Dan Hixson, University of Utah College of Engineering
University of Utah materials science and engineering student Amber Barron (left) and materials science and engineering assistant professor (lecturer) Jeff Bates are part of a team that has developed a new, 100-percent biodegradable feminine maxi pad that is made of all natural materials and is much thinner and more comfortable than other similar products. In front of them is a series of materials they have experimented with, including cotton, to make the finished maxi pad (far left on the table).

SALT LAKE CITY — A team of Utah scientists have developed an environmentally friendly product to help women with personal hygiene.

Students at the University of Utah developed a 100-percent biodegradable feminine maxi pad composed of all natural materials that is thinner and more comfortable than other similar products. The materials science and engineering researchers created the SHERO Pad — which uses a processed form of algae as its ultra-absorbent ingredient, which is then covered with cotton and the same material used for tea bags.

The result is a maxi pad that is effective, comfortable and can be broken down organically in less than six months, explained assistant professor Jeff Bates — who led the research project.

"What we were trying to focus on was making something that's more of a biomaterial, more renewable, sustainable and would degrade into things that were essentially compostable," he said. "Everything is also vegan."

He said the need for something like the SHERO Pad originally came from SHEVA, a nonprofit advocacy group for women and girls in Guatemala, which turned to Bates because the organization was looking for a sustainable solution for feminine hygiene waste. One of Bates’ areas of research is in hydrogels, which are water-absorbing polymers.

“In Guatemala, there’s no public sanitation system. All the rivers are black because they are so polluted,” Bates said. “So there really is a genuine need for people in Guatemala to have biodegradable options.”

He said one of the goals of the project is to create a product that can be made relatively inexpensively and have it ready to market in the next 12 to 18 months. One of the useful byproducts of this pad's development was the realization that the same materials could be used to make biodegradable diapers as well, he noted.

Part of Bates’ solution came one night while feeding his 5-year-old daughter.

“One day we were eating dinner with white rice, and my daughter spilled it all over the floor,” he said, recalling that night about two years ago. “The next morning, when I was cleaning it up, it was all dry and crusted. I drove to work and thought, ‘What was it about rice that does that?’”

That question of how rice hydrates and dehydrates began a two-year process of searching for the right natural materials for the feminine pad, which included testing with different leaves, such as banana leaves, and various forms of cotton.

“This is novel in comparison to other biodegradable options out there for pads,” said Amber Barron, 21, a junior in materials science and engineering at the U. and who is one of four students on the reserach team. “Most are really bulky because they don’t have a superabsorbent layer.”

The team — which also includes sophomores Sarai Patterson, Ashlea Patterson and Ali Dibble — ultimately developed the SHERO Pad using four layers of organic materials. Among the materials were an outer layer of raw cotton similar to a tea bag to repel any liquid; a layer of organic cotton to absorb the liquid and pull it from the outer layer; an ultra-absorbent layer made from agarose gel (a polymer from brown algae); and a final layer made of a corn-based material that keeps the moisture inside to prevent leakage.

"The main part of what we were looking at was being able to provide (women) with something that was going to biodegrade," Barron explained. "Many of the low-income areas also don't have a (formal) waste management system."

While there are currently other similar sustainable feminine pads on the market, those products either use a hydrogel that is not fully biodegradable or they use thicker layers of natural cotton that are less comfortable to wear, Barron said. Another advantage to the SHERO Pad is that it can easily be manufactured in smaller villages using locally sourced materials and without the necessity of sophisticated tools — just common presses and grinding stones, Bates said.

While the team originally developed the SHERO Pad for users in developing countries, the team will also start selling the product in the U.S. for environmentally conscious women, he said. A working prototype has been produced through a startup company based in Bountiful. The team hopes to have products on sale in Guatemala and the U.S. in the not-so-distant future, at costs similar to existing traditional feminine hygiene pads, Barron said.

Though still in her undergraduate studies, Barron said that her long-range career goals include possible development of other biodegradable products and eliminating unnecessary packaging waste.

"The average U.S. woman generates 6,400 pounds of feminine hygiene waste in their lifetime — that includes packaging. In many instances it's not (totally) biodegradable," she said. "I'm hoping in the future to do more (to mitigate that) and using natural-based products or products coming directly from the environment for that purpose."