The Super, Ultra, Maxi Revolution : Practical View: The feminine-protection boom is producing a mind-boggling array of Space Age pads. Some even have wings.


You’re cruising Aisle 3 at the all-night pharmacy, pondering one of the most baffling questions facing American women today:

How do you choose a monthly feminine-protection product without going crazy?

You want a maxi pad? How maxi? Regular or super maxi? Regular-thin or slender-thin maxi? Long-super maxi, curved-super maxi, or Ultra Plus-long maxi with wings? Wings?!

What about a thin? Garden-variety thin or ultra thin? For light-day or every-day freshness? With or without baking soda? . . . deodorant? . . . Peach Protection Strip? . . . with or without the wings ? . . .

If the difficulty in life is the choice, as the saying goes, then this is maxi-difficult. What happened to the days when Aunt Winnie discreetly handed you a plain-wrapped box, told you not to worry, and that was the end of it?


Those days are over.

The $1.9-billion feminine-protection industry has gone high tech, with an explosion in Space Age sanitary-pad construction and design.

Aunt Winnie’s plain box has given way to microfibrous and melt-blown fabrics, super-absorbent synthetic cores and latex-bonded polyester cover stocks, in a dizzying array of flexible shapes and sizes (including a thin-as-a-wafer Wonder-pad) for “customized comfort, fit and protection.”

All of a sudden, choosing a sanitary pad is as complicated as choosing a high-speed, high-performance automobile.

“Every month I have to start over. I can never remember what I bought the last time,” says a 36-year-old Oakland college instructor who alternates pads with tampons.

Once, of course, the ultra-discreet tampon threatened the maxily bulky pad with extinction. But after post-toxic shock awareness changed hygiene habits, pads, which nobody but your mother’s canasta partners used to wear, became the protection of choice. And they’re growing. Or rather shrinking. Thinning out. Curving up. Sprouting side attachments . . .

What’s going on here?

Some say the fiercely competitive pad industry is playing with “bells and whistles,” marketing gimmicks designed to pique, then soothe, women’s deepest, most ancient feminine-hygiene fears. The choices on the shelf, they say, promote the notion of a hygienic crisis requiring an army of paper chemists to withstand.


Others say the boom in techno-pads--we now have a choice of 175 types, styles and sizes--reflects the diversity of women’s roles in society.

In any case, the pad boom has opened discussion of one of the world’s most patently taboo topics as consumers, industry watchers, women’s health advocates and others ask: Is it hygiene or hype?

“Whether you call it ‘sanitary protection’ or ‘feminine hygiene,’ the very name implies it’s a dirty little business you have to cover up at all cost,” says Ann Voda, a University of Utah School of Nursing professor who heads an ongoing study of women’s menstrual habits.

Manufacturers are sanguine about it all. Once, wearing a pad may have been an excuse for skipping gym class, but today, it’s a veritable lifestyle. And the newest trends in pad use--for light incontinence--mean women can use pads, if they work it right, all month long !

Kathi Seifert, president of the feminine-care sector at Kimberly-Clark--the largest pad manufacturer--puts it this way: “Women are like snowflakes--no two are alike.”

Is it reassuring to know you’re not alone here on Aisle 3? You share this moment of personal choice with 71.3 million menstruating American women, who last year spent $1.17 billion to purchase 11.8 billion sanitary napkins, which, if laid end to end, would reach roughly 1.6 million miles, enough for three round trips to the moon. (At the same time, women spent $690 million to buy 5.6 billion tampons.)

This is one big, thoroughly captive consumer audience.

Captive, yes, but industry surveys show relatively fickle when it comes to choosing pads.

In fact, industry watchers say the pad boom--for the most part, a three-way battle among Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson--is designed to capitalize on pad-user volatility.


“It’s a viciously competitive market,” says Bonita Austin, cosmetics-and-household-products analyst for Shearson Lehman Hutton. “A lot is up for grabs in the market share.” But if consumers didn’t want the choices, she adds, the products wouldn’t be there. “The consumers tend to go where the best pad technology is.”

