Why periods are about to become big business.
I want to talk about periods, you know — menstruation, ‘that time of the month’, being on the rag, getting a visit from Aunt Flo, surfing the crimson wave, on the blob, shark week, moon sickness, ‘My Dolmio Day’. The list goes on.
And I want to talk about them because despite the feminine hygiene market being expected to reach $42.7 billion by 2022, not much has changed in the last 90 years since the invention of the tampon. Taboo and squeamishness has severely hampered any attempts at innovation; we’ve avoided the conversation entirely and we can’t innovate what we can’t talk about.
Thankfully, it seems the world is finally coming around to the fact that 51% of the population have periods and that it’s neither weird nor gross, but a reality.
In 2016, the first ever sanitary pad was shown in a TV ad, prior to that, one had never (repeat: NEVER) been shown before. And then last year, Bodyform decided to show red liquid in one of their ads to depict actual period blood, as opposed to the weird blue stuff we’ve been subjected to for years. But even though it took until 2017 to admit that menstruation involves blood (who knew), the pace of change is starting to pick up.
New brands are emerging that provide women (and non-binary people who menstruate) with a wider range of choices. Among them are Thinx and Lunette, Lunapads, DivaCups, GladRags, Dear Kate and Flex, which sell menstrual cups, reusable period underwear and cloth pads.
There are monthly subscription boxes, organic options and ‘smart cups’ such as Loon which uses an antenna to test for potential problems such as uterine fibroids or premature ovarian failure.
Social media is helping us to open up conversations about menstruation, with a new wave of period activists, determined to challenge the status quo of our flows, addressing not just the financial and practical problems, but the attitudinal ones too.
All of this speaks to huge leaps forward, but it still only scratches the surface when it comes to the potential for periods, because it only focuses on the few days per month when menstruation occurs.
But menstruation is part of a cycle that renews, on average, every 28 days, so why are we only focusing on 4–5 of those days when there’s a much bigger and more interesting picture to understand?
Cue the quiet but powerful revolution taking shape in the form of FemTech, with the arrival of period and fertility tracking apps.
Clue, Glow, Flo and Natural Cycles are just a few of the players that are helping women to connect with and understand their cycles and as a result, themselves.
It’s a much needed extension of healthcare becoming increasingly personalised, patient-centric and proactive. Empowering us to have more control over our own wellbeing, to make better choices that suit us as individuals and to demystify our own bodies and minds; which to date have remained curiously unknown to us.
Female healthcare specifically has differed only when it comes to our reproductive system; periods, pregnancy and childbirth — these are the only times we’re ever treated differently to men. Most other aspects of medical and mental wellbeing are gender neutral. But therein lies the opportunity.
You see, menstrual cycles are so much more than the 4–5 days everyone seems to focus upon, they’re an integral part of being female and understanding the bigger picture could be the key to unlocking some incredibly powerful insights and ideas, and a better way for women to become their own wellness advocates.
But before I delve deeper into that topic, let’s start with a quick biology lesson.
When it comes to our periods, women are stereotyped as unpredictable and unreliable, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If your periods are regular then you’ll actually go through similar physical and emotional changes month after month like clockwork, which are in line with four distinct phases.
Phase 1: The Menstruation Phase
The hormone progesterone plunges, which causes the uterine lining to shed, so you get your period.
How you feel
During this time, most women have low energy and feel tired and withdrawn.
Phase 2: The Follicular Phase
Your pituitary gland releases a hormone called Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), which stimulates the follicles in your ovaries to mature (they contain your eggs). Estrogen and testosterone also start to rise.
How you feel
Energised and extroverted. Testosterone stimulates your libido while estrogen makes you feel more outgoing and suppresses your appetite.
Phase 3: The Ovulatory Phase
An egg gets released from its follicle in your ovary. Estrogen and testosterone rise to peak levels, boosting the effects of the follicular phase.
How you feel
Super confident and super sexy.
Phase 4: The Luteal Phase
The first 2–3 days will feel like the ovulatory phase. But that will change as estrogen and testosterone decline and your body starts producing progesterone, which is an anti-anxiety hormone, kind of like a natural Valium.
How you feel
Like you’re ready to wind down and nest a bit. Some women may feel PMS symptoms like cravings for comfort foods, bloating, headaches, anxiety and moodiness.
And then the whole thing starts again.
So you see, reducing menstrual cycles to the menstruation phase is a hugely limiting approach.
With each set of changes that occur, women have a different set of strengths. This makes them not only predictable, but multi-powerful. Just as each season in nature serves a purpose, so does each phase of the cycle.
What if we changed the way we look at our periods; from the ‘monthly curse’ to a power source and an incredibly helpful tool that can help us to live our lives fully and with ease? To harness the phases and adapt our lifestyle to suit?
Could the concept of cyclical living be the ultimate bio-hack; giving us a blueprint for how to live happier and healthier lives by understanding our moods, energy, cognition, nutritional needs and more?
