Taboo—it stems from the Polynesian root word ‘tapua,’ which means menstruation. In ancient Rome, menses could render crops barren and drive dogs mad. Victorian etiquette prohibited the mention of menstruation, which was deemed an illness and kept women confined to private quarters. Across the globe, feminine hygiene and menstruation management are root causes of cyclical poverty.
“In Nepal, there’s this practice called Chaupadi, where girls have to sleep in these cowsheds and these sheds outside their homes for a month because if they’re sleeping at home then their families are going to be cursed, their dads might die… Even in India, women can’t go in their kitchens. They can’t go in the temples,” founder of THINX period panties, Miki Agrawal, told Her Report. “In fact, the Nepal earthquake that happened just less than a year ago was blamed on Nepali women who were menstruating by Nepali men. It is very, very, very real still today.”
Not much has changed since 1931 when the tampon was invented—or 1969, since women have used adhesive menstrual pads. That’s why Agrawal founded THINX, moisture-wicking, stain-resistant, antimicrobial period panties that absorb up to two tampons worth of blood.
“For over 50 years people have been doing the same things. People don’t like change, so the idea of bleeding into your underwear is weird,” Agrawal said. “It’s like, how much would you pay for the feeling of freedom and less anxiety… to never leak again, or have an accident again, and also to not need to put anything in your vagina for all day ever again?”
Alongside her twin sister, Radha, and friend, Antonia Dunba, the 37-year-old Cornell University graduate and entrepreneur of Indian and Japanese parentage and Canadian upbringing founded what has become named one of the best inventions of 2015 by TIME magazine. THINX revenue has grown 23 times since its launch in 2014—after first raising over $130,000 from crowdfunding sites and competitions.
Agrawal came up with the idea for THINX in 2005, when she and her sister were defending their championship title for the three-legged race at Agrawal-Palooza, their family reunion.
“In the middle of the race, my twin sister started her period. So we had to sprint to the bathroom still tied to each other and get her changed and wash out her bathing suit bottoms. As blood was coming out of her bathing suit is when the idea hit. We both were like, Oh my God—Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create a pair of underwear that never leaked, never stained and absorbed blood and actually supported women every day of their lives?” she explained. “We had to table this idea for a number of years because I opened my restaurant in New York, Wild.”
It wasn’t until a trip to the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa, upon meeting a girl forced to take a week off from school because she had no access to feminine hygiene products, that the idea really began to manifest in Agrawal’s mind.
“I asked her, ‘Why aren’t you in school?’ What she said to me completely changed my life. She said, ‘It’s my week of shame,’” Agrawal recalled. Likewise, she added, “The number one thing I’ve learned over and over and over again within the last five years developing and growing the company is that girls are unsafe around the world. A lot of girls have to hold in their pee all day long and relieve themselves at night in the dark miles away with a group of girlfriends so they can not get raped. They’re very much at risk when they’re defecating in the open and their pants are down and they’re in a compromised position. Girls are in real trouble.”
So in 2011, with her sister and her third co-founder, Agrawal spent the next three and a half years developing the underwear and traveling to witness the impact of feminine hygiene products.
“I visited Uganda a year ago to experience and witness the impact. I went to these villages in Tororo, Uganda. While I was in Tororo talking to these community leaders, a lot of these people said that girls went from missing two days to two weeks from school per month to being 100 percent attendant with the use of AFRIpads,” she explained. AFRIpads is a Ugandan organization that trains women to manufacture and sell reusable sanitary pads to local women.
A lot of girls have to hold in their pee all day long and relieve themselves at night in the dark miles away with a group of girlfriends so they can not get raped. They’re very much at risk when they’re defecating in the open and their pants are down and they’re in a compromised position. Girls are in real trouble.
THINX has an altruistic agenda as a result of Agrawal’s trip abroad.
“For every pair of THINX sold, we fund a pack of reusable menstrual pads to girls in the developing world, starting with our partnership in Uganda… We wanted to empower a company locally that has boots on the ground to help them grow their business and create more local jobs and create a sustainable business model,” Agrawal said. “AFRIpads make washable, reusable cloth pads. So they hire all local women; they have these sewing machines and they make these pads to affordable. So we wanted to say, let’s make these pads even more affordable to even more people in Uganda by subsidizing the cost of the pads. So we’ll pay for the cost of the pads. You then can make these pads and then sell them to the end user at a much more affordable price, even more affordable where more women can afford them.”
