Desperately Seeking A Tampon? There’s An App For That

For 18-year-old Olenka Polak, the eureka moment came in a Harvard bathroom.

While at the college’s innovation lab attending a recent “start-up scramble” aimed at helping young entrepreneurs develop new ideas, Olenka, a sopohmore, went to the women’s restroom and was pleasantly surprised by a basket full of free tampons. How cool, she thought. But then she wondered: What if there were no free tampons and the vending machine was out of order and you were just plain stuck in “a periodic emergency?”

That’s when Olenka had the flash: “Wouldn’t it be cool to have this community of women on a mobile platform and have this kind of tampon hand-off where you could earn points for donating a tampon to a fellow sister in need?”

With this vision of girl-power camraderie dancing in her head, Olenka returned to the event, raised her hand and pitched her idea: There, Code Red, the mobile tampon app, was born.

The mobile app would allow users to send out a “red alert” if they were stuck in an emergency without a tampon.

A Code Red team including Olenka and two other women — Isha Agarwal and Yogeeta Manglani, both 24-year-old graduate students in global health at Harvard’s School of Public Health — quickly coalesced and started brainstorming. They came up with a simple prototype: a mobile app that would allow women in need to send out a “red alert” that would ping other nearby users who could rush over and delivery a tampon or sanitary pad or share information on where the nearest working tampon vending machine might be. (The machines are usually out of order and in some buildings simply non-existent, said Agarwal, who is also a student at Harvard Medical School.)

The interface the team has developed asks whether a pad or tampon is preferred; respondents can send back a yes or no answer about whether help is on the way. They can also initiate a chat, to say, for example, “class is just wrapping up, I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” The mockup also includes “health bytes,” a running ticker of women’s health stories to read while you’re waiting. The mapping system would track and update users’ GPS locations with each ping.

Security is clearly an issue and the team has proposed an initial launch within the Harvard community to enable a verification system using Harvard ID numbers.

But beyond tampon distribution, the Code Red team hopes to broaden its reach and become a platform for other types of women’s health needs.

For example, the app might include an automatic phone reminder for women to change their tampons in order to cut their risk of toxic shock syndrome. They might institute a rewards system that allows red-alert respondents who frequently deliver tampons to other women to win points. Those could be redeemed for “craving coupons” — prizes, like ice cream or frozen yogurt at the local shop, or discounts on related health products, like, maybe, $2 off your next box of tampons.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have this community of women on a mobile platform and have this kind of tampon hand-off where you could earn points for donating a tampon to a fellow sister in need?”

There are discussions underway about partnering with a feminine hygiene company; the women have done some initial market research and discovered that while tampon makers are keen to gain a footing in social media, their sites are fairly obscure, with relatively low traffic.

“We’re generally thinking about women’s health and well-being and about problems particular to women in college that haven’t been addressed,” Agarwal said. “For example, general safety: If it’s 11 pm and you don’t feel safe walking back to your dorm, you send out a Code Red and another woman could walk with you. Basically we’re trying to create a community among women.”

Manglani said she envisions an app for women facing all types of personal emergencies. She told the story of a mother stuck at an airport facing a five-hour flight delay and no more diapers for her baby. Wouldn’t it be great, she said, to be able to send an alert for extra diapers?

Eventually, the Code Red group said, one might use the app to support impoverished women around the world, perhaps partnering with a nonprofit such as Sustainable Health Enterprises, which helps local women in developing countries “jump-start their own businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality, and eco-friendly sanitary pads.”

To generate support for their plan, the group met today with Gina Helfrich, director of the Harvard College Women’s Center, to make their pitch.

In an email, Helfrich called the tampon app a “very clever” one that “seems to meet a unique need for women.”

“This morning we brainstormed together about ways to help them find someone to actually do the coding of the app — I’m hopeful that some of the connections they will make with other women around Harvard will bear fruit,” Helfrich said.

Not everyone, though, totally gets it.

When the Code Red Team recently put out a message on an academic list-serve requesting software developers to help with the app, one male reader noted “this is pretty weird.”

The response: “What’s weird exactly? That women have periods? Or that women might want to help those in an embarrassing situation?”

