Disclaimer: This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You shouldn’t rely on this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Scroll through Instagram, click over to Twitter, or check out the news, and you’ve likely come across the term free bleeding. If you’re unsure of what it is, you’re not alone. Although the concept has been around for decades, free bleeding didn’t really start to break into the mainstream consciousness until the early 00’s. So let’s break down exactly what free bleeding is, how to do it, and everything else you need to know.
What is free bleeding?
The concept of free bleeding is surprisingly simple. It refers to menstruating without pads, tampons, or other products to absorb or your flow—like menstrual cups. There are different ways to free bleed. Some just wear their normal clothes, allowing their menstrual blood to soak through their underwear, pants, or other clothing. Others reach for period-proof clothing.
Now you may be thinking—“don’t pads and panty liners count as free bleeding?” The idea makes sense. Since there isn’t a tampon to stop the blood from exiting your body, you are, technically, freely bleeding. But since pads and pantyliners are part of the whole “menstrual product” category, they’re still avoided when one is free-bleeding. (There are reasons for this—we’ll get to them in a second.)
What’s the history of free bleeding?
As far as history is concerned, we’ve been free bleeding for longer than we’ve been using products to collect our flow. After all, women in the Medieval period didn’t exactly have boxes of tampons sitting around. It’s so historical that it’s difficult to trace when, exactly, free bleeding began. In the 17th century, wealthy women would use cut up rags to stop their flow, while sex workers would use sponges. But the majority of women used nothing at all. (1) The first disposable pads weren’t invented until 1888 (2) and the first tampon wasn’t patented until 1929. (3)
It was around the 1970s that the idea of menstrual activism really started to take hold, and the modern idea of free bleeding as a political statement was born. There were a lot of reasons for the movement, including concerns around menstrual products, concerns about toxic shock syndrome, and a growing concern about toxins. (4) In 1973, 13 women held a bleed-in, where they got together and shared stories of their first periods. (5)
Why do people free bleed?
There are a myriad of reasons why people might choose to free bleed. In 2015, drummer Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon while free bleeding, drawing worldwide attention to the trend. “It would have been way too uncomfortable to worry about a tampon for 26.2 miles,” she wrote on her blog. “I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist.” (6)
Political statements like this tend to be at the heart of why a lot of people choose to free bleed. The same year that Gandhi ran the marathon, poet Rupi Kaur called out Instagram for “accidentally” removing photos that depicted her free bleeding—twice. (7) 2015 also saw a wave of protests against the so-called Pink Tax. In many countries, menstrual products are taxed as “luxury products,” making it difficult for folks with low incomes to access them. Some women choose to free bleed in protest of the tax, while others free bleed simply out of necessity.
There’s also the environmental impact. It’s estimated that women throw away seven pounds worth of feminine hygiene products a year. (8) Considering the fact that the average woman menstruates for 40 years, that’s an average of 280 pounds of waste in a lifetime. (9) Women who free bleed aim to cut back on their environmental impact since no pads or tampons means less waste.
Other people, though, choose to free bleed simply out of personal choice, claiming that pads and tampons are uncomfortable, while menstrual cups are either too expensive or too fussy.
How can I free bleed?
Free bleeding is a personal choice that you may decide to do based on comfort or your beliefs. There is no right or wrong way to free bleed. Some choose to do it in the comfort of their own home, while others choose to free bleed out in the world. It’s all about what is comfortable for you.
If you choose to free bleed, you can either choose to wear your own clothing or period-proof underwear, like Thinx. Certain Thinx products can hold up to four tampons’ worth of blood, so you don’t have to worry about leaking. They’re also moisture-wicking and odor-absorbing, so you can carry on with your day like you don’t even have your period. Other brands, like Knix and Lunapads achieve similar results. There are also period-proof yoga pants, bathing suits, and training shorts, so you can free bleed in just about any situation.
If you choose to forgo period-proof clothing, you can wear whatever you’re comfortable with, knowing that you’ll likely bleed through your clothing. To mitigate mess, you can lay a towel down when you’re sitting.
For the most part, there are no health risks that come from free bleeding. Menstrual blood can contain bloodborne diseases, like HIV, but there is no chance of passing these diseases through skin contact. If the skin is broken, there is a slight chance, but it’s incredibly low. (10)
The choice to free bleed is an incredibly personal one. Only you can make that decision for yourself. But with the availability of more period-proof products, the ability to free bleed without the risk of leaking is higher than ever.
Loughborough University. Thy righteousness is but a menstrual clout: sanitary practices and prejudice in early modern England. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
Femme International. The History of the Sanitary Pad. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
ThoughtCo. A Brief History of the Tampon. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
Our Bodies Ourselves. A History of Menstrual Activism. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
The Guardian. It’s in the blood. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
Madame Gandhi. Sisterhood, Blood, and Boobs at the London Marathon 2015. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
Huffington Post. Removal of Rupi Kaur’s Instagram Photos Shows How Terrified We Are Of Periods. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
Vice. Let it Free-Bleed: Saving The World, One Menstrual Cycle at a Time. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
Medicine Plus. Menstruation. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.
AidsMap. Menstrual Health and HIV. Accessed October 7, 2019. View resource.