Historical Overview of Feminine Hygiene in Korea

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Wondering about Korean history surrounding feminine hygiene (menstrual) products? Feminine hygiene culture develops differently in different cultures. When moving to a new country, some women may find it may help women to understand local feminine hygiene history. The following article provides a brief history and additional reading for those who want to be informed.

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Reasons for Starting a Feminine Hygiene in Korea Series

When women move from country to country, it can feel scary and frustrating to learn about local menstrual products. Most information shared comes from personal bias and fear-based clickbait. However, South of Seoul volunteers prefer a research-based perspective on information. Women deserve access to research over bias. Therefore, this marks our first article in a research-based blog post series dedicated to feminine hygiene products in South Korea.

Factors Impacting the Adaptation of Feminine Hygiene Products

Historically speaking, feminine hygiene products in Korea evolved similarly to the West but with certain distinct cultural influences. Some of the factors that impacted the evolution and adaptation of feminine hygiene products in South Korea include such things as 1) extreme poverty, 2) cultural practices, and 3) public health education programs.

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Poverty significantly impacted the ability of women and girls to access commercial feminine hygiene products in Korea. The high cost of these products, relative to average income, created a barrier to using commercial products. Women struggled to afford sanitary products, leading to instances of them using alternative materials or reusing sanitary products.

Cultural Practices

Like most cultures around the world, menstruation is often viewed as a taboo subject in Korean society. The taboo nature of the topic discouraged open discussion about menstruation and the use of certain hygiene products. For example, internal menstrual products like tampons and menstrual cups are less popular in Korea than in Western countries due to cultural beliefs and misconceptions about virginity and sexuality (Chung & Kim, 2019). Korea is not unique in this situation. Such stigmas continue to be a global concern, especially in religious communities(Root, 2022).

Public Health Programs

Public health programs play an important role in feminine hygiene policy in Korea. For example, a Seoul government initiative started in 2018 provides free sanitary pads in schools. This program aimed to reduce the burden on low-income families and alleviate period poverty among school-aged girls. We will talk more about ‘period poverty’ later in this article.

Another aspect of Korean public health programs is feminine hygiene education. The Korean government implemented menstrual health education in schools to foster better understanding and practices among young people. Such educational programs aim to reduce the stigma associated with menstruation and promote healthy feminine hygiene habits.

However, much like many countries around the world, cultural taboos and stigmas around menstruation still exist. Therefore, a need for more comprehensive public health approaches that address both material needs and cultural attitudes still exists. Watch the following YouTube video to see one woman’s lived experience regarding how feminine hygiene public health programs impacted her choices:

Brief History of Feminine Hygiene Products in Korea

Now that we have looked at a few of the historical factors that impacted the history of feminine hygiene in South Korea, let’s take a look at the historical adaptation of products as it relates to current times.

The Use of Cloth Menstrual Pads

Traditionally, Korean women used cloth menstrual pads (면생리대). The use of cloth pads continued well into the mid-1900s in Korea and the Korean community that immigrated to the United States. The following photographs show examples of Korean sanitary pads (Oh Ju-yeong 2019):

Image from “Hand in Hand: Sanitary Pad and Women’s Emancipation”, Oh Ju-yeong 2019

Korea continues to offer cloth menstrual pad options. This puts Korea ahead of a growing global trend toward the use of washable menstrual pads. Such washable menstrual clothes can be found on Coupang. You can see examples of such menstrual pads in the image below:

When searching for washable menstrual cloths on shopping sites, you can search for 면생리대 which technically means ‘cotton sanitary pad’.

Introduction of Commercial Menstrual Pads

The introduction of disposable menstrual pads in Korea can be traced back to the 1960s and the influence of the West. After the Korean War, a Korean company called Yuhan-Kimberly was founded. The company was a joint venture between Yuhan Corporation in South Korea and Kimberly-Clark Corporation in the United States. The company introduced South Korea’s first disposable menstrual pads.

The adoption of disposable pads marked a significant departure from traditional practices of reusable cloth pads. The Korean shift to disposable pads was in line with broader global trends toward convenience and was heavily influenced by Western practices of feminine hygiene.

It’s worth noting that the uptake of disposable pads was not immediate. Much like in the United States, adaptation was slow and influenced by economic, social, and cultural factors. As living standards improved and the country industrialized, disposable menstrual pads became more common and eventually became the most common choice for menstrual management in Korea.

Introduction of Tampons

Tampons (탐폰) were introduced in South Korea around the 1990s, primarily due to Western influence. However, unlike in Western countries, where tampons have been widely adopted, the uptake of tampons in Korea has been relatively slow. This is largely due to cultural taboos and health misconceptions associated with their use.

Cultural factors related to the use of tampons include 1) the association of tampon use with loss of virginity, a misconception prevalent in many societies, and 2) concern regarding Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare but serious condition associated with tampon use. Additionally, women have noted that the lack of tampon adaptation may also relate to a lack of awareness and education related to tampons in public health education.

That said, attitudes towards tampons change with time, particularly among younger generations. Influenced by international trends and increasing discussions about menstrual health and gender equality, more Korean women are starting to use tampons.