Well, some smart brands are already doing just that and I predict that they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
Since launching in 2013, period-tracking app Clue has amassed 10 million active users in nearly 200 countries, $30 million in venture funding, and 50 employees, most based in the hip Kreuzberg neighbourhood in Berlin. So you could say that what they’re doing is proving to be pretty popular.
The app lets users track up to 31 possible categories, including cravings, digestion, hair, skin, emotions, motivation and sex. And it’s all underpinned with machine learning technology and scientific research, that offers users personalised information about their cycle, symptoms, and moods.
And what Clue are doing with their users data is more than impressive. In 2016, researchers from academia came calling, excited by the treasure trove of information Clue had compiled — the largest data set about menstruation in existence. They’ve now set up partnerships with institutions like Columbia, Oxford, and Stanford Universities and the Kinsey Institute, all of which hope to shed new light on a blatantly understudied segment of the population: women.
But in the meantime, Clue are putting the power in their users hands by exploring conversational interfaces and algorithms, which continue to give in-depth personalised insights to the women who use it, not just about their ‘time of the month’ but about their whole month.
Now imagine how that data could then create suggestions for how best to adapt the way they eat, sleep, socialise, work, exercise etc…
Nutrition is a critical part of managing our health and eating right for our menstrual cycles is no different. Food Period designs functional food products that support women’s cycles, naturally.
Their feature products are ‘Moon Bites’, which are based on a concept called ‘seed syncing’ that involves eating certain combinations of seeds, in specific quantities, at different stages of your menstrual cycle. The ingredients directly correlate to the different phases and can assist your body in maintaining optimal hormonal levels.
And their idea has really caught on.
They recently won the pitch competition at the NYU Entrepreneurs Festival in March 2018, and are semi-finalists in the $300K Entrepreneurs Challenge. They’ve also already sold a couple dozen Moon Bites Subscription Boxes to customers in and outside of the United States.
Now imagine how this concept could be applied to at-home cooking kits, the snack aisle, on the go drinks, delivery services…
We all complain about period skin — when you get extra oily, are prone to breakouts and it just adds to the misery and exhaustion you’re already feeling. Well Knours, a US naturals start up brand, is trying to change that.
They’re capitalising on the trend of personalised beauty through focusing in on hormonal changes in the skin from menstrual cycles.
They created an AI powered app that tracks changes in the user’s skin condition and mood, as well as including a questionnaire that devises the appropriate, individual skincare routine for them. The app then sends push notifications to alert you as to where you are in your cycle and how you might need to change up your products.
Currently there are eight products in the line, which can be swapped out for one another depending on where you’re at in your cycle. Though Knours plans to release new additions every three to six months.
Now imagine how cyclical skincare could be applied to make up, self-care routines, supplements, on-demand beauty services and clinics…
Probably one of the most exciting launches from my perspective is Moody, a UK based digital ecosystem designed to help women track their mood for their full menstrual cycle, care for their mental health, and maximise monthly productivity (I think they’re onto something).
Launched in October 2017, the online platform offers information on hormonal shifts experienced during the different phases of the cycle, advice on vitamins and inspiring interviews with female celebrities. It allocates subscribers to a ‘hormone tribe’ for support, and provides access to live chats with professional endocrinologists and nutritionists.
To establish which of the five tribes they fit into, users fill in a questionnaire covering topics such as sleep patterns, mood swings and food intolerances. For example, the Charm tribe are hit most often by fatigue and energy loss, while the Pride tribe often have an overworked liver and may suffer from premenstrual syndrome as a result. Tribes then receive bespoke content and vitamin suggestions to help them with their hormonal issues.
Just last month, the Moody-U app launched, giving women an even more personalised way to understand their cycle and associated moods.
Now imagine how understanding your moods could impact on how we plan our exercise classes, our productivity and work schedules, our relationships and social interactions, our creativity peaks and troughs…
These examples are just a small snapshot of the emerging possibilities.
With the continued blurring of wellness and beauty, the cycles within our bodies are playing an ever-increasing part in how we view wellbeing and health.
Smart brands are recognising this and beginning to create products and services that look to harness biological rhythms; helping us to understand how to adjust food and lifestyle priorities, address nutrient deficiencies, prevent stress and burnout, and let us find more enjoyment doing things in the right timing.
But we’ve barely even scratched the surface on this opportunity.
Women have approximately 450 menstrual cycles in their lifetime, but according to new research carried out by YouGov for ActionAid, a quarter of women in the UK don’t understand their cycles at all.
Add that to the fact that women’s health accounts for only 4% of the overall funding for research and development for healthcare products and services.
And then multiply it by the fact that women are 75% more likely to use digital tools for their healthcare and spend 29% more per capita on it compared to men.
I think the conclusion you’ll come to is the same as mine: periods have power and potential and it’s about bloody time (I couldn’t resist) that we pay attention to them.
If you’d like to explore the opportunities in this space, whether you’re an established female healthcare brand or a start up looking to take the category by storm, give me a shout.