U Improves Sanitary Pads, Women's Lives

May 16, 2017

Materials scientists at the University of Utah are developing new feminine hygiene pads that solve some pressing, practical problems.

Jeff Bates, an assistant professor in the U’s materials science and engineering program, is an expert on super-absorbent polymers that are central to a project that started out with the goal of expanding opportunities for women in Guatemala. He’d served his LDS mission there and saw a range of problems firsthand. One was reducing waste in a place that lacked public landfills.

“I thought, ‘Yes!’” he says, recalling the invitation to participate in the project. “Everybody needs to think about the waste stream.”

“The average U.S. woman generates sixty-four-hundred pounds in her lifetime of feminine hygiene product waste, which is immense,” says Amber Barron, a senior who works with Bates.

They call the result of their brainstorming and testing the “SHERO Pad.” Experiments with banana leaves and rice didn’t pan out for the absorbent layer. But the final product is biodegradable because it uses natural materials – including cotton and corn -- that decompose in 6 months or less.

Bates says the project also serves another good: Giving women in places like Guatemala more freedom.

“This really is a big issue,” he explains in a visit to KUER studios. “The women don’t go to school. A lot of them feel like they can’t hold down a job because they’re worried about these biological things that are holding them back from doing things they want to do.”

Bates and Barron add that the four-layer pads can be made locally with natural materials – even the absorbent core made of readily available brown algae.

“I love materials science because you study the structure, the properties and the processing of materials and how those work in everyday life,” says Barron. “And it’s really great to see something applied directly to women in need.”

Comfortable, affordable and effective sanitary pads are a big focus of engineering innovation these days – partly because the worldwide market is huge, over $35 billion dollars.

Plus, the technology potentially has other uses. Think: disposable diapers.

SHERO Pads could be selling locally as soon as next year.