thank you for trying. Well find out for ourselves.


Many girls dont use tampons straight out of the gates. For the average 12-year-old, fresh to the questionable joy of periods and yet to have sex, there is a certain caution around inserting an object into your vagina. Some never use tampons at all, particularly in countries where they are considered taboo. This includes much of Asia and many religious societies. Like many, I started with pads, which in the early 90s were a very different class of item to the winged, body-contoured products of today. I recall waddling to assembly convinced that the squeak of the quasi-nappy I had stuffed in my pants was audible to the entire school. At some point, my older sister suggested there might be a better way. And so it begins: a marriage-length relationship with a rolled wad of cotton and rayon that you put inside yourself, with a string attached so you can yank it out again.

The tampon, a late chapter in the story of menstruation, is a significant upgrade after centuries of women making do with homemade efforts old rags, sheepskin, cheesecloth sacks stuffed with cotton, pieces of fabric pinned into pants. In parts of the world, including the UK, where many women cant afford menstrual products, makeshift options are still used. Bespoke period products came into existence shortly after the first world war, when nurses realised that the cellulose-based bandages they were using to dress wounds were better than cotton at absorbing blood. Kotex introduced the first mass-market sanitary pad in 1921; it had to be held in place by a belt. Ten years later, Earle Haas, a Colorado-based doctor, invented and patented the first cardboard applicator tampon. (For those unfamiliar with the form, an applicator is the telescopic-tube mechanism that inserts the tampon into the vagina. Non-applicator tampons, or digital tampons, are pushed in by hand. Oddly, depending on which brand reached a territory first, most countries have an in-built preference for one or another so the vast majority of US consumers use applicators, while most German users dont.)

Haas, possibly to his eternal regret, sold his patent in 1933 to a Denver businesswoman, Gertrude Tendrich, for $32,000. P&G adore Tendrich, the original #girlboss, who started Tampax the same year, and was the companys first president. P&G only acquired the brand in 1997, but have internalised the backstory with the zeal of the convert and an eye to the Insta-buzz around female founders. Were extremely proud, Suk told me.

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A Tampax magazine advert from 1942. Photograph: John Frost Newspapers/Alamy Stock Photo

New tampon brands often say dismissively that the tampon has barely changed since Tendrichs day, and that Tampax has failed to substantially improve the form in nearly a century an accusation that provokes polite fury in Tampaxs global director of research and development, Amy Krajewski: I dispute that, yes! she told me. I spend all day every day of my life specifically on Tampax. Hundreds of people do! Krajewski pointed to the brands official timeline as proof of their efforts: there was the dramatic switch from cardboard to plastic applicators in the 90s, the introduction of a pocket form and the more recent addition of a LeakGuard braid to the tampon string, intended to prevent a saturated tampon from staining your underwear.

Despite these improvements, viewed internally as epoch-defining gamechangers, a century of Tampax is more a story of shifting marketing tropes than major product innovation, the same humble tampon packaged up in a cornucopia of ways: Tampax Radiant, Tampax Pure, Tampax Pearl, Tampax Compak, Tampax Pearl Compak. There are the different absorbencies, strictly regulated and coded by colour: Lite (purple), Regular (yellow), Super (green), Super Plus (orange) colours so familiar to anyone who uses them that you reach for a box without thinking, a commercial allegiance at work that is likely inherited. (Many women I spoke to use the same product as their mother or sister, a particular brand passing through families like an antique clock.)

Like any decades-old company, Tampax has had to change the story it tells about itself to suit the era. Welcome this new day for womanhood, read one of its first adverts, from a July 1936 edition of The American Weekly: This summer you can experience a comfort and assurance of daintiness you have never known before. Daintiness went out of fashion pretty fast, and from the 60s onwards menstruating women were, according to print advertising, happily engaging in all manner of period-unfriendly physical activities, including waterskiing, fencing, horseback-riding and wearing tight white on the beach. Until 1972, TV adverts for menstrual products were banned in the US (and as late as 1993, agony aunt Claire Rayners advert for Vespre Silhouette sanitary towels was removed from UK television after hundreds of complaints). But in 1985, a defining moment in Tampaxs history occurred when a pre-Monica Courteney Cox became the first person to say period in a US commercial. Shes in an extremely tight leotard working out, said Suk, after delightedly showing me the video. And basically would not be able to do that in a pad.