When THINX started with AFRIpads, the organization employed 25 women. Now they have 165.
Agrawal’s business has also expanded into other areas, including Icon Undies, cotton pee-proof underwear because one in three women will suffer from leakage at some point in their lives. Each pair of Icon Undies can hold up to five teaspoons of liquid, or 500 drops.
“For women who leak, they leak forever. So they have to wear Depends or Poise every day for the rest of their lives. And it sucks. It’s uncomfortable and bulky. You’re wearing a pad every day. You’re wearing diapers. We want to provide a product that make women feel like women, like themselves, and give them power in their iconic state. As we get older, we become icons. We are the wisdom passage from ourselves to our children. We should not be reduced to wearing pads and bulky diaper-like things. So Icon is all about a woman first, a mother second,” Agrawal said. “It’s also solving additional problems in the developing world. We’re helping fund fistula operations.”
Funds from Icon Undies benefit the Fistula Foundation. Every purchase helps fund treatment, recovery and surgeries for women and helps address fistulas—holes between the vagina and rectum or bladder caused by prolonged obstructed labor—a problem that affects one million mothers who give birth without access to medical care each year, but fewer than 20,000 women are treated.
Likewise, there are 27 million combined cases of urinary tract infections, yeast infections and hemorrhoids per years in the US—so Agrawal created a third product under the THINX umbrella offering an affordable and easy-to-install bidet called Tushy. The spray nozzle is lowered inconspicuously at the back of the toilet bowl and a simple console extends to the side with access to control the water pressure and temperature.
“In the poop category we are really reimagining the toilet and the way you clean yourself… People are wiping their butts, smearing poo up their butts creating a cesspool of infection down there and you’re sitting on that all day long,” she said. “The only part of our bodies we clean with paper is our butts, and it’s no wonder it’s causing all of these issues. So what we’re doing is saying: Rather than using toilet paper, use a gentle spray of water and spray your butt properly, clean it properly, for $57. It’s the same as your sink water; it pulls the water directly from your clean toilet water valve behind your toilet tank, and it turns every toilet into a bidet in less than 10 minutes. It’s clip-on and attached. No plumbing. No electrical… It’s the most game-changing thing you can possibly do for your hygiene.”
People are wiping their butts, smearing poo up their butts creating a cesspool of infection down there and you’re sitting on that all day long. The only part of our bodies we clean with paper is our butts, and it’s no wonder it’s causing all of these issues.
The bidet, Agrawal said, is also resourceful for period or sex clean-up. But there’s a stigma surrounding the use of a bidet. Many people find them inconvenient, awkward or insanitary.
“It’s a cultural problem. The reason why bidets have not gotten to America is, number one, because it’s French and the English hated the French. Also, during World War II when American soldiers went to France, the soldiers went to French brothels and saw bidets there, and then associated bidets with brothels. So they didn’t want to have that come back. So it never became culturally relevant,” Agrawal explained. “Toilet paper was brought to America in 1890. The way we clean ourselves hasn’t changed since 1890. It’s no wonder people are getting infections. It’s like, people’s teeth used to be falling out because people didn’t have toothbrushes or dental floss. It’s the same thing. Of course people have all these issues down there because people are doing the same thing they’ve been doing since the 1800s.”
A week with Tushy uses 1.3 gallons of water, only 1/8th gallon of water per use. A week without Tushy uses 55.5 gallons of water, because it takes 37 gallons of water to make one toilet paper roll and most people us 1.5 rolls per week. It also takes 15 million trees to make toilet paper each year.
But 40 percent of the world doesn’t have proper sanitation or toilets. In fact, 1 billion people are forced to practice open defecation around the world, and 14 million pregnant women worldwide are infected with worms due to poor sanitation. In the developing world, one child dies every 17 seconds due to poor sanitation facilities.
Tushy is working the organization, Samagra, to provide families in India with a toilet for every bidet sold. This is especially crucial in areas where people are forced to practice open defecation because of their lack of access to clean sanitation, and the health consequences of the contamination are severe. Tushy has also created a relationship with charity: water to provide schools with toilets, helping ensure the safety of students and help bolster attendance in schools.