Sodium alginate

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Bacteria 23 Biodegradable 232 Smart Material 6 Calcium chloride 5 Sodium alginate 14

Sodium alginate

Photos: Lucrezia Alessandroni

The Soothing Cup

EXPLORING THE MUTUAL RELATIONSHIP WITH A LIVING MENSTRUAL CUP

What if a living object could reconnect humans with their menstrual cycle and change the way we perceive it? The Soothing Cup explores a speculative future reimaging the interaction between the menstrual body, the vaginal environment, and a living menstrual cup.

The vaginal microbiome plays a central role in preventing vaginal infections and resorting balance, as well as reducing symptoms of dysmenorrhea; severe menstrual cramps, which affect around 80% of people who menstruate. However, recent studies have highlighted how most menstrual hygiene products and pain relief medication affect our bodies and the planet by interfering with the healthy microbes we live with. Furthermore, the patriarchal and capitalistic culture has perpetuated the stigma around periods by promoting the production of single-use products that have negatively influenced the behaviours of many generations.

The Soothing Cup explores a future where menstruators are deeply attached to their menstrual cups, establishing a mutualistic relationship as an alternative to chemically preventing periods. The development of an algae-based hydrogel allows the cup to become a membrane able to interact with the vaginal environment. Thanks to an incubator that acts as a surrogate vagina, people who menstruate can cultivate their own anti-inflammatory bacteria and let them colonise their cups once a month. When off-menses, the user is asked to take care of the cup by adjusting both growing and maintenance paraments. The level of care required in this ritual creates an intimate connection between the menstruator and the cup and thus reduces the desire to purchase single-use hygiene products. Thanks to this process, menstruators increase their awareness of periods whilst challenging the societal stigma. The menstrual cycle then becomes the perfect ground to open up a conversation about the social and environmental transition towards a Post Waste and Post Anthropocentric future.

Additional information

The design process started by collecting data about the history of menstrual products and their impact on both people's and the environment's well-being. By consulting a diverse community of experts, it was possible to validate the idea behind the project and start experimenting in the lab to prove the project's feasibility. This analysis made it possible to shape both material choice and fabrication processes to achieve a good grade of sustainability and scalability.

For this project, hydrogels have been explored as suitable materials able to interact with the vaginal environment because they can act as a membrane while maintaining the structure. Due to their biocompatibility, they have aroused interest in biomedical industries to be applied in tissue engineering and drug delivery. After analysing several peer reviews on these materials, sodium alginate was the most popular naturally derived hydrogel so it has been mixed with a selective media for lactobacillus. These amazing bacteria were able to grow inside the selected hydrogel and colonise the material both in the jelly and cross-linked stages while maintaining good material flexibility.

The next step was analysing which making technique was the most suitable one. Hydrogels are usually used in combination with bioprinting techniques to achieve good scalability and customizability of the desired object, features that perfectly apply to this project. Thanks to an open-source tutorial, it was possible to hack an existing 3D printer and turn it into a bioprinter, breaking down the costs. However, because both the hydrogel preparation and the bioprinting techniques are quite new processes, it was difficult to find a clear protocol to follow and the designer decided to explore also more traditional making techniques such as casting processes. Several moulds made of different materials have been explored reaching a good result with a biobased mould, even though it does not allow easy scalability of the process.

Information submitted by the maker and edited by the Future Materials Bank.

Ingredients

Sodium alginate, calcium chloride, MRS agar.

Credits

MA Biodesign tutors: Nancy Diniz, Alice Taylor, Victoria Geaney, Briony Clarke, Oscar Villareal, Timotej Baca, Alejandro Luna, Lorraine Archer, Thomas Bugg, Paula Camina Eiras, Dominic Oliver