Over the decades, Tampaxs promotion of the discretion of its products seemed to give corporate endorsement to the idea that a period was best kept secret. Youll love the Quiet Easy Reseal Wrapper, goes the current marketing blurb for Tampax Radiant. As a narrative, it seems increasingly at odds with the times. Why should we hide tampons up our sleeves on the way to the bathroom, or worry that someone might hear us unwrap one once were there? (In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, Phoebe Waller Bridge riffed on all the possible items a copy of Mein Kampf, a neatly folded Confederate flag, a dog shit within which you could more acceptably conceal a tampon and its associated deep shame.) For years, major period brands, including P&Gs sanitary towel Always, have advertised absorbency by using a bright blue liquid, as if to deflect us from what would actually be soaking a pad. Blood, it seemed, could openly seep from grazed knees and shaving cuts, but not from a womans bits.


In the annals of menstruation, 2015 was a very big year. Early on, two viral events took place: a woman called Kiran Gandhi free-bled as she ran the London Marathon, and Instagram had to apologise after briefly removing a photo, posted by the poet Rupi Kaur, of a sleeping girl bleeding through tracksuit bottoms. Mounting political energy consolidated into various campaigning groups: in 2016, Gabby Edlin founded Bloody Good Period to help refugee women access period products, and in early 2017, the Red Box Project launched its campaign for free period products in schools. (It won: as of 20 January this year, the government will provide menstrual products to all schools and colleges across the country.) Protests against sales taxes on period products spread rapidly Australia and Germany, among others, have either reduced or eliminated the tax. (The UK still adds 5% in VAT, but set up a tampon tax fund in 2015 with the pledge that the raised money would be spent on womens charities. So far, beneficiaries have included an anti-abortion charity, eliciting a new wave of protest.) In a final symbolic flourish, late last year, a period emoji in the form of a crimson droplet was finally added to the iPhone menu.

In the midst of this newly charged menstrual atmosphere, period startups multiplied, selling products ranging from organic cotton tampons (Lola, Cora, Flo) to absorbent pants (Thinx, Modibodi) to a reusable applicator (Dame). All proclaim their high ethical standards. Flo gives 5% of its profits to womens charities, Freda partners with Bloody Good Period, and Dame says it is the only period brand to be climate positive, offsetting twice the carbon it produces. The founders do these things for their own sake, but also because theyve read the research: consumers, especially younger ones, increasingly want to buy brands that come with a side of values, a wrapping of morality.

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Tampax has had to play catch-up. In such moments, multinationals can resemble the Im-your-mate teacher with a tone-deaf enthusiasm for trends to which they are fatally late. (Womens empowerment and period pride are in, you say? Well see you there, just after weve intensely focus-grouped the issue and come up with a hashtag.) Always had already launched its #LikeAGirl advertising campaign in 2014, which revealed that girls can, in fact, do everything. And in 2019, P&G launched a period poverty campaign which involved them donating a single product that is, one tampon or pad for every pack bought within a set time bracket. (The most uncharitable thing Ive ever encountered, according to Edlin of Bloody Good Period.)

Tampax updated its products too, launching, in 2019, its first organic cotton tampon and, in the US only, its first menstrual cup in 2018. At Tampax we didnt invent the menstrual cup, we just want to perfect it, was the marketing line, in cute acknowledgement of its lateness to the party, given that cups were first invented in the 1930s. Finally, to cover any ethical gaps still left exposed by their own brands, P&G acquired an American purpose-driven period startup called This is L.

