the intelligent consumer
LITE YOGHURT, lite cheese, lite juice: what next? Lite panty-liners, that's what. Carefree Lights, new from Kotex "have no plastic backing", which apparently "allows fresh air to circulate". This startling innovation also, of course, robs them of sanitary protection's most important quality, which is a reassuring feeling that leaks aren't likely.

Surely this is a pointless new product? Maybe, but there are so many minor variations on the towel/panty-liner/tampon theme already that real improvements are difficult to come up with. Manufacturers keep trying, though, because the British san-pro market (as it's known in the trade) is now estimated to be worth around pounds 235m every year; it has grown from only pounds 175m at the beginning of the decade. This leap is due to enthusiastic marketing, particularly of pantyliners designed to be worn every day.

Users tend to stick with a familiar product, so catching girls at an early age is useful. Hence the bewildering variety of absorbencies, lengths and widths, sizes and thicknesses and the equally huge range of purely cosmetic differences. Nice scents and patterned wrappings so that towels and tampons can be carried in handbags without shame are old ploys; the latest consumer-traps, however, focus on disposal.

The laudable "bag it and bin it" campaign against flushing large wodges of cotton, plastic and wood fibre into the sewage system and thence on to the beach has thrown up a lucrative marketing opportunity - elegant ways to conceal used products in the bin. Pretty, perfumed bags are a key growth area. Sainsbury's brand, called Liberty (which "subtly disguises" its contents) is lilac-coloured and scented, while Tesco's is peach, so the woman who is worried about colour co-ordination when it comes to these matters is well catered for. Another company markets a pedal-bin shaped contraption which grabs the used towel and shrink-wraps it, so you never touch or see it again. And what exactly is wrong with using any old bag for disposal? Apart from the fact that it's cheaper, of course.

Such petty griping is all very well, but modern san-pro isn't so bad. Your grandmother probably remembers using rags that had to be washed out every month; your mother probably remembers when the only option was a mattress-sized towel that attached with clips to a waist belt. Modern- style tampons first appeared in the Fifties; the first forerunners of the discreet stick-on towel came in around 1970. Since then one of the greatest strides forward has been the invention of towels with wings, neat little tabs that fold underneath and are virtually accident-proof. Probably the best thing that ever happened to them, publicity-wise, was when a television advertisement for towels with wings, featuring agony aunt Claire Rayner, was withdrawn in 1991. Now most manufacturers are producing them and they account for over 50 per cent of the value of the total press-on towel market.

Other genuine innovations are unlikely to take the mass market by storm, because of the stranglehold of large corporations such as Kotex, Tambrands and Proctor & Gamble, who make the Always range. Conventional tampons and towels contain a proportion of rayon, a chlorine-bleached wood pulp derivative, which some studies have suggested can be linked to cases of toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal disease associated with using overly absorbent tampons.

Natracare, the only company to produce towels and tampons that are 100 per cent natural cotton, is only able to sell its products by mail order, in healthfood stores, or, resourcefully, via e-mail, address http://www.indra. com/natracare. Many supermarkets refuse to stock Natracare products, and mass-market magazines won't carry their advertising or use editorial material because of the hostility of some large manufacturers, who represent huge retail and advertisement sales for stockists and publishers.

And talking of advertisements, most are coy, dismal and repulsive. Among the low points: the female designer who comes up with the amazing notion of a curved towel (it's elasticated like a nappy). Why doesn't someone point out that they all curve when you wear them? And the panty-liner ad that murmurs matily: "Everybody's knickers get a bit damp by the end of the day." And the mad Bodyform television girl who races around the beach in swimsuit and sarong, screaming: "Waa! Body Fo-orm! Bodyform for yoooooooooo!"

Television advertising of sanitary products was not allowed until 1988 and a survey earlier this year found that 25 per cent of the population would like it banned altogether. Given the stupefyingly crass efforts that san-pro makers come up with, it's hard not to sympathise.