Chanda Lokendra gentlywipes away a tear as she recounts the passing of her good friend a few years ago. "She succumbed to uterine cancer. It… it truly shocked me... gave me a jolt; I guess I’m still coming to terms with it," says the Dubai resident, before swallowing the lump in her throat.
Her friend’s death also made the former financial analyst turned entrepreneur sit up and consider deeply how we are treating our body. "She was a healthy woman – used to practice yoga, was a vegan, ate healthy… yet ended up with a cancer that killed her. Her passing made me realise why we need to be more aware and conscious about what we are putting into – and on – our body," she says.
To that end, Chanda began looking for answers – a journey that would make her take a hard look at women’s personal sanitary hygiene products, particularly a "six-inch piece of pad" most women spend attached to for a cumulative period of some 12 years of their life.
She began examining in detail what goes into the making of a commercial sanitary pad and while what she discovered would leave her shocked, it would also encourage her to make a switch in her career and become an entrepreneur with a mission.
"While researching online, I came across a paper presented by Khama Hachunde, a gentleman in Zambia. It was an eye-opener," says Chanda. In the paper, the deputy human resources officer in the Zambian police and founder of a charity called Bumi that works to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene and disorders from environmental and lifestyle causes, found that sanitary pads are responsible for around 60 per cent of women’s period-related issues.
"I was convinced there is something that we as women are missing out on," says Chanda, who began to research further and was startled by the information she unearthed. She found some sanitary hygiene products to contain Bisphenol A, or BPA, known to be an endocrine-disrupting compound. In the body, these chemicals can act like hormones or disrupt normal hormone functions, says a report in National Geographic.
Another report in the same magazine makes it clear that "since the middle of the 20th century, many tampons and menstrual pads have contained somewhere between a little and a lot of plastic in their basic design – sometimes for reasons that ‘improve’ the design, but often for reasons less crucial".
Chanda’s search also revealed that chemicals like BPA and BPS are linked to heart disease and cancer. "Phthalates, which give paper tampon applicators a smooth finish, have been found to be dangerous. Synthetics and plastics in pads restrict air flow trapping heat and dampness, potentially promoting bacterial infections," she says. "I found that many regular sanitary napkins could be the reason women end up with rashes, allergies, skin sensitivity and in some cases serious health issues."
Chanda clearly has done diligent homework on the subject.
Dr Sindhu Ravishankar, specialist obstetrics and gynecology at Aster Clinic in Dubai’s Discovery Gardens, says the reasons for some reproductive health related issues in women could be traced back to poor-quality sanitary pads. "For instance, [incidences of] PCOD and PCOS have been found to have a direct corelation to the usage of sanitary products that have volatile compounds and certain chemicals," says the doctor. "Studies have found that with the reduction or elimination of such products from their lifestyle, women who had reproductive health issues were able to conceive."
The doctor believes there is a lack of awareness among the general public of what goes into the making of a woman’s sanitary hygiene product. "Several studies have found sanitary products to contain chemicals, plastics and phthalates that could potentially harm the user seriously."
While a major component of a sanitary pad is cotton, some have different kinds of phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When the latter are exposed to heat, even body heat, they can break down and enter the blood stream and system.
In the name of improving comfort and infusing pads with fragrance, manufacturers add VOCs that could expose women – and even foetuses – to serious health risks, explains the doctor. Worryingly, "certain phthalates found in pads have been detected in blood, sweat, breast milk and in ovarian fluids", adds Dr Sindhu.
Since women who have access to such products use them during a crucial period of their lives – during their reproductive years – they are exposed to these chemicals for several years and for extended periods of time. "In the long run, these chemicals [because they are in so close contact to the body] could lead to neurocognitive impairments, cancers, congenital disabilities in embryos and even recurrent miscarriages," says the specialist.
Making a difference
Keen to make a difference in the lives of women, Chanda, after some three years of research, began working on developing an organic sanitary pad that would offer women the option of a safer product while at the same time have all the benefits of a regular pad such as comfort and ease of use. "The result is LiZZOM, an organic sanitary pad," she says. "I focused more on how we could avoid including harmful substances [but] still keep the functionality of the pads. We definitely need a natural and safe product for our menstrual management – one that would not hurt us or mother earth."
Made of organic bamboo, corn fibres and wood pulp, the pads are ‘free from chemicals, parabens, dioxins and ingredients that could pose a serious threat to women’s health", says the proud developer of the product.
"The sanitary pads and liners are based entirely on natural plant-based ingredients that have a proven favourable impact on skin, health and environment. It is really a tribute to a friend that I lost to uterine cancer."
Developing the product was no easy task, she admits. "I wanted to be absolutely clear that not only should the raw materials used be of a high quality, but the final product would not hurt the user and the environment."
To that end, she decided to replace cotton, used as an absorbent material, with bamboo fibres. "Bamboo fibre is 40 per cent more absorbent than cotton and so make the pads more absorbent and breathable than cotton; corn fibres, another ingredient, make the pads soft and silky. All the raw materials are tested and certified right at the supplier stage and pads are tested for both absorbency and comfort."
