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As a menstruating teen, the worst thing that could’ve possibly happened was almost always related to periods.
Whether it was an unexpected arrival or blood soaking through clothing, these worries often stemmed from a lack of discussion about menstruation.
Free bleeding aims to change all that. But there can be a lot of confusion around what it means to free-bleed. Here’s what you need to know.
The premiseof free bleeding is simple: You menstruate without using tampons, pads, or other menstrual products to absorb or collect your flow.
There are two sides to free bleeding. Some view it as a movement intended to normalize periods in society. Others are forced to do it out of financial necessity.
There’s also more than one way to go about it. Some people wear their usual underwear — or entirely forgo underwear — while others invest in period-proof clothing.
Free bleeding is often about revolting against the need for specific menstrual products.
Although neither of these products are inserted into the vagina — so the blood does flow freely — they’re still part of the menstrual product category.
This is where things get a little confusing. It’s easy to lump the likes of period panties into the menstrual product box, but these newfangled items are different.
For starters, they’re designed to feel natural, rather than an addition to your body or underwear. Plus, they look just like regular underwear.
Their fabrication also allows you to go about your everyday life without worrying about your period.
Most are made with multiple layers of fabric that each have a different purpose.
For example, one brand, Thinx, uses four layers in its products:
- a moisture-wicking layer
- an odor-controlling layer
- an absorbent layer
- a leak-resistant layer
At the end of the day, period-proof designs are menstrual products. But the personal freedom they provide has solidified their place in the free-bleeding category.
Free bleeding has been around for centuries.
Although periods aren’t mentioned a lot in historical texts, people in 17th-century England would either free-bleed, use rags to soak up the blood, or fashion makeshift tampons out of things like sponges.
Free bleeding in those times, however, may not have been an intentional choice. It’s more likely that little else existed.
It isn’t exactly clear when the modern free bleeding movement began, although menstrual activism became prominent in the 1970s.
The first reusable item was being worked on before this time, though. In 1967, a patent for a “protective petticoat” with a “moisture-proof material” was registered.
Earlier designs tended to rely on plastic films to soak up blood. Today’s period-proof clothing is much more advanced. It uses specially designed fabric to absorb liquid without the need for a plastic lining.
As well as technological innovations, the emergence of the internet helped the popularity of free bleeding. One of the earliest online conversations on the topic appears to be this 2004 blog post.
Now, numerous people have opened up about their free-bleeding experiences, artists have tried to promote it via Instagram, and one marathon runner’s bloody leggings hit headlines across the world.
Although some ancient civilizations believed period blood was magical, the idea that periods are dirty and should therefore be hidden away began to seep in over the centuries.
Some cultures still actively shun people who are on their periods.
People in Nepal, for example, have historically been
Though the practice was criminalized in 2017, the stigma persists. This has led some to adopt workarounds to the law.
Many Western countries have also struggled to normalize this bodily process, with the “tampon tax” at the forefront.
And, whether it’s free bleeding or something else, anything that aims to tear down decades upon decades of societal belief is bound to cause some contention.
People are drawn to free bleeding for a number of reasons.
Some of these — like the fact that people enjoy their natural state and feel more comfortable without menstrual products — are simple.
But many are more complex.
By refusing to hide their periods, some free bleeders are on an intentional mission to normalize menstruation.
They may also be protesting the “tampon tax.” It’s a common practice in which traditional menstrual products are priced as luxury items.
Others may free-bleed to raise awareness of period poverty and the fact that some people don’t have access to products or sufficient menstrual education.
Then there’s the environmental aspect. Disposable menstrual products result in a huge amount of waste.
Around 20 billion pads and tampons are thought to end up in North American landfills every year. Reusable items like menstrual cups reduce this figure, but so do period panties and full-on free bleeding.
Experts note that free bleeding has no proven health benefits. There are several anecdotal ones, though.
People have experienced reduced menstrual cramping and tend to feel less discomfort.
If you switch from tampons to free bleeding, there’s also a reduced risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS).
Although the overall risk is relatively small, wearing the same tampon for too long or wearing one that’s more absorbent than necessary has
Even finances can improve. Buying period-proof clothing may cost more at first, but you’re likely to save more money in the long run.
And if you prefer to wear your usual underwear, you may not spend a thing.
Period panties and similar items of protective clothing tend to incorporate antimicrobial technology designed to keep germs at bay.
But, when exposed to air, menstrual blood can give off an intense smell.
It also has the ability to carry bloodborne viruses.
However, the risk of transmitting either of these conditions to another person is low without through-the-skin exposure.
There’s only one other thing to think about: the potential mess that free bleeding entails.
Blood may also leak on any surface you sit on. While this may not be much of a problem at home, there could be some issues when out in public.