In any case, the Code Red women say this is a great unmet need. In a survey they conducted of 71 college women, nearly three-quarters said they’d been stuck without a tampon or pad at least once in the past year. When asked if they’d be interested in an app to find the nearest tampon or pad, 74% said yes.

Readers what do you think? Would you respond to an urgent request with a tampon for a stranger?

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  • Marisa Ranieri

    THIS IS GENIUS. I really hope this gets off the ground!

  • Kristina Duncan

    HOW DO I GET ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • geekgoddess

    I am awed by the brilliance of this idea, and the willingness to implement.

    I am also dismayed by how the vending machines are broken or empty. Like Harvard, my institution is supposedly enlightened about gender issues. Last night I tested FOUR women’s restrooms in a large academic building. One machine was broken, and the other three had been stocked with pantyliners instead of sanitary napkins. Hello?! If there were a clear sign of institutions “talking the talk” about gender equity but not “walking the walk”, it is the disregard for basic women’s needs that these pathetic, empty machines convey.
    For the record, when I worked not in my Ivory Tower, but at a National defense lab … never a problem. The (women?) administrators at that institution was the amazing at being sure supplies were always available.
    Just theorizing a bit more: why is it a mystery whether these machines are empty or not until you insert your money. Candy machines show their wares. And what about shame that women feel to not speak up as they lose their quarter and walk away … hopefully now to pick up their smart phone and use the app. There is a master’s thesis in this topic :-)
    Sorry to rave on so long … it must be the PMS :-D

  • hamy9912

    This should happen! I want the app on my phone! I always find myself in these kind of situations and it would be so nice to just alert someone. A tampon delivery system is sooo clever!

  • Disgust’D


  • lani


  • Cam


  • genna

    YES YES YES!! this is genius! I can’t believe this hasn’t been invented yet!! how would we keep the pervies from using it and abusing it, though?

  • Jennifer Skahen

    The real question is, when will the app be available!
    There are many reasons and times when extra product may be necessary. Diva cups don’t work for everyone, and as many mentioned, if you don’t have it, you don’t have it.
    As for safety, well, many location apps that people love are safety risks. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc, all have options to include your location.
    And, as with many apps, if you don’t “get it” don’t use it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.

  • Pay Weekly Loans

    this kind of application is not much essential at all, however i know that this kind of application will attract th ten age people well!…

  • IMH

    Seriously? A come bring me a tampon app? This would make a great Saturday Night Live skit, nothing more. The reality is that one would NEVER know if any of the other users were, in fact, men, rather than sisters. True, maybe that man who shows up might actually be bringing you a tampon or pad. More likely you’re inviting some creep to come visit you at your most vulnerable.

  • MM

    Excellent idea!

  • DesertNightOwl66

    I think it’s a great idea. We live in a fast society and I have been in situations at least once or twice a year when I lose track of time and forget to back an extra tampon in my bag. Or the public toilets don’t have tampon machines that work or none at all. And I think it would be a great idea to add to the code red app to remind us to pack an extra tampon in our bag.

    • DesertNighOwl66

      Correction- “pack,” an extra tampon.

  • mandijo

    this is great! women’s health issues are so under-addressed and not talked about and it helps no one. keep up the forward motion ladies!

  • Mamba

    Love this idea. I would definitely go out of my way for a “sister in need.” And I love adding the diapers to it. When my babies were young, we had some close calls in airports, just as described here, and instead of accosting fellow stroller pushing passengers, the app makes it a shout out to a community of participants. Social enterprises like this create a circle of people who are interested in helping others. Many people want that chance. This is a great way to do it: immediate, simple, relevant and important – ’cause when you need it, you need it!

  • Jesse

    this is a fantastic idea. i would definitely respond to an urgent message from a girl in need! i’ve been stuck more than once without a tampon, and let me tell you it is not great to have to wait for a friend or family to finally arrive with some help, especially if you’re at school and need to get to class.

  • Abu el Banat

    First, I commend the phrase “fellow sister in need”, as consistent with the women in the story having graduate fellowships, a usage that is sometimes argued.