Introduction of Menstrual Cups

After the disposable sanitary pad scare of 2017 (more about this later in this blog post), Korean women campaigned for menstrual cups (생리컵, 월경컵) to be sold in South Korea. The Korean government quickly responded and finally relaxed its rules to allow the sale of menstrual cups in South Korea. You can now find menstrual cops in shops like Olive Young or you can order them from Coupang.

However, unlike the U.S. and Europe, where tampons and menstrual cups are widely accepted, Korean society exhibits a more conservative attitude towards internal hygiene products. However, younger generations, exposed to international trends and gender equality discourses, are gradually embracing these alternatives.

Introduction of Menstrual Underwear

Although we couldn’t find an exact timeframe, Korean society started using reusable, Western-style menstrual underwear (생리팬티) via online shops. According to Expat Guide Korea, two types of ‘period underwear’ are available for sale online Korea KHUF and Cyclean. Currently, such products have not been represented in the online research we found on feminine hygiene products in South Korea. The following images show the options for 2XL size period underwear on Coupang:

Additionally, it should be noted that Korea also offers disposable period underwear. You can see them pictured in the image below which shows options at Olive Young:

A sample image of what disposable period underwear packaging looks like.
A sample image of what disposable period underwear packaging looks like.

Issues Surrounding Feminine Hygiene in South Korea

Now that we have looked at 1) factors impacting feminine hygiene in Korea and 2) the history of feminine hygiene products in South Korea, it’s time to look at more current issues surrounding feminine hygine products in South Korea. Such issues include the health and safety of products and access to products.

Regulation of Feminine Hygiene Products

Different governments and parts of the world conceptually categorize feminine hygiene products differently for regulations. For example, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration regulates sanitary pads as a medical device; in the European Union EU, pads are regarded as ‘broadly applicable consumer products’; and in South Korea pads are regulated under the guidelines of ‘quasi-drugs’.

This is important to know since this provides insight into how each administrative body may go about testing and managing the safety of such feminine hygiene products. Such regulation is important because disposable feminine hygiene products have a history of contamination worldwide.

Contamination and Feminine Hygiene Products

Independent agencies began testing feminine hygiene products globally for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) about a decade ago. In 2017, not long after some countries found products to have unhealthy levels of VOCs, a “sanitary pad scare” also kicked off across South Korea. Women’s advocacy groups, concerned by such findings, demanded the Korean government begin testing products sold in Korea.

In response, South Korea announced that they would test all feminine hygiene products and release the data. In December 2017, South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety concluded that the level of chemical substances found in sanitary pads sold in Korea is not hazardous to the human body. An independent study in 2020 supported such findings.

Despite the government’s findings, the “sanitary pad scare” kicked off an increased interest in reusable products such as cloth pads and menstrual cups.

Period Poverty

Menstrual poverty, also referred to as period poverty, is a global issue that affects many women and that includes those in Korea. It refers to the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and waste management.

In Korea, the issue of menstrual poverty came to public attention around 2016, with an increasing number of reports about girls and women unable to afford sanitary products. This has prompted calls for the government to provide free sanitary products for girls and women in low-income households.

Local Government Response to Period Poverty

The administritive district of Seoul led the way in offering free period supplies for girls. This lead other administrative districts across the country to also adopt the practice. This means that similiar programs exist in different areas across the country.

The Call For a National Response to Period Poverty

Despite these governments’ current efforts, the high cost of sanitary products in Korea still poses significant challenges. Some women resort to unhealthy practices, such as reusing disposable pads. Therefore, women’s groups in Korea are currently pressing the government to offer federally funded universal support for women.

Period Poverty Support Only for Korean Citizens

South of Seoul contacted the Korean government directly to ask how international residents in South Korea can access assistance for feminine hygiene products. The government offices informed us that such assistance is only available to citizens and not international residents. We find this to be an issue that should be addressed and pressure should be applied to the government to provide access to all residents in Korea.

Current Feminine Hygiene Use Statistics

Now that we better understand the history of feminine hygiene trends in Korea, let’s look at current statistics. As of 2021, the following statistics regarding feminine hygiene products were reported in South Korea:

Most Common Types of Menstrual Hygiene Products Across All Age Groups%
disposable menstrual pads89.0%
cloth menstrual pads4.5%
tampons 4.2%
menstrual cup1.6%
(Choi, et al., 2021)

Additionally, the same research showed the following statistics regarding choosing feminine hygiene products:

Most Important Criteria When Choosing a Menstrual Hygiene Product%
disposable menstrual pads – comfort31.3%
tampons – comfort 41.5%
cloth menstrual pads – natural ingredients or organic products51.4%
menstrual cup – custom fit50.7%
(Choi, et al., 2021)

Additional Reading

Now that you have looked at a brief overview of feminine hygiene in Korea. We recommend diving deeper into the issues and reading the following articles:

Additionally, after reading this, we recommend researching feminine hygiene history in one’s home country and comparing timelines, issues, and perceptions in order to create a better understanding. Such knowledge can help with understanding differences between cultures.

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