"Cancerous substances have been detected in 97% of all sanitary pads." Noonsong starts feeling anxious after watching the news. She becomes nervous and angry at the large amount of harmful substances being detected on the sanitary pads she uses. However, she still has to use those in her daily life, so she is agonizing over the best way to stay safe and how to protect her health. She begins to look for advertisements and information about various kinds of menstrual goods. What decision will she make?
Women's products are literally defined as those used by women. Women's products include underwear and sanitary products. Among them, controversy over sanitary pads, which women must use monthly, has continued for several years. Currently, the average age at which a woman's first period begins is in early teens, and the average age of menopause is in early 50s.1) Considering this, women will go through menstruation for a period of approximately 40 years. Thus, for women, sanitary pads are a "living necessity", not a personal preference. In the past, many countries, including Korea, added additional taxes to sanitary pads and considered them luxury goods. However, many countries consider them tax exempt items after hearing the voices of people saying taxing the sanitary pad is unreasonable and that sanitary pads are a necessity. Despite these changes, various problems related to sanitary pads have been steadily increasing.
Women are unable to use sanitary pads with confidence even though they are must-have items. In 2016, the story of low-income children using shoe insoles instead of sanitary pads because they had no money was revealed, and made people suggest the price of sanitary pads was a significant burden to those in need. In 2017, carcinogens that can cause cancer were detected in a number of sanitary pads, and the list of infected sanitary pads included most brands of sanitary pads widely used by the majority. Many were angry at the news that sanitary pads, which touch the skin directly, were not safe. The issue died down over time, but this year again, news showing the detection of carcinogens in sanitary pads sparked outrage. Despite the constant voice of awakening, women are still at a loss as to what to do regarding the unsafe products. Various problems with sanitary pads continue, but there is still no clear solution, causing many women to feel uneasy. In addition to sanitary pads, problems related to other women's products have also been raised steadily.
What’s wrong with them?
One problem that constantly comes to light is the economic aspect. Efforts by women's organizations lead to the removal of value-added tax on sanitary pads in 2004. However, only VATs incurred actual sales were exempted. The price of sanitary pads in Korea is the highest among OECD countries. According to the Korea Consumer Agency, the price of a sanitary pad in Korea is about 331 won per unit, which is almost twice as high as in countries such as Denmark, Japan, the United States, and France. Assuming that an individual uses six per day for a week, the individual will spend more than 6.7 million won on sanitary pads over a period of 40 years in Korea. Regarding the price of sanitary pads, reference can be made to the COVERSTORY of The Sookmyung Times No. 352. In addition to the high prices, the high rate of price increase was also a problem. According to a survey by Statistics Korea, the overall increase rate of the consumer price index in July 2017 compared to July 2010 was 13.2 percent, while sanitary pads rose by 26.3 percent. This suggests that the price increase rate of sanitary pads is higher than the overall price index rate increase. In addition, the Fair Trade Commission has even said that sanitary pads as a product are unfairly priced in 2016 and the Commission had suspicions regarding collusion among sanitary pad manufacturing industries regarding pricing. As such, sanitary pad price controversy is an old topic that is still unresolved.
Another controversial issue regarding sanitary pads is related to chemical toxicity that is continuously being detected. In 2017, a team led by Professor Kim Mangu of the Kangwon National University and the Korean Women's Environmental Network confirmed that harmful substances were found in all 10 products from four top companies with high sales. In December of last year, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced that those chemicals would not cause harm to the human body.2) However, some experts have suggested that "Symptoms such as menstrual pain, changes in menstrual amount and menstrual blood color, and increases in lumpy blood, as well as other external symptoms such as pain, itching, and pimples may be related to the use of disposable sanitary pads. Therefore, studies such as toxicology and epidemiological assessment are needed to confirm whether the symptoms are linked to the chemicals." In 2018, research on the health impact of disposable sanitary pads was done by the Ministry of Environment.3) As of 2020, there has yet to be any clear action on the issue. Also, carcinogens have once again been detected in most sanitary pads. According to analysis by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety by Lee Yongho of the National Assembly's Health and Welfare Committee, carcinogens have been detected in 647 sanitary pads, among the 666 items surveyed. This finding suggests that almost all sanitary pads have carcinogens. Carcinogens and reprotoxic substances were also detected in 25 foreign direct purchase products.4) Results suggest that carcinogens and toxins contained in sanitary pads can directly or indirectly negatively affect the human body.
Apart from the sanitary pad itself, it is also problematic that there are few alternative choices for women. There are various types of menstrual products such as tampons and menstrual cups, but in Korea, most females use sanitary pads. When 174 women surveyed by the Korean Society of Women Health Nursing in 2018, 82.1 percent of the respondents said they use disposable sanitary pads.5) Ahn Jihye, CEO of Ease & More, established to promote healthy menstruation, said, "The government's standard for sex education should include an introduction to menstrual products. We want to let people know that there are other 'options'". It wasn't until 2017 that Korea approved the sale of menstrual cups, which are less toxic and can be used for longer times. However, misconceptions regarding the implantable sanitary products have narrowed choices. Also, at the menstrual products section of supermarkets in Korea, most items are sanitary pads, few are tampons, and menstrual cups are rare. Kim Jian, who once lived in Germany, said, "While various types of tampons are available in Germany, in Korea, most options are confined to sanitary pads." As Kim states, in Korea, places to buy tampons and menstrual cups are relatively limited compared to sanitary pads of various sizes and brands. This restriction does not guarantee women's choice and denies them substitutes.