Bamboo, she says, also has natural antimicrobial bio-agents that help reduce bacteria and odour for a rash-free and healthier life and is suitable for people of all ages and skin types. Bamboo is also more sustainable than cotton as it takes far less resources to grow organically. Chanda admits that LiZZOM uses about 5 per cent petroleum-related products "because without it absorption would not be possible, but in the near future we hope to eliminate even that".
Support from Sheraa
Recently LiZZOM, which is available online (lizzom.com), was accepted at Sheraa Startup Studio S3 – a Sharjah government initiative that helps transform "bold ideas into a powerful company with the potential to make significant impact", according to its website.
"Support from such organisations/start-up incubation hubs is important as it provides us the necessary framework and network required to grow and thrive," says Chanda.
What were the challenges when she decided to start the project?
"The biggest was and still is creating awareness around the choice of the right products," says the entrepreneur. "Menstruation has always been a hush-hush subject. To trigger any conversation around it or about the raw materials that go into a pad, is a task. It is really important to normalise conversation around the subject."
To tackle that, her company has started the campaign #UnmaskThePeriodTaboos on Instagram. Women are urged to tag male friends in this challenge. "We believe that conversation can be normalised only if conversation is normal at home on our dinner table involving every member of the family," she says.
LiZZom is not the only pad in the market that contains less plastic, chemicals and toxins than many of the popular commercial ones. Plastfree has developed a pad that is not only safe for the woman but also for the planet. An environmentaly friendly product that is biodegradable, hypoallergenic, free from fragrance, chemicals and made from sustainable materials, it is also safer for the skin, says Rika Bothra Sinha, marketing director of Plastfree MiddleEast FZE.
"I have to admit, it wasn’t the first thing on my list when I began my journey of reducing single-use plastic. Periods can be bad enough without an added guilt trip about the environment," she says.
Plastfree pads took two years of research and development to materialise, but Rika is happy that apart from offering women the choice of a safer product to use, she is also helping make a difference to the world. "Our certified organic and vegan pads are five times more absorbent than leading brands too, giving women complete peace of mind during menstruation," she says.
A firm believer in offering women the opportunity to make eco-friendly choices in their daily lives, Rika says it its important to protect the environment and make the right choice to ensure "safety through sustainability".
Wouldn’t the high cost of organic products put off many consumers?
Chanda agrees. "Sanitary products should be considered basic necessities, but they are priced high because of a variety of reasons, including the use of unsustainable ingredients. Organic sanitary napkins are usually made from organic cotton, which is a much cleaner raw material than conventional cotton. But it also requires a large amount of resources to produce, making the end products unaffordable.
"That’s why we chose organic bamboo and corn to create a cleaner, safer, more absorbent and compostable sanitary napkin. Organic bamboo and corn are a much more sustainable alternative to organic cotton, which ensures that our products are better quality and our prices are reasonable," she says.
Perhaps as importantly, it is also helping the earth. Most pads take around 450 years to biodegrade completely. "The first pad that was ever made with plastic is yet to biodegrade," she says.
"While women are willing to make the switch to organic in the case of food, make-up products and certain consumables, rarely does she consider switching to an organic hygiene product," says Chanda. "My hope is that she begins to think about it seriously and take an informed decision on what she is putting next to her body."
Effect on environment
According to National Geographic Society, on average a woman uses between 5,000 and 15,000 pads and tampons pads in her lifetime of 40 menstruating years. In the UAE alone, there are around 6 million women menstruating and around 450 million pads are dumped in landfills every year, says Chanda. With 95 per cent of it being plastic and having chemical content, and the fact that plastic takes some 500 years to biodegrade, imagine the stress on landfills and the environment, she says.
Although just around 40 per cent of women in India use disposable sanitary options, some 9,000 tons of sanitary product waste is generated annually in that country.
'Poor-quality sanitary products could cause serious health issues'
Dr. Sindhu Ravishankar, Specialist, Obstetrics and Gynecology at Aster Clinic in Dubai’s Discovery Gardens, says the reasons for some reproductive health related issues in women can be traced back to the usage of poor quality sanitary pads. ‘Several studies have found sanitary products to contain chemicals, plastics and phthalates that could potentially harm the user seriously.’ Some problems women might face when they use poor quality sanitary products are fungal infections and UTIs. In the long run they are also at risk of developing polycystic ovaries, asthma and even cancer. Pads are not the only culprits. Mass market feminine products too could cause severe reproductive health related issues in women, she says.
Advice from Dr. Sindhu Ravishankar
Women who are experiencing personal hygiene/health issues should consider using an organic brand of sanitary product. The best option is using a menstrual cup.
Of late, perfumed feminine washes are becoming popular. Ideally, any feminine sanitary hygiene product that is perfumed should be avoided. Certain chemicals added to these products are responsible for the fragrance; these chemicals could potentially cause health issues. The same is applicable to fragrant hair-removing creams or gels. Usage of such creams/gels could lead to infections.
Innerwear liners is another product gaining popularity. Usage of such liners can prevent the skin from ‘breathing’ which is important for good health. Also, such liners can lead to moisture build-up, creating ideal conditions for fungal infections to occur.
To maintain proper hygiene, use cotton innerwear as far as possible.
Last and most importantly, replace your innerwear every six months even if they are in seemingly good condition.