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Swimmer Fu Yuanhui quickens conversation among Chinese women on using tampons

Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui failed to win gold at the Rio Games, but she became one of the most talked-about Olympians on the mainland with her post-race interview with CCTV.

Asked about her performance, Fu said her poor showing in the medley relay was partly due to the onset of her period. Her comments set off discussion back home about a product popular around the world – everywhere except on the mainland.

When people asked on Weibo why there was no blood in the pool, they were given the reply: “Haven’t you heard of tampons?”

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The mainland market for feminine hygiene products is dominated by sanitary pads. They were introduced from Japan in 1982, and last year about 85 billion were produced. An increasing number of companies are offering the alternative, but they need to overcome pricing and cultural obstacles.

The first domestic company to make tampons was Danbishuang, which was started by Ye Deliang, a 51-year-old electrical engineer based in Henan province. Ye told the South China Morning Post he saw a shift taking place among women’s attitudes.

“More and more Chinese women are travelling abroad, and when they see their American or European counterparts buying tampons, they want to try them,” Ye said. “Yes, the market is still in its infancy, but acceptance is growing.”

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Just how big the market could get is difficult to say with accuracy. Every month, an estimated 370 million women on the mainland use feminine hygiene products, and according to data collected by Zhiyan, a Beijing consultancy, annual sales hover around US$5.3 billion. A study conducted last year by Cotton Incorporated, a research and marketing organisation for the American cotton industry, found 2 per cent of mainland women used tampons, compared to 70 per cent in the United States.

The growing number of women who do make the switch speak positively about it. “When I have my period, I don’t worry about leaks any more. I’ve said goodbye to washing bloody sheets. This joy is enjoyed by anyone who has used tampons!” read one comment on Baidu Knowledge. “The fresh, dry comfort is wonderful, 100 likes!” said another.

One brand testing the waters is Wishu, created by French bankers Jeremy Rigaud and Virginie Pre in Shanghai in 2012. They buy tampons made abroad and rebrand them with Wishu’s logo to sell in shops in the city, as well as in Beijing and Guangdong. Puff House imports brands such as Tampax and Kotex and sells them online.

But higher prices remain a concern. A single sanitary pad costs less than 1 yuan (HK$1.16) compared to the 2 to 3 yuan charged for one tampon. Another challenge is rooted in cultural beliefs – some unmarried women avoid making the switch because they fear a tampon could affect their hymen, a symbol of virginity in China, according to Ye.

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Questions about product safety also persist. In one widely reported anecdote, electronic scanners at Beirut’s international airport last year detected radioactive materials in half a tonne of maxi pads manufactured on the mainland.

But individual experience is slowly overcoming consumer resistance. A 22-year-old woman from Shenzhen told the Post she was always told to stay out of pools while on her period, but when she attended school in the US, she found it wasn’t an issue, thanks to tampons.

Additional reporting by Nectar Gan