    Second, the app bears electronic similarities to firefly flashing patterns, which the blogging beetles send out to signal their species, gender, and mating status. This allows multiple species and interactions in the same area without loss of band width. Unfortunately, some predatory species are able to mimic the various flash dances, and when a bright-tailed firefly answers the call, s/he is devoured. Pause for thought here.

    What if poodles could signal their needs? What Do Women Want?

  • Chris

    Bloody brilliant.

  • md

    The concept of the app still needs work. Similar apps include apps where people build a community database of public restrooms and apps where people share gas prices at local gas stations – look at how those apps work and how their communities successfully function.

    I don’t think relying on people to deliver tampons and pads out of the kindness of their hearts, for free, is a sustainable model. I think sticking to the core – identifying locations where working tampon machines are / areas where tampons/pads can be procured – is going to make for a much stronger app. Otherwise the concept is just too muddy.

    You know though fellow ladies, you could just go with a diva cup and never, ever have this problem in the first place…

    • Robert

      I disagree that relying on generosity is an unsustainable model. Can you elaborate on why you think it would be muddy? When you have the opportunity to make connections and create this kind of community and reciprocity, why would you pass that up for a model that requires people to spend money? Beyond simply fulfilling a need, their idea addresses confidence and taboo as well. Well done!

    • Brienne Calmer

      > I think sticking to the core – identifying locations where working tampon machines are / areas where tampons/pads can be procured – is going to make for a much stronger app

      I disagree. Your version of the app requires the user to leave the bathroom stall (not to mention possibly hike halfway across campus, given the rarity of functional machines), which is exactly the opposite of the point.

      And while I know it is a Rule of the Internet that the Diva Cup evangelists must show up to any period-related discussion, again, it’s missing the point. A cup can’t help you any more than a pad or tampon if you’re at school and it’s at home. The situation isn’t caused by running *out* of a product; it’s caused by not having them *on hand* when you get surprised by your period. And no stranger, no matter how kind, is going to lend you a cup in an emergency.

  • Brienne Calmer

    This is GENIUS- a high tech solution to a very common, anxiety-producing problem. I have met exactly one functional machine in my lifetime; mostly they seem to exist to eat quarters.

  • college gal

    may I recommend buying a diva cup or similar product. Then you just keep it in you bag & never have to buy or ask for another tampon again.

    • Brienne Calmer

      You could keep a pad or tampon in your bag, too- the whole point is that sometimes, your period shows up when you’re unprepared, regardless of your preferred product.

    • Lynn

      Unfortunately this doesn’t always work out. Switching bags, or in a hurry? You might forget your cup. It happens to us all….

  • D Scully

    This is an incredible domestic surveillance system they’ve got there.

    Now, “the man” will know your cycle, when you’re ovulating, when you’ve likely gotten pregnant, etc.

    Americans really have abandoned their privacy and any real hope of ever getting their democracy back.

    • waltzedout

      There are downsides to everything. This one is a little far fetched…

    • Lynn

      I’m not sure you could get all this information from this app. Women have different cycles and we’re not all likely to forget a tampon on the same day of the cycle. So I could get surprised by my period on day 1, but my best friend a week later just forgets to pack an extra tampon on the 4th day of hers… would one consolidate the differences in reporting these? Plus, if I have the app and I use it one month but not the next, this doesn’t mean I’m pregnant, it just means I remembered to pack extra goodies. In short, it would take A LOT of guess work to even try to make this resemble some sort of cycle surveillance system.

  • Heather Clisby

    Love it! I could have used this app last week…

  • anonymom

    Absolutely LOVE this! This make everyone your girlfriend. I think all of us woman have been in the unfortunate position of being out of tampons/pads or a sudden start of your period OR suddenly run out of diapers and unable to get more-LOVE the idea of women helping women! More power to you all!

  • ookpik

    What a terrific idea! Yes, the machines (almost everywhere) are often broke or empty, or sometimes they require a quarter and one doesn’t have change…whatever the reason, getting stuck without is a problem. And yes, it’s socially coded as embarrassing, so that women worry about asking others, e.g. in class and especially when males are present.

  • working_for_change

    How about one for t.p.?

  • Roma

    Love it!!!

  • Joseph Cronican

    I think this is awesome!