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Adidas says it can period-proof your activewear

Thinx and Modibodi led the way. Now Adidas has become the first major sportswear brand to produce period-proof activewear, hoping it will improve sports participation for millions worldwide.

For many people who menstruate, exercise is off the cards during their period. In a landmark launch, Adidas is hoping to change that. The brand is introducing Stay In Play period-proof leggings this month, backed by a global education campaign.

Adidas is the first leading sportswear brand to create its own period-proof performance wear, based on intensive consumer research and feedback from customers. The challenge was to develop technical sportswear that is absorbent and leak-proof but still focused primarily on sporting performance, says senior product manager Kim Buerger.

The success of the product will be watched closely by other brands to see whether Adidas can make headway in a market currently dominated by DTC pure players such as Thinx and Modibodi.

Over 900 million people in the world menstruate. One in four women drop out of sports during adolescence, citing their period as a major factor, Buerger says. “It’s such an important topic for so many. It was a very powerful insight for us, so we took it and built product innovation to really break down that barrier and ensure people can stay in play.”

Period-proof underwear has been a growing category over the last decade. The true pioneers are US-based Thinx and Australian brand Modibodi, which launched in 2013 and 2011, respectively, both specialising in absorbent underwear that replaces tampons or pads. Forecasts for growth in this market have been rising rapidly: in 2019, the total global market for period underwear was expected to be worth $400 million by 2026; by 2020, that figure had risen to $1.3 billion, again by 2026.

Thinx has 70 per cent of the market share in the US for period-proof underwear. Sales grew by 50 per cent in 2020, closing the year at almost $80 million. The company came under fire in 2020 after claims there were harmful chemicals in the crotch. However, the company refutes the claims. “Health and product safety are the founding principles of Thinx, and they remain our top priorities today,” it said in a statement. “We go to great lengths to ensure our products are safe for our consumers. Our products undergo rigorous testing conducted by third-party laboratories, and testing from those labs has repeatedly confirmed the safety of our underwear.”

Adidas says no “toxic chemicals were used in the creation of the materials for the Adidas period-proof tights”, citing extensive chemical testing on the materials including testing for PFOA/PFOS and cytotoxicity and epicutaneous sensitivity testing on the materials. Perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, are known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for hundreds or possibly thousands of years, longer than any other man-made substance because there is no natural process capable of breaking them down. Scientists have condemned their use with research showing damage to the environment and suspected harm to human health.

Private company Modibodi does not release financials but founder Kristy Chong says her brand has grown 200-400 per cent year-on-year since launch in 2011 and has sold around four million pieces of underwear, priced between £20-£30. “Awareness of the period-proof category is now really high,” Chong says. “Around 40 to 50 per cent of people are aware of the category now, so it makes sense that there’s competition entering this market — it does offer opportunity.”

Adidas prioritises function and performance over waste reduction

Adidas Stay in Play leggings and shorts have been in development for two years, with a focus on ultra lightweight and thin fabric. While Modibodi and Thinx are focused on reducing the need for single-use tampons and pads, the Adidas products, available from 15 June, are intended to be worn with a tampon or pad, providing an additional layer of leak-proof protection.

Consumers feel better wearing a sanitary product alongside leak-proof fabric when playing sports, says Buerger. “It’s really that additional layer of security and confidence that we are bringing to the market with this product innovation.”

The Stay in Play leggings are designed to increase confidence in sport for people who menstruate at any point in their cycle. ADIDAS

The built-in brief is discreet with no visible panty lines, a design detail which emerged as a must cited by customers in the research phase, Buerger says. “The three-layer technology features a wicking layer, absorbing layer and a leak-proof membrane to really make sure that everything stays where it’s supposed to stay.”

The Adidas tights do not reduce usage of sanitary products, although they are made with recycled fabric. Chong feels sustainability concerns around single-use sanitary products are a main driver of Modibodi’s growth, which has surged as consumers began to shop more consciously during the pandemic, she says. The brand launched activewear in 2018, its first drop selling out within a month. Likewise, Thinx activewear, launched in January 2020, has also exceeded sales goals, the company says.

How education and inclusivity can help

Adidas’s period-proof activewear may be effective but many consumers are fearful about what’s good for the body during their periods. Adidas enlisted Dr Georgie Bruinvels, a senior sports scientist at sports analytics company Orreco, to help develop educational resources, based on her experience with athletes and extensive research on menstruation and training. The lesson plan, intended to be used in schools, includes recommended exercises, information about the phases of the menstrual cycle and how to manage symptoms.

The goal is to make sport more accessible the whole month long. “In my work with elite athletes, even those going to Tokyo [Olympics], I’m often faced with the regular fears of ‘I wear white shorts. What am I going to do?’,” Bruinvels says. “I feel I can help athletes manage symptoms, but actually managing the bleeding is really challenging unless you give medication. It’s exciting to finally have something that I can say, actually, these are super comfy, no one’s gonna know. You’re not going to feel it, so it won’t hold you back.”

Although the Stay in Play range was conceived out of Watch Us Move, the Adidas collection designed to improve sport specifically for women and girls, Buerger and Bruinvels are adamant that the messaging around the Stay in Play garments is gender-inclusive. “By referring to those who menstruate, you’re not putting anyone in a box,” Buerger says. “From a product standpoint it’s a fairly unisex looking product — it’s made for everyone who menstruates and wants to stay in sport.”

Attitudes are changing, helped by the upfront messaging in advertising by the likes of Thinx. “Traditionally, marketing for period products has only furthered the stigma — the notion that periods are taboo and something we should hide,” says Thinx’s chief product officer and acting CEO, Shama Amalean. “We wanted to break that stigma with Thinx and change the narrative around periods. Since the launch of Thinx and its campaigns, the brand has seen a marked shift in how periods are discussed, with many other brands pushing to break the stigma. This has helped build awareness of the category.”

Meanwhile, Adidas says it will continue to refine its product offer and develop its education programme, based on customer feedback. “It’s an iterative process,” says Bruinvels. “Already a lot of work is being done to try and work out what people want, but the aim is to keep progressing this, learning from what people’s experiences are in the field, and really continue to change the game for people in sport who menstruate.”


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