The Problem never ends
Besides the problems regarding women's products, there are also problems regarding other women's products that are indirect. The first indirect problem is the subject-matter of advertisements of women's products. In women's product advertisement, many ads tend to focus on males, rather than females. And the use of male models has erased the female identity. One example is the advertisement of the women's underwear brand Vivian. In 2011, So Jiseob worked as a Vivian model and in the advertisement said, "You look good in anything you wear because I will protect you." In addition, the main slogan was "My woman is Vivian", which suggests that women do not choose underwear by themselves. Also, by wearing underwear chosen by males, women are deemed to be pretty.6) Women's underwear is presented as being a male's choice, not a women's choice, so women's identity is lost in products made for women. Also, a lot of advertisements have men advertising women's sanitary pads, for example, Cha Eunwoo, a singer and actor, is the main model for Secret Day, a famous sanitary pad brand. Seo Kangjun also models for the same brand, too. The gender of the model is not the issue, but what is of concern is that the advertisement of products for women must not eliminate females.
One of the problems with women product advertisements is that they do not describe menstruation directly. In countless advertisements about sanitary pads the menstrual blood is expressed in blue, not in its original red color. Also, instead of directly using the word menstruation, advertisements indirectly expressed the word using terms like 'magic'. This started in the 1990s when sanitary pad companies said "Women get magic once a month" as an advertising phrase. As the advert grew in popularity so did the use of the word magic instead of the word menstruation.7) Use of the word magic instead of the original word 'menstruation' makes women feel ashamed of their menstruation. Compared to the past, nowadays, advertisements using the proper term start to be seen. The 2018 Natracare ad mentioned menstruation directly for the first time in Korea. Afterwards, instead of distorting the word menstruation, various advertisements started becoming more realistic. In addition, Rael, a women product company also showed menstruation blood being absorbed by a sanitary pad using red color. Moreover, models in the advertisement were not celebrities, but mothers and daughters of multicultural families, foreign students, and women with short hair. This advert portrays menstruation as an everyday and natural phenomenon for everyone. This change breaks the concept of menstruation that prevails in society said the marketing manager of Rael.8) However, changes to advertisements do not mean changes are taking place in the whole society.
Social portrayal of menstruation differs from reality and will result in misconceptions about menstruation among males and young women who have not yet started to menstruate. In fact, Rael's marketing manager said, "It was shocking to discover that some men and young friends thought menstruation blood was really blue after watching existing sanitary pad ads."9) Menstruation is not something to hide. Pantone, a color production company famous for releasing yearly colors unveiled the color 'period'. The project was created in partnership with Intimina, a company that makes women's products. Intimina's global brand manager said, "The color is designed to show that the color of blood is natural in culture, society, and daily lives, and to encourage positive dialogue."10) Some people may feel uncomfortable expressing the situation directly, but others will understand that this will help women become more confident about their menstruation and solve problems related with women's products.
A Long way to go
Before accepting that women's products are only for women, it's important to recognize that women's products are daily necessities that women need to live a basic life. There are still many problems with women's products, and society needs to change to make a better life for women. Women's products will need to improve themselves, but also society's awareness of women's products needs to be improved.
1) Park Namoh, ""Who Starts Her Period Early and Who Face Menopause Early Have a High Risk of Cardiovascular Disease."", Hemophilia Life, January 17, 2018
2) Kim Dongwoo, "Detection of Carcinogens in 97% of Total Distributed Sanitary Pads", SBS CNBC, October 2, 2020
3) Kim Bohyeon, "'Three Years of Research' When Can We Trust Disposable Sanitary Pads?", Biz. Hankook, October 6, 2020
4) Lee Doyeon, "Detection of Carcinogens in 97% of Total Distributed Sanitary Pads…Safety Concerns", Yonhap News, October 2, 2020
5) Im Ayoung, "'Menstrual Cups, Tampons, Menstrual Panties, Cotton Sanitary Pads…' Why Do We Need a Variety of Menstrual Equipment?", The Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 9, 2019
6) Kim Eunji, "How Women Lost Their Identity in Women's Product Advertisements", AP newspaper, September 17, 2020
7) Jung Huiyun, "Why We Don't Pass Out Sanitary Pads in Front of Other People?", JoongAng Ilbo, September 11, 2020
8) Jang Inseon, ""Menstruation is Originally Red"… An Advertisement That Broke a Long Tradition", The Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 28, 2020
9) Same as 7
10) Rachel Moss, "A Controversy over Pantone's Introduction of the Color of Menstruation to Remove the Taboo of Menstruation", Huffpost, October 8, 2020
Kwak Lee Shinyoung / Woman Section Editor
Lee Hwang Hayoung / Woman Section Editor