Feminine hygiene products typically receive little attention in the industry. Embarrassment and lack of knowledge are often at the center of a male-dominated custodial staff's reluctance to discuss this category. Additionally, demand for these products remains low — partly due to the economy and partly due to the nature of the service being provided.

"Sanitary vending is considered a convenience item," says Michelle Ruvola, vice president of The Standards Companies in Chicago. "It's for emergency use. Most women carry their own products with them, and if they have to have something, that's the only time they use a vending machine. Usage is not great. On average, a woman will only use two products a year out of the machine, so it's not a large purchase item."

In general, distributors say sales of feminine hygiene products are nominal — and for some the demand is actually shrinking. Eric Cadell, vice president of operations for Dutch Hollow Janitorial Supply, Belleville, Ill., sees customers discontinuing feminine hygiene services and relying on their female employees to supply their own products.

"It's a cost to the company, and the public's never in there anyway," he says. "That's where we see dispensers coming out of restrooms. It's an operational expense and it's a pretty easy one to cut."

According to Jeannie Murphy, president and owner of Murphy Sanitary Supply in Broken Arrow, Okla., there was a time when companies could actually turn a small profit on the vending machines, but times have changed.

"Years ago, we could show how facilities could actually make a little money by purchasing the product and loading them in the dispenser," she says. "But they actually turn out being a headache."

Today, feminine hygiene products and dispensers are more common in places that have high access to the public, says Cadell, such as school systems, nursing home chains, hospitals and retail chains.

Product Preferences

For businesses that continue to provide feminine hygiene items in women's restrooms, offerings are fairly standard; dispensers usually supply both sanitary napkins and tampons.

"Women want to buy what they're accustomed to," says Ruvola. "Before, it used to be the fat maxi pads. Those are out. Now everything in the market is the thin pad."

When it comes to purchasing tampons however, the industry seems to be divided. Some customers favor tampons with cardboard applicators while others consistently request plastic applicators. Those who purchase tampons with cardboard applicators may be concerned with costs as well as plumbing issues should the product be flushed down the toilet. Those who purchase tampons with plastic applicators are more likely responding to women's personal preferences.

And when it comes to dual dispensers, the wall-mounted, coin-operated units are still the best sellers, say distributors. Customers can choose the amount they want to charge for the product, either covering their costs or charging slightly more to make a profit — albeit a small one.

"We scare people away from the floor-mounted dispensers because they rust and get wet when you're mopping in the bathroom and stalls," says Murphy.

Regardless of the type of dispenser a facility chooses, vandalism can become a major concern.

"Theft is high," notes Cadell, "especially in places where there's a lot of public activity."

Murphy concurs: "They're always getting broken into," she says. "I've got a couple of universities that constantly need new locking mechanisms because theirs were compromised."

Depending on the nature of the business, customers might circumvent these issues by offering product for free.

"High-end facilities and country clubs put them out in a basket," notes Murphy. "We have a food manufacturer that puts them in a basket on the counter because people kept breaking into the dispensers."

Some of Murphy's school districts keep their feminine hygiene products in the nurse's office and hand them out on an as-needed basis. Others offer free dispensers in businesses where the public is less likely to take advantage of them.

In general, businesses that do offer dispensers restock them infrequently.

"A typical vending machine goes through a little over one-and-a-half cases of product per year," says Ruvola. "Most of the sanitary products are bundled with supplies such as toilet seat covers, toilet tissue and trash liners."

In some instances, dispensers are only restocked when someone complains that they're empty. Although Darrel Hicks, director of environmental services and patient transportation at St. Luke's Hospital, St. Louis, is vigilant about restocking the hospital's dispensers once a month, he too receives complaints from time to time.

"If they put their money in and didn't get the product, we'll hear about it," he says.

Hazards of Handling

Just as applicators can lead to differing opinions, disposal bags often spark debate. Some custodial managers swear by wax paper liners while others prefer plastic liners.

Cadell sells the brown wax-lined bags.

"They're designed to prevent leaking, hide odors and conceal the product," he says. Some custodians prefer paper bags because they remain upright in the disposal units and they don't have to be folded over the sides, but that can lead to problems.

"Generally, when people choose wax over paper liners it's because the paper liner ends up folding up or falling over," says Murphy. "Restroom patrons miss the wax paper liner when disposing trash. Then the custodian has to dig it out."

Hicks prefers scented plastic liners to paper liners.

"The liners have a baby powder smell, so if they don't get emptied from one day to the next, it helps control the source of the odors," he says. "The housekeeper doesn't have to reach inside the container. She can just grab the corners of the bag, tie it off and throw it in the trash."

Regardless of what disposal bag a facility chooses, distributors agree that safety is paramount when handling and disposing feminine hygiene products.

"Employees need to be aware that these disposal containers are a source of all kinds of blood-borne pathogens," says Hicks. "They need to protect themselves but also realize it's a source of cross-contamination. People are using the disposal box, lifting the lid and touching what other perhaps blood-borne-pathogen-laden hands have touched."

According to a study by the American Society of Microbiology, the outside of a sanitary napkin receptacle is one of the most contaminated ‘hot spots' in a ladies room. Hicks recommends janitors wear nitrile gloves to empty and clean the receptacles and disinfect the inside and the outside of the containers by spraying disinfectant on them and then wiping them with a disposable paper towel.

"Don't use one rag to wipe the receptacle and then the toilet handle," he says. "It could be a source of cross-contamination."

Cleaning and maintaining the disposal containers on a regular basis will also discourage women from flushing products down the toilets — which often results in plumbing nightmares.

"The cost of snaking lines is expensive," says Cadell, "but it's happening frequently. The reason people flush these products is because there's either no sanitary disposal unit in the stall, there's a lack of sanitary maintenance bags, or the disposal unit stinks or is full because it's never cleaned or maintained."

Consult the Experts

Finally, distributors advise custodial managers to get feedback from the experts themselves; the women who use the products. When St. Luke's Hospital installed new disposal units in the women's restrooms, they solicited feedback from users.

"We put some survey forms in those restrooms and we got feedback from people that they really did like them," says Hicks.

Because the majority of custodial maintenance decision makers are men, Hicks urges them to consult with female employees at the company.

"I think they should ask the females their opinion about what they like or don't like about the vending products and stay current with what is preferable," he says. "Men don't make decisions for women without getting their input. My female supervisors tell me what women like, so we've been sensitive to their needs. I think we provide a good service because of that."

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.