The XX Factor

Vagina Technology Alert: Oxygenating Maxipads That Claim to Lighten Skin Tone Are Coming to the U.S.

TOM’s pads and oxygen-releasing face mask are already patented in Asia.

A maxipad company that claims its pads release oxygen, preventing bacterial and yeast infections, is readying to launch its product in the U.S. TOM, whose pads are already patented and used in Asia, plans to start a Kickstarter campaign on September 13 to enter the U.S. menstruation market. The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated the company’s claims about oxygen release and its vaginal health benefits.

TOM stands for “The Oxygen Movement”—there’s a subscript 2 under the O in the logo, making the symbol for oxygen—and it also produces oxygenating face masks. One of TOM’s co-founders says the acronym stands for Time Of the Month, too. When a Facebook commenter asked why a company that makes menstrual products has a man’s name, the co-founder replied, “A man should protect a woman, which most pads don’t do, but Tom does! ;)”

According to TOM co-founder Nancy Tsaur, the pads are superior to others on the market because the oxygen creates a hostile environment for bacteria and yeast. “When your vagina rests in a moist and nutrient-rich environment for a long period of time, harmful microbes start to develop and irritation begins,” Tsaur told me in an email. “When anaerobic bacteria are introduced to environments with oxygen, they cannot thrive and grow because anaerobes lack certain enzymes that allow bacteria to survive in the presence of oxygen.”

The company is also saying that its pads may lighten the skin of the vulva. “In today’s culture, many women look for ways to lighten that area for cosmetic reasons,” TOM posted on Facebook. “Treatments that specifically lighten the vaginal area (like lasers, creams, and ointments) are more and more sought after. We believe most of these treatments are not only unnatural, but some are also dangerous to the body! TOM Pads offer a easy and safe way to achieve the same results without spending loads of money.”

In comments to Facebook users who protested that the promise of skin-lightening promotes colorism and body shame (“stop using women’s insecurity about the appearance of their genitals to sell your shit,” wrote one pithy commenter), TOM walked back the claim. “To be perfectly honest, without putting this effect front and center, it would be misleading to the customers who try our products,” co-founder Frank wrote. Now, the founders say they’ll change their language to “balancing or evening out the skin tone.”

“We want to make it very clear that we sincerely believe women’s bodies are made perfect. We have zero intention of shaming or making anyone feel insecure about their body,” Tsaur told me. “We have received positive feedback from many women saying they really appreciate this factor of our pads. Oxygen does a lot of great things for us; balancing the skin tone is just one of the benefits that naturally come with it—think oxygen facials, but for your vagina!” As for the man-protecting-woman thing, Tsaur says, “We like to keep TOM fun and throw in some humor for our women to enjoy from time to time!”

Tsaur says the company’s proprietary formula absorbs liquid and humidity and separates water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, keeping the pad drier. Because its pads allegedly prevent the growth of bad bacteria and yeast, TOM claims that many of its customers in Asia have reported wearing their pads for “much longer” than the usual standard of eight hours. Here’s how TOM says it works:

During a woman’s menstrual cycle, there is a lot that can be going on. When you wear a pad that doesn’t produce oxygen (aka 100% of the pads currently out there), not only is it humid, itchy and uncomfortable … there are a lot of health issues encompassed within that. Certain odor-causing bacteria grow much faster when there is no oxygen present. These bacteria LOVE alkaline, oxygen-free environments. On the other end of the spectrum, our good bacteria (lactobacillus) loves an acidic environment and CAN live with oxygen, completely opposite of what the bad bacteria likes. … Our pads have been specially designed to closely mimic the pH of healthy skin (pH 4.5-5.5) and the pH of a healthy vagina (pH 3.8-4.5) once it has been activated; resulting in a beneficial pH of around 4.5.

I asked OB-GYN physician and occasional Slate contributor Jennifer Conti whether there was any reason a person’s vulva might be starved for oxygen. “Nope, there is no medical truth to the idea that your vagina needs supplemental oxygen, or to be lightened for that matter,” she told me. “They claim that by releasing extra oxygen, these pads allow the user to wear them for hours upon hours. That’s just not hygienic.”

If women are prone to yeast infections on their periods, they don’t need any special technology or patented formula to keep “clean,” in TOM’s parlance. The best thing they can do is just change their menstrual products more frequently. “Pads and tampons should be changed often and regularly to promote good vaginal health,” Conti says. “More importantly, the vagina is self-cleaning and doesn’t need any special creams, soaps, douches, or other hygiene products to keep it clean.”