Is it so bad that P&G jumps on the bandwagon if the bandwagon involves more sustainable products and allows women greater choice? None of the startups and campaigners I spoke to were convinced. They co-opt activism, said Affi Parvizi-Wayne, the founder of Freda. Edlin suggested a full boycott of P&Gs products. They move to protect themselves, rather than to change, said Celia Pool from Dame. These big brands might dominate for now, but thats not to say theyre going to dominate forever. It was a David and Goliath situation, Pool added. And we all know who won that one.


For a startup to successfully dismantle the Tampax empire, it needs an industry-changing idea. Daye, founded in 2018, believes it has it. Its innovation, freshly launched, is a pain-relieving, CBD-infused, biodegradable cotton tampon, a phrase that could have sprung from some kind of Silicon Valley word association game. Daye is like a startup created in a lab, a model of contemporary entrepreneurialism. There is a young female founder, the dynamic 24-year-old Valentina Milanova, who has the wide smile and unwavering stare of someone who, rather than disposing of their early 20s in cheap bars and toxic romance, raised $5.5m in funding from big-name investors including Index Ventures, Kindred Capital and Khosla Ventures. There is an office in a converted biscuit factory in Bermondsey. (Biscuits becoming CBD tampons is a fairly succinct summary of the history of British business.) And there is a highly ambitious growth strategy. Daye currently has about 15,000 customers. Within the next five years we hope to be servicing 1 million customers per month, Milanova told me. A lot of women have period pain.

The startup founders backstory is the modern-day fairytale. Milanovas is powerful: she grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, started menstruating at nine, thought she was dying, kept her periods secret for years, suffered terrible menstrual pain and began researching the subject. After learning about the properties of industrial hemp, she created various products at home, before hitting on the idea of coating tampons in CBD oil. (Will you get high? a male friend asked me, fascinated, when I said I was trying it out. No, is the short answer, but according to Dayes initial trials with more than 200 people, the pain relief provided by a CBD tampon kicks in within 20 minutes, compared to the 40 minutes it takes for painkiller pills to work.)

One recent sunny morning, I visited Daye in their biscuit factory and Milanova showed me round the open-plan room of 19 young staffers who had the keen-eyed look of people doing jobs their parents dont fully understand. Along the corridor was the designated clean room, where a man in a white hazmat suit was inching around a hunk of machinery that coated the tampons in oozing brown CBD oil.

Back in 2018, when she was pitching to investors, Milanova encountered attitudes ranging from awkward to stunningly ignorant. One wondered why she was putting 18 tampons in a subscription box, given that he had never known a woman have a period for 18 days. Milanova had originally wanted to attract an all-female investor base, but quickly realised this was unlikely. Even though femtech, the uncomfortable term for any business that relates to the health or well-being of half the population, is now fashionable, startups in this space can still struggle to attract funding, as more than 90% of the decision-makers in venture capital firms are male. Its really important that those decision-makers, who will still be [predominantly] male for quite a long time to come, open their minds to the fact that femtech is not a niche, said Leila Rastegar Zegna, founding partner of Kindred Capital and one of Dayes early backers, with commendable diplomacy.

Milanova doesnt just want to make a new kind of tampon, she wants to change the whole culture around menstruation. Like many of the other new brands, much work has gone into Dayes tone, which is humorous and blunt where Tampax is euphemistic and prudish. (Yes, period poo is real, is the title of a recent blog post on Dayes website.) Many of the brands share this kind of forthright language bleed red, think green is Dames tagline; no more shoving tampons up our sleeves, proclaims Freda. In an article on its website, the period-tracking app Clue questions why we associate periods with a specific gender, arguing that it would be more accurate to talk about people who menstruate, or menstruators rather than women.

