The Feminine Touch

August 17, 2005

the latest innovations within the feminine hygiene market show that manufacturers are listening to the ladies

ith the feminine hygiene category assessed at $2.1 billion with a dollar growth rate of 3.4%, nonwovens are definitely showing their feminine side. Of the market’s volume, 40% is represented by sanitary pad products, 30% by panty liners and approximately 29% by tampons, according to industry sources. Private label products account for approximately 9% of the feminine hygiene market’s dollar amount, an 8% increase over last year. In volume, private label represents about 12.5% of the category—up 5% from last year.

With numbers like these, it would seem that the feminine hygiene market would be the place for absorbent product manufacturers to find success. This is not necessarily the case, however, due to heavy competition, hovering environmental and health issues and the undying power of consumer brand loyalty. On the other hand, through numerous product innovations and untapped consumer areas—such as teens—there is still much growth to be attained.

What A Girl Wants
Although feminine hygiene products are constantly being updated—whether these innovations apply to the product itself or the way it is presented through packaging and marketing efforts—the final say on what a product will include and look like comes down to the consumer. “Consumers are looking for thinner, more absorbent products that protect them, as protection is a key issue,” explained Brian Besco, vice president of sales and marketing director for Consolidated Ecoprogress Technology, Vancouver, Canada.

With 33% of the total pad category within the feminine hygiene market dominated by ultrathin products, many manufacturers are reporting an obvious shift toward thinner sanitary products from the traditional bulkier maxi pads. There is still, however, a bit of performance skepticism that ultrathin product makers still need to overcome. “Consumers are very brand loyal and trust and confidence are huge barriers to trying new products,” stated a spokesperson from Paragon Trade Brands, Norcross, GA. “A significant number of consumers are skeptical about the performance of an ultrathin pad as they associate absorbency with thickness, but I think ultrathin products will become more and more mainstream.”

As ultrathin products begin to garner greater marketshare, a decrease in the use of tampons and/or panty liners seems likely. According to Laura Keely, marketing for Kimberly-Clark, Neenah, WI, ultrathin pads continue to grow at a double digit rate, while the tampon segment has declined. “Since pads and tampons are used for the same purpose—to manage medium to heavy flow—ultrathins could be impacting the growth of tampons,” Ms. Keely assessed. She went on to explain that the panty liner market has experienced growth that is forecast to continue through the next few years. “Liners are used for light flow or non-menstrually for everyday freshness and light incontinence,” Ms. Keely added. “Because ultrathin maxi pads and liners are used by the consumer differently, we expect ultrathins to have a minimal impact on liners, if at all.”

Flo Han, corporate marketing and planning for Kang Na Hsuing Enterprise, Taipei, Taiwan, agreed. “The new technology is making pad-type products thinner and tampons have never been popular in Asia, as the market for tampons is only about 10% due to the influences of culture and custom.”

Other manufacturers, however, feel the use of tampons versus maxi pads is more a matter of personal preference. “In the U.S., probably about a third of women use tampons all the time, a third use pads and a third use a mixture of the two and it just depends on their preference as to what size pad they use,” commented Elaine Plummer, spokesperson for Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH. “Some women may have changed from pads to tampons, or from tampons to pads. It’s just a matter of their choice in lifestyle and what meets their needs.”

Another protection issue being addressed by the feminine hygiene industry is leakage. Although this problem was first addressed within the national brand category through the advent of channeled or walled protection that uses cavities placed on all sides of the sanitary napkin to keep fluid from flowing outside the pad, private label manufacturers have been quick to apply this innovation to their own products. These manufacturers are also finding that customers are looking for other, newer national brand characteristics—such as wings for pad stability and a drier coversheet—within the store brand category as well.