Once there was no “pad technology,” no super-absorbent cores, no elastic-sided curving for better fit. There were napkins, there were tampons, one was considered slightly retro and that was that.

Then came the tampon-related toxic shock syndrome scare of the early 1980s. Tampon use dropped dramatically. Pads picked up the slack. New pads--including private labels for chain stores like Osco and Safeway--started appearing on Aisle 3. In fact, Tambrands, makers of Tampax tampons, entered the fray with its own Maxithin.

The scare died down, tampons bounced back, but women’s habits had changed. The number of women who used tampons exclusively dropped by almost 40%, some surveys show. Pad makers sat up and took note.

Aisle 3 started to buzz.

The real race began when Procter & Gamble, which withdrew its Rely tampon after the toxic-shock scare, decided to do a pad. P&G; introduced its “Always Maxi” in 1984. Then came “Always Plus,” the first pad with wraparound panty-protectors, or “wings.”

Then, as one industry watcher puts it, “all hell broke loose.”

P&G;’s Always line grew. Johnson & Johnson fought back with advertising, promotion and price cuts. Private labels added wings. Even slumbering giant Kimberly-Clark woke up and added new products to its lines.


In 1989, the number of types and sizes of pads jumped 18%, from 143 to 169. And that was two years before the “ultrathin” revolution, which brought the ultra-discreet, paper-thin pad capable of taking in, dispersing and storing many times its weight in fluid.

It’s all in the name of more discreet, more comfortable, more-powerful-than-an-oil-boom leakage control.

Aisle 3 used to be the forbidden aisle, the one signaling that you were visiting the little red schoolhouse , as the sixth-grade girls at your grammar school used to say. No matter what you called it--the curse, the wrong time of the month, Bloody Mary, Red Baron, the visiting Aunt from Red Bluff--the underlying theme was the same: You dreaded having to slip a friend’s cardigan around your waist and back out of algebra class without being noticed.

Apparently, feminine-hygiene fears haven’t changed much. A recent Johnson & Johnson survey said 70% of the women questioned “complain that every month their maxi pad lets them down,” that their “major source of frustration” is lack of “leakage control.” A Shearson Lehman Hutton survey put “all the protection needed” at the top of the list of what women wanted in a pad.

In the battle against leakage, women tell stories of double padding, not wearing their best underwear during that time of the month, sleeping in certain no-leak positions and fearing wearing white below the waist.

“We’re sending women to the moon but we can’t make a perfect pad,” says a 44-year-old San Francisco attorney. “I want one that’s thin, that’s absorbent, that doesn’t leak in the front, that doesn’t leak in the back, that doesn’t twist so you have to have the adhesive surgically removed. Is that asking too much?”


Manufacturers say they’re giving women what they want.

Though each brand is slightly different, the basic philosophy in pad technology is this: Fluid passes through a cover (which acts as a wicking agent, or a one-way valve) into an absorbent core (made of wood pulp and something called super-absorbent polymers), never to be seen again.

The more sophisticated the pad technology--much of which spins off from New Age diaper design--the better the liquid-barrier properties . . . the greater the volume of fluid to be stored on the smallest, most compressed surface.

In the end, does it really matter?

Could Joan of Arc have reached new heights if she’d worn New Freedom Thin Super Maxi pads, with all the comfort and discretion of a thin pad, but added length for increased protection? Would Anne Boleyn have kept her head if she’d known about Stayfree Ultra Plus with nature’s own sphagnum sea moss absorbent core?

Not necessarily.

“It’s always been this way in the feminine products market. The product quality, as far as fiber contents used, is basically the same,” says Harvin Smith, director of the International Center for Textile Research and Development in Lubbock, Tex.

“Companies will add this feature or that, argue over a strap here or there, but in the end,” he says, “most of the product cost is in advertising and marketing--convincing the consumer that this is the product that’ll take care of everything.”

And it may not end tomorrow.

So, buy your pad and get out of Aisle 3 before the delivery truck pulls up with the latest in overnighters, double-sided all-dayers, the reconstituted olds and the revolutionary news.


Says Ed Vaughn, a non-wovens specialist at Clemson University’s School of Textiles: “As far as product innovations go, it’s wide open.”