Here are some pointers if you’d like to try free bleeding:
- Make important decisions. What do you want to bleed on? When do you want to do it? Where? Once you have all the answers, you’ll be in the best position to try it out.
- Start in a safe environment. For most people, that’s at home, but it can be anywhere that you feel comfortable. This will allow you to get to know how your period works and what to expect from your flow.
- Use a towel when sitting down. Some people only choose to free-bleed at home, ensuring they sit on a towel to prevent blood soaking through to furniture. When you’re first starting out, this is a good strategy to abide by. It’s also helpful to place a towel on your bed at night.
- Venture outside only if and when you feel comfortable. You may only choose to do this toward the end of your cycle when blood flow is the lightest. Or you could free-bleed in public throughout the entirety of your period. The choice is yours.
- Pack extra underwear and clothing. If you’re leaving the house and know there could be a chance your period soaks through your usual clothing, consider packing a few extra pairs of underwear and a change of pants. Most period-proof items are designed to last all day, so you shouldn’t need to worry if you’re wearing them.
Thanks to the increasing popularity of free bleeding, several companies have designed high-quality underwear and activewear that allow you to go about your everyday life stress-free. Some are even appropriate for the water.
Here’s a few of the best options available.
For every day
- Thinx is one of the biggest period-proof brands. Its Hiphugger panties can hold up to two tampons’ worth of blood, so they’re ideal for the heavier days of your cycle.
- Knix’s Leakproof Boyshort is another comfy style. It comes with a thin built-in liner and technology that can absorb up to 3 teaspoons of blood, or two tampons’ worth.
- Lunapads’ Maia Bikini panties can be customized to suit your flow. Wear alone on lighter days, and add an insert when you need a little more protection.
For yoga and other low- to moderate-impact activity
- Modibodi bills itself as the “original” period underwear brand, even branching out into activewear. Its 3/4 leggings can absorb between one and 1 1/2 tampons’ worth of blood. They can also be worn with or without underwear — whatever you’re comfortable with!
- Three layers of fabric make up Dear Kate’s Leolux Leotard. It’ll keep you dry, is resistant to leaks, and can do the job of up to 1 1/2 tampons.
For running and other high-impact activity
- Thinx’s Training Shorts appear to be the only period-proof running shorts on the market. With the ability to absorb the same amount of blood as two tampons, they come with built-in underwear to keep you comfortable while working out.
- Ruby Love’s Period Leggings claim to have maximum leakproof protection, letting you do any exercise with ease. Their lightweight liner means you can wear them alone or with underwear if your flow is particularly heavy.
- There aren’t many period-proof swimsuits around, but Modibodi’s One Piece can be used on the lighter days of your cycle. On heavier days, you may need additional protection.
- If you’re on the lookout for a bikini, try Ruby Love’s Period Swimwear. Mix and match this bikini bottom with any top. It comes with a built-in liner and leakproof technology for all-day protection.
You can always free-bleed into your regular underwear! Just bear in mind the blood is likely to soak through pretty quickly.
Make sure you have plenty of spare underwear (and a change of clothes) on hand to change into.
As your period becomes lighter, you may not need to change as often or at all throughout the day.
The key to removing any kind of stain — blood included — is to avoid applying heat until it’s gone.
If your menstrual blood leaks onto your usual underwear or clothing, rinse the item under cold water. Sometimes, this is enough to remove the stain.
If not, spot-treat it with one of the following:
- laundry detergent
- a product specifically designed for stain removal
- hydrogen peroxide
- baking soda mixed with water
With the first three, dab the product onto any lightweight fabrics. Feel free to scrub a little harder on denim and other tough materials.
Hydrogen peroxide can be useful for tougher or dried blood stains, but it can also fade dye. Be careful with any darker items.
To do this, dip a towel or cloth into the chemical and dab — not rub — it onto the stain. Leave on for around 20 to 30 minutes before rinsing off. Covering the treated area with plastic wrap and laying a dark towel over the top is said to increase the overall efficacy.
Alternatively, you can combine baking soda with water until a paste is formed. Coat the stain in it, leave the item out to dry, and brush off.
You can typically use the same treatments on clothes and bedding. Once the stain is removed, wash the item as you normally would.
Cleaning clothing designed for periods is much simpler. Once you’ve finished wearing the item for the day, immediately rinse with cold water.
You don’t have to stick it in the washing machine after every use, but when you do, place the item inside a laundry bag and put it on a cold wash.
A mild detergent is fine to use. Avoid bleach or fabric softener, though. They can reduce the absorbency of the design. Finish by air-drying.
Ultimately, free bleeding is all about you. You decide how you want to go about it, how often you want to do it, and everything else that comes with it.
Even if it doesn’t sound right for you, just talking about alternatives to traditional menstrual practices is an important step in ending the stigma around periods.
Lauren Sharkey is a journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraine attacks, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.