According to private label producer Hospital Specialty, Cleveland, OH, in order to meet customers’ needs, the company tracks the volume data of items that are being introduced, as well as that of existing, more mature items within the category, so it can identify what mix it should incorporate into its private label offerings. “In private label you want to emulate the national brands that are doing the best job and you certainly want to be prepared to provide your customers with other items that are going to do a good job based on the growth that we see,” explained Hospital Specialty’s Paul Marion, vice president for the retail business unit. “We don’t want to be ahead of the curve on some of these items, but we want to be there when it’s necessary to be there.”

Feeling Like A ‘Natural’ Woman
While most private label manufacturers continue to follow the trends set by national brands, others have launched their own product lines that deal with the issue of being natural. One such producer is Tendasoft, Van Wert, OH, which this year launched a full line of dioxin- and chlorine-free, hypoallergenic sanitary pads under the brand name “Natural Preference by Tendasoft.” “From a performance standpoint, the pad itself performs as well as any other national brand or private label product out there,” stated Derek Dafoe, president of Tendasoft. “The main difference you deal with is if the pad itself is truly chlorine-free, it has an off-white appearance. Consumers like to see a white product and the pulp manufacturers are looking at how to fix this.”

Many natural products have come in response to recent concerns over the use of chlorine bleached pulp and the potential for it to cause dioxins—toxins that can be harmful to both humans and the environment. The controversy—which was heightened through allegations about tampons spread over the Internet earlier this year—has caused such a concern that New York Congressional Representative Carolyn Maloney introduced to the House of Representatives the Tampon Safety & Research Act of 1999, which directed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research to determine to what extent dioxins, synthetic fibers and other additives in tampons and related feminine hygiene products posed health risks to women. To its credit, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued statements stating the levels of dioxin within tampons and other sanitary articles are either at or below the detectable limit with no possibility of a health risk.

Throughout the feminine hygiene market, the controversy over chlorine bleaching has caused many manufacturers to take sides over whether there is cause for alarm. The issue of dioxins has encouraged some companies to develop non-chlorine bleached products. Within the industry there is some controversy surrounding the use of either totally chlorine-free (TCF) or elemental chlorine-free (ECF) bleaching, which can also create dioxins. According to FDA, ECF uses a method that includes chlorine dioxide as a bleaching agent along with totally chlorine-free processes, rather than the use of elemental chlorine to purify the wood pulp. FDA also stated that some ECF bleaching processes can theoretically produce extremely low levels of dioxins that are occasionally detected in trace amounts. This method, however, is still considered to be dioxin free.

While some manufacturers are responding to their customers’ demands for “all natural” products, other sanitary protection suppliers see the dioxin controversy as something that needs to be addressed through education rather than product offerings. “There is no dioxin formed as a result of our bleaching or purification process and there is a lot of misinformation out there about this,” P&G’s Ms. Plummer stated.

Other manufacturers see the issue of chlorine-free products as a trend that has not seen a great deal of attention from either the process or consumer side. “In our product categories, there are no issues for the consumer regarding the safety or efficacy of the product,” Hospital Specialty’s Mr. Marion stated. “Many of our raw material suppliers, however, continue to re-engineer their processes to further reduce or eliminate the use of chlorine beyond currently acceptable levels. There is sufficient regulatory pressure in place to encourage continued investment in this re-engineering.”

The Trouble With Tampons
Although the recent dioxin controversy targeted the full category of feminine hygiene products, much of it centered on tampons due to the fact that they are an internal form of protection and are still recovering from the Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) scare of the 1980s. Despite the small percentage of menstruating women who develop TSS through the use of tampons, tampon manufacturers are committed to educating customers about this treatable disease. For P&G—which re-entered the tampon market with its acquisition of Tambrands and the “Tampax” brand name—the company utilizes its websites to educate customers about the signs of TSS. “We have a very strong commitment to providing women with information about TSS so they can recognize the symptoms,” Ms. Plummer stated. She also mentioned that recent concerns over TSS may be linked to other Internet rumors about whether using cotton is safer than rayon in tampons, which Ms. Plummer mentioned could mislead women. “Rayon is made from cellulose and extensive testing by a number of leading scientists has demonstrated that rayon and cotton are equally safe materials,” Ms. Plummer stated. For its part, FDA has also released statements against this allegation, stating that rayon tampons do not appear to have a higher risk of TSS than cotton tampons of similar absorbency.