What the new tampon startups also have in common, but dont talk about quite so openly, is the fact that beneath the reusable applicator or CBD coating, their fundamental products the tampons themselves are extremely similar. While Tampax has its own tampon factories and machinery, the vast majority of Europes new-brand tampons are made in one of a handful of factories. (The two leading ones, I was told in hushed tones, are in Slovenia and Spain.) The secrecy is not unusual all companies protect manufacturing information. But many of the brands didnt seem to realise that within these factories, their tampons were most likely being made on the same machines. A Swiss manufacturing firm called Ruggli has a near-monopoly on tampon-making machines, so almost every new-brand tampon, whatever its particular design or added feature, is a Ruggli tampon. We all try and make it sound like theres something proprietary, Parvizi-Waynethe of Freda told me. But ultimately, its like a white T-shirt. Its the same product. We cant fool ourselves that this is something different.


The Ruggli factory sits on the edge of Koblenz, a small Swiss town on the banks of the Rhine. Swiss precision is one of its taglines, looping tampons in with the other prides of Switzerland, watches and private banking. More than 40 people work in the white-block facility adjoining a field which, on a recent afternoon, stank of manure. In the lobby, there was a sunken rhombus-shaped pit brimming with tens of thousands of tampons. Our tampon pool! said Valon Maliqi, head of sales and marketing, with a proud smile. The equivalent of a menstrual ball pit is not the only surprising interior decor decision at Ruggli. On the walls hang a series of pictures of naked torsos made up of green and yellow dots, with the pice de rsistance a large pair of exposed breasts saved for the boardroom.

Maliqi is the kind of tampon-engineering enthusiast who, ahead of my arrival, had neatly laid out a long row of tampons next to the sandwiches on the boardroom table. He was keen to showcase the full suite of tampons that Ruggli machines can make, and kept leaping to his feet to draw on a whiteboard the minor variations they create for different brands: tampons with holes in the head, tampons with wavy grooves (to draw the blood down the tampon), tampons with blue lines. When I asked him what the blue lines were for, he adopted an expression that suggested there was not a great deal he could say on behalf of their utility. There is, after all, only so much you can do with a wad of cotton and rayon.

On a tour of the factory, Maliqi kept half-closing doors, anxious of the highly proprietary nature of Rugglis machinery. I tried to reassure him that it was unlikely I would be able to sketch in my notebook the design secrets of a mechanism that takes a team of engineers six to 10 months to build and costs up to 2m Swiss francs (1.58m) to buy, but if you are in possession of a near-monopoly, you cant be too careful. A Ruggli machine will last for many years, a resilient piece of hardware that is the opposite of the disposable, mass-volume product it makes. The company sells fewer than 40 machines a year to about 30 tampon manufacturers worldwide, but that equates to roughly 50% of the worlds tampons being made by Ruggli machines. Its clients include multinationals who own multiple machines that run 24 hours a day and shoot out 120 tampons a minute. They never stop them! said Maliqi with some excitement.

On the factory floor, I was introduced to a finished tampon machine, in the process of being tested. It was a fabulous beast, a vast L-shape of gleaming steel, the size of an outrageous sofa or a studio apartment in an overpriced city, an inventors fantasy of visible interlocking cogs and pistons, tubes and belts, all working in rapid synchrony. At one end, a ribbon of white fabric and a spool of string were being fed into the machine, while at the other end, fully fledged, plastic-wrapped, applicator-fitted tampons were popping out and being closely inspected by a serious man wearing a black Vans T-shirt, black jeans and heavy boots.

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A 1970s Tampax advertisement. Photograph: Hera Vintage Ads/Alamy

Everyone on the factory floor, I realised, was a man. Ha ha, yes! said Maliqi. In the engineering department we have some women. He paused. Most of the time in that meeting room, its men sitting there and talking about tampons. Which we never use! Neither of us were sure what to make of this. But in marketing, its a lot of women. They have huge power.

