The Women Who Refuse To Give Up Their Thinx
“My body’s already kind of f*cked up for a young person.”
Angela owns 50 pairs of Thinx underwear. The 38-year-old has hemophilia, a condition that can cause extraordinarily heavy, difficult periods. “[They’re] the first things I ever tried where I didn’t have to worry about bleeding through my clothes,” she tells Bustle. Angela’s partner, who is trans, has worn Thinx too, choosing it over other period-underwear brands because it offers unisex styles. For the New England-based couple, Thinx offers a product they can’t find elsewhere.
In January, Thinx settled a class-action lawsuit claiming that its underwear contains “harmful chemicals” that are “a safety hazard to the female body and the environment,” and that the brand misrepresented its products to customers. (The lawsuit doesn’t claim that Thinx underwear has harmed users — rather, that if customers had known this information, they would have paid less for, or not purchased, the product.) The settlement included no admission of wrongdoing by Thinx, and the company continues to deny all of these claims.
Angela plans to keep all 50 pairs. “I’m honestly not worried at all,” she says.
As news of the lawsuit spread online, many formerly loyal customers have cursed Thinx, saying they’ll be throwing away their Thinx underwear. “I invested so much money into them and they were huge for me and just into the dumpster they go,” lamented one customer on Twitter. “Just trying to make having my period a little less f*cking hellish but guess i cant do that without endangering my health in some way.” (“Consumer health and product safety are top priorities for Thinx, and we stand by the quality, efficacy and safety of our products,” the company said in a statement to Bustle.)
But Angela’s not alone in taking the lawsuit lightly. Several women who wear Thinx expressed a similar feeling to Bustle: “Eh”; “I’m just gonna keep on keepin’ on”; “I’m a bit of a nihilist.” And as one Thinx user put it on Twitter: “my pussy is stuffed full of microplastics at this point!!! polly pocket!!!!”
The Thinx lawsuit settlement is many things: alarming, frustrating, anxiety-provoking. It is also an interesting case of how, in a world of visible and invisible dangers, people calculate risk differently. Being a person — and especially a woman — is a daily process of attuning yourself to various dangers.
The shoulder-shruggers have legitimate backup: Graham Peaslee, Ph.D., the scientist whose University of Notre Dame lab was the first outside party to test Thinx. Peaslee told a reporter the high levels of fluorine found in the underwear likely revealed the presence of PFAS, human-made chemicals that are associated with reduced fertility, a weakened immune system, child development issues, and increased risk of some cancers, among other things. (“PFAS are not included in our product design,” said Thinx. “We continue to take measures to help ensure these substances are not added to our products.”)
Unfortunately, we can’t entirely opt out of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are human-made chemicals, first used in the 1940s, now used in everyday objects. They are slow to break down in the environment and can build up in the body. A 2020 study published in the journal Environmental Science summarized the use of PFAS found in a startling number of objects: clothing — particularly activewear — food packaging, air conditioning, electronic devices, glass, paper, plastic, and even water treatment.
“Because of their widespread use and their persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment,” the EPA explains.
“For your readers that already own the Thinx brand, I am not sure I would recommend that they throw them all away immediately. They are expensive after all,” Peaslee tells Bustle via email. “If they have already been worn and washed several times, much of the PFAS that is going to come off the garment readily will have done so, and the incremental exposure to another few wearings is unlikely to change the exposure risk significantly.”
Peaslee isn’t dismissive of the dangers of PFAS, though. “While direct exposure is a concern — especially since skin in the groin area is thinner than most skin layers — most of the PFAS will remain attached to the garment and will only release into the environment when the item is discarded. This is more concerning for public health, because then 100% of those PFAS will remain in surface or groundwater and end up in our drinking water supplies.”
There is a visceral horror to learning that a garment you wear regularly, against the most intimate part of your body, may contain potentially dangerous chemicals. Companies that sell period products are, in a way, selling trust — trust that they will prevent leaks, provide comfort. In 2021, Thinx launched a major marketing campaign called “Thinx absorbs period worries.” That same year, the brand’s CEO said Thinx controlled 70% of the U.S. market share of period underwear.
Brooke, 25, considers herself “super passionate” about reproductive health care. When she bought her first pair of Thinx, she was already aware of allegations that Thinx products contain PFAS.
“The reality of our modern day is that one million products and habits that we engage in are some sort of harmful to us,” she says. To her, the benefits of Thinx are simply worth it. “My periods are so unbearably horrible — really life-interrupting,” she says. “My cramps are excruciating; I throw up, can’t eat; my moods are crazy; can’t sleep; and I can’t be on birth control because I have liver disease.” Anything that provides comfort isn’t something she’s willing to easily give up.
Reading up on PFAS, Brooke saw that PFAS exposure has been linked to risk of thyroid disease and infertility. “I was like ‘Eh! My body’s already kind of f*cked up for a young person.’”
This mix of careful reasoning and “f*ck it” is common among Thinx stalwarts. Dr. Lauren Demosthenes, an OB-GYN in Greenville, South Carolina, says this isn’t crazy. “These chemicals are not just in this underwear,” she tells Bustle. “They’re very widespread. They’re in your water supply. They’re in your household products.”
Deciding whether or not to keep wearing Thinx is no different from the kinds of risk-benefit calculations we do every day, she says. “Am I going to not eat microwave popcorn anymore after reading about this? I probably will eat it because I like it and I don’t think it’s going to cause great harm to me.” As for Thinx, “If it came to your quality of life being enhanced by this particular product, and after doing your due diligence you’ve decided ‘I don’t think the risk is that high at this point,’ it’s your choice.”
For plenty of women, it has come to that point. “We’ve been told that everything’s a risk,” says Stephanie, 46, who owns one pair of Thinx for every day of the week. She likes to wear Thinx while weight-lifting. As an associate professor with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and cell biology, she feels that the information in the lawsuit is not enough to cause concern. For one, it’s not a peer-reviewed study. “There just wasn’t enough science in it for me,” she says. “If it’s not in the literature, I’m kind of done worrying about it.”
Stephanie and her friends researched the issue and debated whether to keep wearing Thinx. “All of us are like — eh!” she says. “I’m almost 50. I’m hitting perimenopause. My reproductive years are past, and I never wanted kids anyway.”
Sara, 38, has been using Thinx for four or five years. When the news came out, her mom sent her an article, and she exchanged texts with several friends who use Thinx and other brands of period underwear. “Initially it seemed pretty alarming,” she says. “There was that question of like ‘Well, what do I do with this information?’”
A response from famed gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter calmed her. “If you have been using Thinx, I wouldn’t panic,” Gunter wrote in her newsletter the week of the settlement. Gunter acknowledged the associations between PFAS exposure and health consequences, but noted that while experts have sounded the alarm on PFAS exposure in food and water, “The only thing we actually know about PFAS in clothing is that the risk from wearing clothing that has been manufactured with PFAS is unknown,” Gunter wrote. “When the only scary headlines are about period products it supports my long standing belief that scaring people about menstrual products is basically an industry.”
Since the news of the settlement came out, Sara has gotten her period again. She’s worn her Thinx. They make her more comfortable than any other period product she’s tried.