Why You Need to Stop Saying Feminine Hygiene

by Siena Dexter on 03/08/2021 | 4 Minute Read

We need to talk about the term feminine hygiene, and different from how we’ve discussed it in the past. Because, while every other toiletry category is offering care—body care, hair care, baby care—everything that goes on, or in, the female anatomy is lumped together under a label that essentially says "you’re dirty." Products that wash, products that deodorize, products for periods, products for sex. Used by retailers, brands, and pharmacies, whether on packaging and category trend reports, perpetuates a myth of feminine uncleanliness that doesn't belong in our time.

The term first appeared around 1920 when household detergent brand Lysol started marketing germ-killing products to women as vaginal cleaners. And so, the feminine hygiene myth began, spinning a tale of female odor, of shame and neglect, and husbands too grossed out to "go there."

Got to love us branding folk, right?

The problem with the term feminine hygiene, apart from being grossly inaccurate, isn't what we’re saying, but what we’re not.

Period, menstruation, vagina, vulva. You know, the stuff women actually have, not a condition household cleaning brands in the 20s invented.

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Photo: Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Feminine hygiene is one of those things that you go around accepting as totally normal until you notice it—and once you do, it starts to look more and more out of place, more outrageous and incongruent with the age of equality we live in. I’ll admit, I wasn’t aware of the term or the problem and happily called menstrual pads "sanitary pads" until recently.

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In 2019, my agency, Idea Dolls London, offered to conceptualize a brand identity and packaging design for Binti International to help them market a reusable pad to a UK audience. Through my research, I explored the sad synonymy between the female anatomy and a state of uncleanliness. Coming across the main category trend report, Mintel’s Feminine Hygiene and Sanitary Protection Products, I wondered if the key to the problem could be the language the industry is using.

When working on Ebb, we addressed the problem word "sanitary" with a simple shift. Instead of focusing on the socially constructed function, we simply said menstrual wear. 

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Photo: Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

The category known as feminine hygiene is growing fast. Awareness and an increase in disposable income will fuel an estimated growth from 20.9 billion USD in 2020 to 27.7 billion USD in 2025. Shoppers increasingly look for conscientious brands that reflect their values. As challenger brands drive change with bold designs and manifestos that matter, the reign of "feminine hygiene" may finally be at an end.

DAME

With the tagline "bleed red, think green," reusable period-products brand DAME is bold in its promise to reduce plastic and matter-of-fact in its brand communication. For DAME, period products get called, well, period products, while SKUs are helpfully labeled period pads or period pants. With a nod to the welcome change, DAME says, “We’re supposed to be embarrassed, but we’re not (anymore!)”

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Flo

Flo launched into the category with a range of tampons packaged in an ice-cream tub pack—and you know straight away this is a brand that gets periods. On-pack messaging says it like it is. Descriptors reference the material—bamboo pads—and products come grouped in period care. The brand’s playful approach supports their mission to "destigmatize periods, bladder leaks and sex through funny, empowering, adorable packaging—and similarly compelling messaging."

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Flo says, “We’re here for all, the messy, exhausting, sexy, joyful, hormonal, enraging, amazing bits of the human body."

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Into the Wylde

Sexual wellness brands face the challenge of reversing the stigma of silence and talking openly, perhaps for the first time, about intimate health. Idea Dolls London worked with lubricant brand Into the Wylde to develop brand storytelling that addresses the sense of disconnection women feel when experiencing discomfort. Flipping a category that markets shame and embarrassment—our brand messaging was about connecting women with themselves and the curiosity and playfulness that can be lost when experiencing sensitivities, as well as the societal stigma that goes with it.

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Photo: Into the Wylde, photography by Tara Liondaris, illustration & packaging by Claire Hartley

The tagline "reawaken play" captured the brand spirit of freedom and curiosity, inspiring our brand messaging across social, digital, and the brand toolkit, with lines like "Vulva Loving Care" and "Free The V."

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Thanks to challenger brands, the industry is changing. But large retailers, international FMCG brands, and industry trend reporters are holding fast. It seems to me, and I hope to you too, that there isn't a single logical reason we should continue using the term feminine hygiene. It started on packaging, branding, and marketing. Let feminine hygiene live on the shelves of museums to educate future generations, not the shelves of our global supermarkets.

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