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Can Startups Improve ... Puberty?

Armed with natural deodorants, first period kits, and lots of information, these brands are trying to make growing up a little easier.

A model applies deodorant.
Blume’s natural deodorant.
Photo: Blume

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Now that direct-to-consumer startups have allegedly improved the experience of buying mattresses and contact lenses, they are attempting to disrupt one of life’s greatest disruptions. Puberty!

A handful of young brands are trying to make growing up more comfortable and less shame-filled, particularly for girls. Steeped in the language of self-care, Blume launched in June with a suite of products including organic tampons and pads, cumin and rose hip acne treatment, natural deodorant, face wash, and PMS oil. Named in part for author Judy Blume, whose young adult novels have for decades served as a normalizing force on topics like menstruation and teenage sex, Blume’s mission is to head off the lasting self-esteem issues that can arise with puberty.

The company itself is a rebranded and relaunched version of Ellebox, a subscription service for organic cotton pads and tampons founded by sisters Bunny and Taran Ghatrora. They hope to hang onto their Ellebox customers through the transition — feedback from that group helped inform the current product line — and Blume’s Thinx-like branding (neutrals, grapefruits) is sophisticated enough not to instantly alienate an adult shopper.

A model holds up a Blume branded box.
Blume founders Bunny and Taran Ghatrora hope to keep shoppers with them well past adolescence.
Photo: Blume

Still, the focus is clearly on younger women. The “Blume University” blog is filled with information about vaginal discharge, urinary tract infections, and the particulars of puberty and periods.

“We want it to be medically accurate but not clinical,” the Ghatroras say of Blume University. “We want it to be your older sister or cool cousin. It’s not shaming you, it’s not making you feel more insecure. A big component going forward will be including real women’s stories. Whether polycystic ovary syndrome or endometriosis or struggles with acne, we want to normalize these topics and create a community where you know you’re not alone.”

I’m in my mid-20s, I don’t personally know any tweens, and the only time in recent memory that I thought about puberty was while binge-watching “Big Mouth” a few months ago. But while browsing Blume’s website, I found myself undergoing the bizarre experience of wanting to buy its products for my adult self as a way of retroactively taking care of my adolescent self, who definitely felt icky and regretful about growing up.

Even young people who are freaked out by their changing bodies want information about what’s going on, and for health and beauty startups targeting adolescents, offering friendly information (and plenty of it) is a top priority.

A pale blue box filled with pads, liners, and tampons.
Lola’s first period kit.
Photo: Lola

Lola, a startup focused on women’s reproductive health that sells tampons and pads as well as lubricated condoms, started offering a first period kit last year. It comes equipped with pads, light tampons, liners, and instructional cards, all packaged in a “keepsake box”; the brand has also published a free, 34-page e-book titled “LOLA’s personal, honest, real-life guide to your first period.”

Angel Shave Club, a rather heavily feminized response to subscription razor brands like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club, introduced a first shave kit in 2017. It too includes a how-to guide with its starter products.

While Blume is looking to connect directly with young women, Lola and Angel Shave Club are primarily targeting parents, starting with those who already use their products.

“We were getting notes and calls from parents who weren’t equipped to have the first period conversation with their kids,” says Lola co-founder Alex Friedman. “We’ve really marketed [the first period kit] to our own community. It’s on our website and discoverable, but the intention is that they’ll buy it for her before she gets her first period and let her be prepared.”

Iskra Tsenkova, the CEO of Angel Shave Club, had a bumpy introduction to shaving. Her mother didn’t approve of a preteen shaving her legs, and when she found out that Tsenkova had done so, she told her to stop. Tsenkova didn’t. She just started wearing pants at home and changed into shorts when she was with her friends.

The products in Angel Shave Club’s introductory kit, including a razor, shaving cream, and a guide book.
Angel Shave Club’s first shave kit.
Photo: Angel Shave Club

The experience can be stressful even when a parent is fine with their kid shaving. One of Tsenkova’s friends took her daughter to a drugstore to buy a razor, only to watch her melt in embarrassment at having to do so in public. Selling to parents is partly a matter of practicality — not all middle- and high-schoolers have access to credit cards — but in doing so, Tsenkova is also hoping to create a bonding experience for the family that empowers young people who want to start shaving.

The business hook is that these startups could keep customers with them well after adolescence. When it was founded in 2015, Lola was all about transparency in tampon and pad ingredients; in May 2018, it got into the sex category with lubricant, condoms, and cleansing wipes. Friedman and her co-founder, Jordana Kier, now consider Lola a “lifelong brand for women’s bodies,” following them through every stage of their reproductive lives from first periods to pregnancy to menopause.

“While we’re focused on this life stage, women of all ages love these products and how they’ve elevated their routines,” the Ghatrora sisters say. “We don’t expect girls to use Blume for a few years and then get rid of it.”