Find out all about the history of sanitary protection!

In the past, the question of sanitary protection during menstruation was not at all a priority, and we had to resort to makeshift solutions. Since then, things have changed: let's discover the history of feminine hygiene and the various inventions that led to the modern solutions we know today.

Menstrual protection from prehistory to antiquity

Evidence of the use of sanitary protection dates back to 1550 BC. In ancient times, different countries used different techniques: Egyptian women made a kind of tampon from softened papyrus. In Ancient Greece, women protected themselves as best they could during their periods: with pieces of cloth or small linen-wrapped sticks.

Protection in the Middle Ages

But with the advent of religion in the Middle Ages, it became inconceivable for women to insert anything into their vagina to protect themselves during menstruation. So they wore menstrual petticoats to wipe the flow down their thighs. More affluent families had period cloths, called chauffoirs, held in place by cloth belts... Most of their protection was "homemade". It was all very impractical.

Some historians even believe that menstruating people were forced to isolate themselves during their periods, a practice known as menstrual seclusion. Many also practised instinctive free flow.

At the time, knowledge of the menstrual cycle was also limited (ovulation was only discovered in the 19th century). Lack of knowledge meant fear and mistrust: in the Middle Ages, with all the beliefs in witches etc., menstrual discharge could be seen as evil, particularly heavy periods or gynaecological diseases (such as endometriosis). Others believed that menstruation was a sign of life and fertility.

The advent of modern menstrual protection in the 20th century

At the end of the 19th century, sanitary belts were introduced to hold back strips of fabric. Louis Pasteur's work on germ theory was instrumental in demonstrating the importance of intimate hygiene. During the Industrial Revolution, the cotton spinning machine made fabric much more accessible to everyone. Sanitary belts were a much more absorbent and comfortable method of absorption for users. With this invention, towels became washable and reusable.

The first sanitary napkin in 1920

It was during the First World War that nurses experimented with the idea of absorbent cotton wrapped in gauze compresses. They realized that what was used to treat soldiers' wounds, and in particular what absorbed their blood, would also be very useful for absorbing menstrual flow. These were the beginnings of disposable towels.

Kimberly Clark developed the first disposable cotton sanitary towel. They were held in place by waist belts.

The Tampax disposable tampon in 1930

In the 1930s, physician Carl Cleveland Haas developed the first disposable tampons, marketed under the Tampax brand name. In the early days of this invention, certain myths persisted, with many people convinced that using tampons would mean losing one's virginity: it was therefore still rather frowned upon by society to insert anything into one's vagina.

Reusable sanitary pads in 1960

It was only after the Second World War that tampons were really democratized. From 1960 onwards, menstruating women could buy their own disposable pads, which were becoming increasingly practical. It was a real revolution. But in 1979, there were tragedies due to toxic shock syndrome and the use of tampons. This didn't stop the use of this method, but rather strengthened controls.

Even though the advent of disposable sanitary protection gradually liberated people from the subject of the female cycle in popular culture, brands continued to uphold the taboo surrounding menstruation for a long time: in advertising, blood was replaced by a blue liquid.

The panty liner in the 2000s

In the early 2000s, variations on the sanitary towel appeared, with the panty-liner, a lighter variant adapted to the low-cut undergarment fashion of the moment (tanga, thong...).
Washable and reusable methods of conventional protection began to appear timidly: cup, reusable pads...

In 2022, a wide range of sanitary pads for women

For some time now, there has been a real awareness of the toxicity and dangerousness of certain chemicals used in disposable protection. In 2018, the French National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety published a report outlining the chemical substances found in most conventional pads and tampons. These substances, even in small doses, are major endocrine disruptors and have carcinogenic effects. As a result, several alternatives have been democratized: the cup, washable pads and menstrual panties. The composition of the latter is much healthier, and at Elia, it's obviously become our alternative of choice!

The advantages of menstrual panties are numerous: when they're made from organic cotton and Oeko-Tex, they respect our health and the environment, and are super comfortable! What's more, depending on your flow, you can keep them on for up to 12 hours: 12 hours of comfort and peace of mind, with no risk of leaks or unpleasant odors! In fact, our Elia panties are certified Oeko-Tex, organic and Origine France Garantie, guaranteeing you the very best in feminine hygiene.

FAQ on the history of sanitary protection

What did women do before sanitary towels?

Before sanitary towels were invented, they had makeshift solutions, such as rolled-up strips of cloth to absorb menstrual blood loss.

How did women deal with menstruation in the Middle Ages?

In those days, they let menstruation flow, and wiped what dripped down their thighs with their petticoats. Wealthier women had the luxury of attaching a cloth with a strip of fabric to their belt.

Who invented sanitary towels?

The Kimberly Clark company markets the first sanitary pads, inspired by the nurses' homemade solutions of the First World War.

Who invented the tampon?

The modern tampon was invented in the 1930s by American physician Carl Cleveland Haas, inspired by a friend who absorbed menstrual flow by placing a sponge in her vagina. Tampax would later market it.

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