The tampon brand set out to empower women to hold “loud and proud” conversations about their menstrual periods.
Along the way, it’s promoting dietary supplements that make dubious, pseudoscientific health claims.
The Period Projects campaign, which has been getting glowing reviews on social media, includes an online store selling “homeopathic PMS relief tablets” made from tiny doses of salt, cuttlefish ink, and a hormone often derived from horse urine.
A press release describes the online store as a place “where shoppers can easily stock up on their period essentials” — including, presumably, the tea that’s on sale, made from an herb promoted as a way to “defer aging” and “bolster” white blood cell growth. And a liquid dietary supplement, in raspberry lime, that purports to fight “free radicals and premature aging.”
None of those health claims, as the manufacturers note, have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
“It’s not very empowering to suggest that homeopathic remedies and things that are unproven can be helpful to women. In fact, that’s kind of the opposite of empowering,” said Dr. Jen Gunter, a Bay Area obstetrician and gynecologist.
The ongoing Period Projects campaign from U by Kotex, a brand that makes sanitary pads and tampons under the umbrella of the consumer goods giant Kimberly-Clark Corporation, kicked off last week to enthusiastic reviews.
Women — and men, too! — lined up in Manhattan this past weekend for a peek at the project’s first big splash: a temporary store with tampons hanging from the ceiling, cheeky merchandise lining on the shelves, and club music bouncing off the walls. “The shop of our dreams,” raved a blog for mothers.
This period pop-up shop has a tampon ceiling, middle finger pins, custom baggu & neon. This wkd only #periodprojects pic.twitter.com/PrchGPNqoO
— Susan Rinkunas (@sueonthetown) May 13, 2016
Many, but not all, of the products in the online store were also on sale in the New York City pop-up shop. Shoppers at the temporary physical store could also buy “PMS tea” — as part of a care package branded as a “special gift for your ladybits” — promising to promote “uterine comfort.”
U by Kotex didn’t respond to specific questions about how it chose the products to feature or whether it struck deals with any of the dietary product makers. A spokesperson for the brand said the pop-up shop “did not focus heavily on health or medical related items.”
To be sure, U by Kotex is far from unusual in promoting unproven products making bold health claims.
The dietary supplement industry is huge and growing, boosted by many a celebrity endorsement. And while many of the products have not been clinically proven, it’s well-documented that the placebo effect can be a potent force in reducing pain and boosting energy.
Still, it’s remarkable to see a project focused on empowering women to talk honestly about their periods promote homeopathy. It’s a discredited field of alternative medicine based on heavily diluted remedies; its products have been studied in more than 60 health conditions and were not found effective for any. It’s an “expensive placebo,” Gunter said.
The homeopathic remedy manufacturer Boiron, which makes the $7 pack of PMS relief tablets sold in the Period Projects’ online store, responded to questions about efficacy by pointing to a recent statement by the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists, which called for more studies of “a higher caliber.”
The makers of several other products promoted in the Period Projects store did not return requests for comment.
U by Kotex’s campaign comes as menstruation is having something of a moment.
A British company recently introduced a policy that would allow women on their periods to take time off that wouldn’t count against their sick days. Five states have gotten rid of sales taxes on sanitary pads and tampons, and New York is poised to join them.
New Jersey is considering legislation that would allow women to get marijuana to relieve their menstrual cramps.
Then there’s the flurry of commercial activity, some of it centered around products of questionable usefulness. Actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg this spring launched a line of pot-infused bath products to ease menstrual cramps. A startup called my.Flow is seeking funding for a wearable device that uses a sensor to send women smartphone notifications when they need to change their tampons.
Gunter’s advice for women looking for evidence-based period pain relief? Try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. (The online store does include such remedies — namely, Advil and Midol.) Birth control pills and hormonal intrauterine devices can be helpful too.
But many visitors to the pop-up shop seemed more intrigued by the novelty than in search of solid advice. “Ladies, our wishes have come true,” one tweeted.
“This is genius!!!” tweeted another.
?So much fun today!!!? #PeriodProjects #NYC pic.twitter.com/JfGyysf2hc
— W A I T I N G outnow (@MarzFerrer) May 16, 2016
U by Kotex plans in the coming months and years to sponsor more projects celebrating periods. According to the press release, it’s “designed to ignite change.”
This story was updated to include a comment from U by Kotex.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed claims that an herbal tea could “defer aging” and “bolster” white blood cell growth to the manufacturer. In fact, Celebration Herbals did not write that marketing language.