Commercially available disposable sanitary napkins are widely used, and there is a real need for those who do not want (or cannot) use internal protection. Here’s how they are made.
The first sanitary napkin was launched in 1897 by Johnson & Johnson in the USA: it was called the “Sanitary Napkins for Ladies” and was not really successful: women didn’t dare to ask for the product by name in the store, which made marketing and sales complicated.
The company even decided in the 1920’s to distribute coupons that made it possible to ask for the product without having to say a word!
We have not found any information on the composition of these early towels, but it is very possible that they were made from cotton. Johnson & Johnson remains active in the area of menstrual protection today, as the Group owns the Vania and Nett brands.
Towels were then industrially produced after the 1st World War: The International Cello-Cotton Company invented Cellu-cotton (= rayon, the ecological impact of its manufacture is explained here) which is highly absorbent and originally created for medical applications (bandages, etc…).
Cello-Cotton is so absorbent that nurses use it to absorb their menstrual flow. So the company (now Kimberly-Clark), marketed a Cello-Cotton pad under the Kotex brand, which still exists today.
The International Cello-Cotton Company is particularly known for having commissioned a publicity and educational film from Walt Disney in 1946, entitled The Story of Menstruations, which was broadcast massively in American schools until the 1960s. It is also the first film where the word “vagina” is pronounced!
After that, there’s a little blur in the sources. But there seems to have been a switch from rayon to petrochemical derivatives when the Always towels were launched in 1983 by the Procter & Gamble Group (which also owns Pampers diapers and Tampax pads).
Note that in the 90’s, the Vania brand tried to work from a natural absorbent, sphagnum moss (which absorbs 30x its weight in liquid). But this range was not as successful as expected. Just remember…
Traditional disposable sanitary napkins (we are not talking about organic products here) are composed of an absorbent gel core enclosed between 2 plastic films:
– The upper veil, in contact with the skin and the external mucous membrane, is made of plastic (on the Always website, they specify that it is polyolefin). Sometimes, this veil also includes care products, whose composition we have not found.
– The underside of the towel is also made of a petrochemical derivative.
– The super-absorbent gel is composed of sodium polyacrylate crystals: a chemical absorbent polymer that turns into a gel under the effect of humidity and can absorb 800 times its weight in water. It normally does not come into direct contact with the skin, and it’s a good choice because it is irritating. These gels are also found in baby diapers or moisture absorbers.
In towels, because the blood is in contact with the air, it coagulates, so it smells.
To counteract this odour, brands sometimes use “odour neutralisation technologies” (unknown composition) and/or synthetic fragrances. However, even if these additives are obviously regulated, even if all the products they use are approved for contact with mucous membranes, the fact remains that they can cause allergies.
There you have it, now you know a little more about the composition of sanitary napkins.
Please feel free to leave us a comment if you have any questions or comments.
Source images: National Museum of American history