It is the marketing department, after all, that promote the wavy grooves, the holes in the head, the blue lines, the reason to buy one thing on a shelf over another thing. In the end we are not very interested in these products, we just do the machines, said Maliqi, when I asked him for a little too much detail on the thinking behind the wavy grooves. (The grooves and the holes in the head, it turns out, are essentially pointless, because blood soaks the tampon from all directions, not neatly from top to bottom.) But Maliqi did have a more concerted interest in some of the wider trends around tampon usage that might affect his business the fall in consumption, the rise in alternatives and the deep and growing mistrust of tampon ingredients.

The main ingredient of a tampon that is not 100% cotton is rayon, or viscose, made from dissolved wood pulp regenerated as cellulose fibres, a process that involves chemical treatment. It is these chemicals that tend to worry consumers, and newer tampon brands play on this fear: Most tampons contain synthetics treated with chemicals and cotton sprayed with pesticides, reads a statement on Dames website. Women use 12,000 tampons in a lifetime and the vagina is highly absorbent. You do the maths. (There currently is no maths, or science, that proves rayon tampons are harmful, although the late-90s scare around the presence of dioxin, a likely carcinogen, in tampons still lingers.)

Sinister mentions of chemicals and pesticides is the kind of talk that drives P&G wild. I take it personally sometimes. I have to remind myself, they dont know me, said an agitated Amy Krajewski, head of R&D for Tampax. She told me about the millions of dollars P&G spends on testing and monitoring its products, resources that small startups dont have. We hold ourselves to a very high standard. Wed never intentionally put anyone in harms way.

Except for when they unintentionally did. In 1975, P&G made a super-absorbent tampon called Rely that had to be removed from the market five years later due to its association with multiple cases of toxic shock syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by bacterial infection. Yes, there was that debacle, said Cheri McMaster, a brand communications manager at P&G. But as a result, she argued, P&G is now one of the leading experts in TSS. They fund scientific studies and publish data. As another P&G comms manager, Ania Bielecka, said with a casual brutality: We have a team of toxicologists that will be testing for a year, and within the same year there will be an Instagram company that will appear and disappear.

Back at Ruggli, Maliqi made the point that cotton isnt the spotless substance we might like to imagine. To make cotton seductively white and free of all the things you might find in a field bugs, dirt it needs to be treated in some way. And, as Maliqi said, You need to ask yourself: where is this cotton coming from? India and Pakistan are two of the largest cotton producers in the world, and many reports have revealed the extent to which their cotton industries rely heavily on child labour. Not only that, for every 1kg of cotton, you need 10,000 litres of water, all to help make a product that comes enclosed in a non-recyclable plastic applicator.

Still, if people are willing to pay more for organic cotton tampons (between 4 and 10 a box, compared to 2 or 2.45 for 18 Tampax Compak), then brands will make them, and Tampax will make them, too. Upgraded versions of a basic product are a quick route to profit, and most founders I spoke to had major financial goals. Flos founder, Tara Chandra, told me she hoped to become a 100m company in five to 10 years; Milanova has her eye on those 1 million customers. Most of all, they all wanted to see Tampax fall. At the heart of all startups you have big lofty ambitions, said Dame co-founder, Celia Pool. And your big lofty ambition is to take a slice of that persons pie.

Almost every founder mentioned, longingly, the berserk trajectory of Californian startup Dollar Shave Club, launched in 2011 to sell razors and shaving products through monthly subscriptions. After attracting multiple backers during four rounds of investment, the company expanded rapidly. It was a business model that seemed perfectly translatable to period products: facial hair growth, like a period, is an unavoidable bodily function that requires regular purchases. But then, in 2016, Dollar Shave Club was bought by Unilever for a reported $1bn. It was a financial win for the founders, but if the original dream was to take a slice of the pie, perhaps the more realistic vision is the one where the pie simply eats you alive, and pays you handsomely for the pleasure.


