Global standards for menstrual products and why they matter

Menstrual Products Image RHSC

As experts meet in Copenhagen this week to participate in the ongoing global standards development process for menstrual products, we sat down with Adrian Dongus, Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) Markets Specialist at SHF, to understand why this is important and what this could  mean for hundreds of millions of women and girls worldwide. 

Explain to us in a few words what global product standards are and why do they matter?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) describes standards as ‘ a formula that describes the best way of doing something. It could be about making a product, managing a process, delivering a service or supplying materials…’

Having been developed through a deep consultative and expert-led process, standards play a big role in trade as manufacturers need these to make quality, safe and reliable products: governments use them as requirements when products are imported; retailers often require them to before they put products on their shelves and consumers look for them especially when it comes to health and hygiene products. And this is where global standards for menstrual products come in. 

Despite approximately 1.8 billion people menstruating every month around the world, there are no unified global standards for menstrual products - yet. This means the quality- and types of- menstrual products you can buy differ from country to country. It is a massive shortcoming - and market barrier - that ISO, through its Technical Committee (TC) 338, is aiming to address. The committee is developing menstrual product standards for four categories: single-use pads and tampons, reusable cloth based products (pads or underwear) and menstrual cups - work that is expected to be completed by December 2026. Over 45 countries are involved in this committee, which is led by the Swedish Institute for Standards (SIS)

Interesting. Could you share a little more about how this stream of work, which seems quite technical and far removed from our daily lives, can impact the millions of people who menstruate around the world?

While the process of global standard development may seem far removed, its impacts are felt every day. When you walk into a store to buy a menstrual product, standards determine which products you will find on the shelves, they guarantee that the product you buy will do what you want it to - to collect or absorb menstrual flow and not leak - and that they are safe to use in both the short- and long-term. In many Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), the absence of standards has prevented a range of innovative menstrual products from reaching consumers looking for high quality and more affordable options to manage their menstruation. Introducing standards will remove an administrative barrier, paving the way for these innovations to reach users that need them most. 

Does that mean so far the menstrual products we have in the markets are unsafe or not fit for purpose?

No. For the commercial products that are readily available in high and low income countries, many individual countries have standards in place but there is room for improvement and that is the kind of framework global standards would bring about. From standardization on materials to be used based on both short and long term health effects to size and shape of products and where they can now become available through trade, global standards will help streamline the menstrual products  available for women and girls within and across borders with emphasis on safety, efficacy and quality. 

Can you walk us through the expected process and timeline for global menstrual product standards and when they are likely to be effective in country?

As indicated, the ISO technical committee TC 338 has been tasked with the development of these standards. Different working groups and sub-working groups have already started work on the different components that make the standards, from terminology to materials, dimensions etc. Other ISO technical committees  with relevant technical expertise, such as textiles, are also part of the process. The committee holds regular meetings, including an annual in person meeting such as the one taking place in Copenhagen this week. All these efforts are expected to culminate with the release of global standards in December 2026. But this would only be the start as countries then need to adopt the standards nationally to become binding and become the framework for local regulatory bodies to enforce regulation and compliance for retail, import, trade etc. 

This is why as many countries as possible need to be involved in the process from the onset. And yet, at present only a handful of LMICs are represented. This despite more than 600 million women and girls in these countries currently relying on non-purpose-made menstrual materials to manage their period. 

So how can we ensure more countries are a part of this process?

ISO processes are geared to encourage open participation but awareness and resources can be a barrier. This is why, on the menstrual product standard development process in particular, SHF has been actively encouraging partners to participate: we have connected countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda to ISO and are also in discussions with others on how we can support their engagement in the process, including through potential sponsorships. Importantly, some countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, have led the development of national standards for reusable menstrual products and the committee could benefit from their experience and expertise. 

While national standards bodies write and ultimately approve the standard, it is crucial to involve a range of stakeholders who can represent the interests of women and girls, bring the expertise of innovators and manufacturers to the discussion and hold government institutions accountable to the positions and decisions they make. These stakeholders include NGOs, UN agencies, SMEs, consumer interest groups, SMEs, manufacturers and women-led enterprises. SHF is working with industry and sector experts like the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition (RHSC) and UNFPA to ensure the tools and  platforms are in place for these actors to engage. 

The countries you mention are home to a growing number of MHH enterprises. How can one ensure global standards are not limiting local product innovations and supply?

Indeed, there are a lot of great initiatives around the world where people see a need to address the gap and inequality in accessing menstrual products and have come forward with solutions to do so. Standards will ensure that the products thus provided are safe to use for the people they are trying to help. 

Product quality standards are focused on the outcomes and the minimum quality and safety requirements to achieve them. In the case of menstrual products: does a product collect or absorb enough menstrual flow? Does it have adequate shape and size to meet the needs of different women and girls? Is the product safe to use in the short-term (no rash or irritation) and could its use lead to long-term health effects? They do not prescribe materials or requirements, leaving plenty of room for innovators while establishing a minimum threshold each product should meet. And once standards exist, market and trade barriers can be addressed.

Therefore, in the long run, standards will reward local producers who have invested a lot of time and effort into creating quality products and it will help them to get their products on the shelves in countries where the users need them most. 

We understand now the importance of standards but it would be great if you could explain why SHF is prioritizing this work and how?

SHF has a clear goal: we want to ensure every woman and every girl has the opportunity to buy a menstrual product she wants to use and can afford close to where she lives. Right now this is not the case. 

The price of commercial products is simply too high for millions of users to buy a product they can rely on. You might wonder why these products are not available when online platforms and shops in high income countries have started stocking menstrual cups and period panties. Choice is increasing but not equally and definitely not everywhere. The absence of product standards is one of the main barriers that has prevented the widespread introduction of products in markets in LMICs. This is why we want to support these standards.

SHF is supporting the work of the TC 338 to make sure these standards are developed and published within the next two years and that LMICs play an active part in this process. This work is part of our efforts to build a thriving MHH market under our initiative Capital M that aims to increase access to quality, affordable menstrual products in LMICs and help unlock the immense potential that resides in women and girls everywhere.