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Meet the startup making panties for your period

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If you’re one of the unlucky 25 percent of ladies who suffer from dysmenorrhea, or painful periods, your periods are bad. Like, really bad. Like, so bad you regularly stay home from school/work, lie in bed and eat ice cream and scream at your Sims families and weep at car commercials on Hulu and basically morph into a sentient version of an r/twoxchromosomes thread.

If you’re one of the very, very unlucky 20 percent of ladies who have dysmenorrhea and menorrhagia, or extremely heavy periods, to the point where not even two pads, a menstrual cup, and the goddamn Hoover Dam are likely to save you from leaking, the startup THINX has got your back. They’ve created a pair of stain-resistant “smart” underwear for your heaviest days, so you’ll never have to wrap a sweater around your waist or buy new bedsheets or waddle around your office wearing three pads and feeling like a sumo wrestler ever again. Cue the hip-bumping white ladies!

THINX was launched back in 2010 by twin sisters Radha and Miki Agrawal and their friend Antonia Dunbar. It comes in three basic styles—hiphugger ($34), cheeky ($29), and thong ($24), as well as a fancier, lacy option ($47)—and uses patented four-layer technology, which they call “Thinx Quadtech,” to ensure the wearer doesn’t experience any leakage.

THINX is not the only pair of underwear on the market that doubles as a feminine hygiene product: The environmentally friendly menstrual product line Lunapads came up with Lunapanties, a pair of underwear that has insert pads sewn into the lining, and there’s also a brand called Period Panteez that comes with a stretchy waistband and an internal leak-resistant pad.

But unlike Lunapanties, which come with a built-in insert pad, THINX actually consists of four layers: A top moisture-wicking layer, a breathable, anti-microbial stain-resistant layer; an absorption layer that can hold up to 2 to 6 teaspoons of blood (or blue liquid, if you’re shooting a sanitary pad commercial); and a thin, leak-proof layer. All of the layers are quite thin, the effect being that unlike a bulky pad or panty-liner, the wearer barely realizes they’re wearing the underwear. (They’re also much more attractive than Period Panteez, which look more like Olympic swimmer trunks than lingerie).

The underwear, says co-founder Miki Agrawal, is one of the first examples of technological innovation in the feminine hygeine product space—a space that, thanks to the taboo surrounding menstruation, has barely evolved in more than 80 years.

“Everyone’s ruined underwear, everyone’s had accidents,”  Agrawal told me when I spoke with her on the phone recently. “But if you do the research, in the 1930s the tampon was invented by a man, and there’s been no innovation since. Our cell phones, our computers— they innovate every three months, and yet there’s been no innovation this space at all, because it’s a taboo subject and no one wants to talk about it.” With THINX, Agrawal and her co-founders are hoping that will change.

THINX was inspired in part by the Agrawal sisters’ own experience with having terrible periods, to the point where one time, while they were participating in a three-legged race, Miki’s sister Radha had an accident and “we had to run tethered together to change her underwear,” Miki says.

The project was also inspired by Miki’s increasing awareness of the stigma surrounding menstruation in Africa, when she met a young schoolgirl in South Africa in 2010 while she was there for the World Cup. “I asked why she wasn’t in school, and she said, ‘It’s my week of shame,’” she says. “That’s when I discovered the massive problem with feminine hygiene with girls in the developing world.”

In rural Africa, menstruation is not just taboo; it poses serious obstacles to a girl’s education. According to UNICEF, one in 10 girls do not attend school during their menstrual cycles, due to the lack of adequate menstrual products or facilities at their schools; in the worst cases, they use dirty rags, leaves, old plastic bags, or mud. As a result of the disruption in attendance, girls have a higher chance of dropping out of school and have lower general income potential; they’re also more likely to get pregnant early or get HIV/AIDS.

To combat the lack of adequate resources for girls in Africa, THINX has partnered up with the startup AFRIPads to give seven pads to a girl in the developing world for every pair of underwear sold. While that won’t do much to fight the cultural stigma surrounding menstruation in Africa, it’ll go a long way for the girls who may have to use dirty rags or leaves in order to not miss a day of school.

In the U.S., however, Agrawal sees the recent menstrual-themed ad campaign like the viral HelloFlo “moon party” commercial as a good sign that the menstruation taboo is slowly disappearing. She hopes that the increasing willingness to openly discuss periods will make innovation in the field possible, making the two-pad-and-a-menstrual-cup period day a thing of the past. (They’re also releasing a “new top-secret product” in November or December of this year; Agrawal is mum on the details, except to say that it “might replace the tampon somewhat” and “gives girls what they want in an environmental way”).

“I would say [the subject of periods] is getting less and less taboo,” she says. “But again, we recently shot a commercial of this girl having her period on the subway and blood leaking down her legs having a white dress. Our actress was an improv actress who at first said ‘Yeah, no big deal,’ but while she was shooting it she was so embarrassed being on the subway in front of real people that she threw up after and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’”

“So there’s more work to be done. But if we keep talking about it the less awkward it’ll be, and the less awkward it is the more innovation we’ll have in the field."

Correction: In a previous version of this story, we referred to THINX co-founder Antonia Dunbar as "Amelia Dunbar." 

H/T Art In Fact Mag | Photo by aka Jens Rost/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)