Time To Innovate
At the same time that the feminine hygiene market has addressed numerous issues affecting the market, it has also continued its drive for new and innovative products. One such innovation is the advent of flushable and biodegradable sanitary pads. One company leading the way in this arena is Consolidated Ecoprogress Technology, which produces sanitary napkins under the “Simplicities” and “Trutona” brand names that are made of entirely biodegradable materials. “We have learned through our test markets that biodegradability and/or flushability are two benefits that the consumer is interested in,” Consolidated Ecoprogress Technology’s Mr. Besco detailed. “We offer the consumer convenience in the flushability aspect and products that are not biodegradable are becoming a major issue. There is a worldwide trend from government, public and industry sectors to move toward environmentally friendly products.”

Another major innovation is interlabial products, which were first introduced in 1998 by A-Fem Medical, Portland, OR, through its “inSync” miniform product. According to A-Fem president Steven Frankel, “Customers recognize that very little has changed in the feminine hygiene category and the reception of our product, which is different, was very favorable,” Mr. Frankel commented. “Consumers recognize that what is currently out there does not satisfy all of their changing needs.”

For its part, market leader P&G is test marketing an interlabial product in Eauclaire, WI, under the brand name “Envive.” The product is designed to fit comfortably lengthwise between the labia, completely covering the vaginal opening. Envive catches fluid where it leaves the body, reducing mess and odor, and is expelled naturally during urination.

Packaging With A Punch
While product innovations are important, new ideas in packaging can be even more powerful, as many times packaging can be a key factor in a purchasing decision. In the area of feminine hygiene, packaging has become both bolder and more convenient through jumbo and variety packs. According to Tendasoft’s Mr. Dafoe, packaging has become glossier and fancier, first by the national brands and now in the private label arena as well. “There are also more companies going to unicolor sizes, such as regular maxis would be blue and ultrathin products would be green,” he stated. “They are trying to lessen consumer confusion.” Mr. Dafoe also mentioned that he believed the next step in packaging would be the addition of a “Zip-Lock” type reclosable feature on the polybag.

At P&G, the company has recently launched its “Always Multipax” product, which includes three different types of products for each day of the menstrual cycle all in one box. “This type of packaging is appreciated and gives women ease in shopping and saves shelf space at home by having all the products they need to meet their menstrual protection needs,” Ms. Plummer commented. Additionally, P&G now offers multilingual packaging that usually includes Spanish, English and French, depending on the package. “This allows us to be more efficient in having just one package rather than different packages for different regions and areas of the country and the world,” Ms. Plummer said.

For The Future
Where will the future growth of the feminine hygiene market come from? “I really think that the way the national brands are going to attack this category is teens,” replied Paragon’s spokesperson. “All the major competitors have websites where teens can go to ask questions and order samples. That’s where the growth of the category will continue to focus because if you can get young women into your franchise early on, research shows they may be brand loyal for the rest of their lives.”

Some manufacturers are seeing future growth possibilities through the use of feminine hygiene products in healthcare-related roles. At A-Fem, its miniform product has been patented as a collection device for menstrual fluid for diagnostic purposes. “We are in the process of developing a product that would allow a woman to collect a vaginal sample at home that could be sent to a lab where they could basically do a pap smear,” Mr. Frankel explained. “The results would then be sent to the doctor and could be discussed with the patient when she comes in for her physical.”

Despite the numerous innovations currently in the works within the feminine hygiene market, one thing is for certain—nonwovens will always play an integral part in their development. “Nonwovens will continue to be the basic material for feminine hygiene products as consumers continue to expect higher quality, comfort and environmental friendliness,” Kang Na’s Ms. Han stated. “Nonwovens will definitely contribute more and more as the usage of nonwovens will not only be in the surface of the product, but will also be put into the core and even be included in the packaging.”

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