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HomeTechMenstrual Pads and Cups That Solidify Blood

Menstrual Pads and Cups That Solidify Blood

Ed Cara

The future of menstruation may look a bit different than today, if a team of scientists in Virginia have anything to say about it. They’ve created pads and cups that can solidify menstrual blood rather than simply absorb or contain it as is. Their innovation should reduce leaking and spillage, while also being environmentally friendly, the team says.

Researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University developed the next-gen menstrual technology. This team primarily studies the gut microbiome and bacteriophages (bacteria-preying viruses), but also have a related interest in biomaterials—substances that can safely interact with our bodies, either to support, replace, or even enhance a biological function. Lab leader Bryan Hsu wanted his next project to focus on something that had gotten relatively little attention elsewhere, and that’s when he landed on menstruation.

“Menstrual care products have been based on the same principles for a really long time: either retention or absorption,” Hsu told Gizmodo in an email. “With so much biotechnological advancement in other areas of health, I was surprised to learn that there was comparatively little advancement in menstrual care.”

While these existing methods might be fine most of the time, a woman’s heavy flow can overwhelm a pad or cup, leading to leaking. Hsu figured that it would be possible to counteract this by making the blood itself harder to spill.

“When formulating the idea in my naïve male mind, I imagined myself getting a full cup of water in the middle of the night. I know that I would 100% spill the water on the way back to bed. But I’m also pretty sure I wouldn’t spill a full cup of sand (solid), honey (highly viscous), or jello (a gel).” he explained. “So we tried to design a product that would gel blood so that it would be easier to manage without spilling.”

The team's visual abstract illustrating how their menstrual technology is meant to work.
© Bataglioli et al/Matter

The team—which does include several women—ultimately settled on using a powder mixture of alginate, a polymer derived from seaweed, and glycerol (a naturally occurring alcohol) to do the trick. In experiments simulating menstruation with actual blood, the addition of the powder prevented more leakage from a pad and much more spillage from a cup compared to their typical counterparts. These ingredients are also biodegradable and already widely added to other products, including food. And if the team’s technology can make reusable cups more appealing, it could help cut down the sizable amount of waste produced by disposable tampons and pads. The team’s findings were published Wednesday in the journal Matter.

This isn’t the first time that people have tried to reinvent the menstruation wheel—an endeavor that hasn’t always gone smoothly. The arrival of superabsorbent tampons in the early 1980s inadvertently sparked outbreaks of toxic shock syndrome, a life-threatening condition caused by the overgrowth of certain toxin-producing strains of bacteria, particularly Staphylococcus aureus. Thankfully, the quick recall of these products and better advice on tampon use eventually quelled the terror of toxic shock.

Menstrual-related toxic shock remains very rare today and is still predominantly associated with tampons, but cases can happen in those using cups and pads as well. Since alginate can also be food for some bacteria, Hsu’s team wanted to get ahead of things and proactively lower the risk of toxic shock, but without potentially harming the natural vaginal microbiome. 

“We added a cationic polysaccharide to our formulation that would entangle itself into our material and minimize leaching away from the material,” Hsu said. “We found that it didn’t impair the gelling function when mixed with blood, but also reduced the growth of S. aureus in the material.”

Despite the team’s innovative approach to solidify menstrual blood, their product is still a long way from being available on the shelves of your local pharmacy. The team will have to clearly show that its creation can meet the regulatory standards of other FDA-approved menstrual products, including safety. They’ll also have to make sure that it can be scaled up while still remaining affordable. But the team is definitely hoping to develop their tech commercially, and they’re already looking ahead to other iterations of it.

“We’re also working on a tampon type of formulation and are aiming for other applications in women’s health that we think can have a high impact on quality of life,” Hsu said.

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