The fate of most of these period startups, closely aligned to the fate of most startups in general, will be to disappear. A lot of dollars will be burned, Rastegar Zegna, Dayes investor, warned. Or gained, if it is bought out by Tampax. In the meantime, Tampax will continue its imperial march, armed with the knowledge that new markets are often found in places previously inhabited by fear. It is called education of the form: part of its duty as the world-leading brand is to show consumers, and potential consumers, the benefits of using its product.

Suk pointed to market research that suggested African American and Hispanic women were less likely to use tampons, partly because of a notion, she said, that a tampon could break a womans hymen. You are statistically more likely if you are an ethnic woman in the US, said Suk in language that landed somewhat awkwardly, to try a tampon five or six years later than your Caucasian counterpart. Never mind the delay for the woman, thats six years of lost sales.

In response, Tampax launched its #LiveRadiant roadshow campaign, curated for black women by black women, which visits historically black colleges in the US, such as Texas Southern and Clark Atlanta. Tampax staffers turn up with a menstrual advocate, Cece Jones-Davis, and an obstetrician, Dr Kiarra King, who answer students questions while they distribute free samples of Tampax Radiant, the brand specifically created for black women (which boasts a softer, quieter quilted wrapper that can be re-purposed as an absorbent pocket for your used tampon). A television advert tagline Anything But Basic shows a young black woman hurling her little plastic envelope into a bin from the far end of a bright white sofa.

Your average startup doesnt have the resources to run a roadshow or a TV commercial, but they do have an ability to switch tack faster than a giant multinational. In the future, most intend to broaden their offering beyond tampons. Many were coy about sharing their plans, but some Flo and Freda for starters are already making the logical sidestep into incontinence products. The difference between a sanitary towel and a pad that absorbs wayward urine is zero, and yet, historically, the latter market has been dominated by the unappetising Tena brand, which you assume is only bought by ailing ladies in support stockings until you realise, having had kids, that you can be legitimately young and healthy and still have significant issues with your pelvic floor.

Many of the new brands look to the future of their customers, too, and the fact that they will not always have periods. The menopause approaches, another area of womens health previously shrink-wrapped in shame but now becoming commercially ripe. Following the menstrual example, the menopause is now undergoing its own cultural rebranding. Multiple books have been written (The Good Menopause Guide, Confessions of a Menopausal Woman, Making Friends With the Menopause, and so on); Mariella Frostrup made a BBC documentary; Gwyneth Paltrow made a Goop video. I dont think we have in our society a great example of an aspirational menopausal woman, said Paltrow, presumably nominating herself, the high priestess of expensive aspiration, for the job.

For a tampon brand, it is only logical that you would want to cover the whole hormonal journey, as one founder put it to me. Why stop selling when the bleeding stops? The menopause offers ongoing and diverse opportunity. From a business point of view, its amazing, said Parvizi-Wayne, founder of Freda. A menopausal woman is likely to have more money to spend and more time to spend it. The symptoms insomnia, anxiety, loss of libido, headaches, hot flushes are numerous and, as Parvizi-Wayne put it, every single symptom in its own right is an unaddressed market.

If you see the world as a set of addressed or yet-to-be-addressed markets, it changes things a little. I started to wonder what was left to address. Death? No, thats been done: there are a host of nifty death startups, offering cheaper funeral services and probate advice. Your mind? Done, too and Im paying for it already (along with more than 1 million other subscribers, I have the Headspace app on my phone). Disconnection our only hope has long been monetised, and again, Im shelling out for the privilege (the Freedom app, which disables the internet, is probably my most-used software). It makes sense that the only markets left are the ones weve been historically reluctant to talk about. Lets face it, an investor once told Parvizi-Wayne at a meeting, taboos have become sexy. A taboo, seen another way, is just a market still invitingly unsaturated.

This article was amended on 11 February 2020. An earlier version mistakenly stated that Gillette was owned by Unilever. In fact it is owned by Procter & Gamble.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/11/tampon-wars-the-battle-to-overthrow-the-tampax-empire

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