All of sudden, the waste bins in dorms seem to fill instantaneously with tampon wrappers and tissue-wrapped pads. The mantra of every woman caught unprepared echoes through the halls, “Do you have a tampon?”
When women live together or spend a large amount of time together, do their periods sync up?
Any woman who’s ever gone to summer camp, lived in a dorm or had sisters would say, “Oh, yes they do.”
It’s called menstrual synchrony, but despite our shared experience, science has yet to prove it actually occurs.
A 1971 study of 135 women living together in a college dorm found that the longer the young women lived together, the closer their menstrual cycles became, reducing from an average of 6.4 days to 4.6 days.(1)
This group-bleeding became known as the McClintock effect, after the author of the study, Martha McClintock.
McClintock’s study has been widely held as the first example of pheromones — unconscious chemical signals — being shared among humans. (1)
A follow-up study in the 1990s that observed college roommates, athletes, lesbian couples, mothers, sisters, friends and even office mates found menstrual synchrony occurred at some times and not others, with no discernible reason.(1)
The problem lies in the varying lengths and duration of women’s menstrual cycles. The time between periods for different women can be anywhere from 21 to 35 days. Women normally menstruate for three to five days, but two to seven days is also normal for some women. (2)
“Given a cycle length of 28 days (not the rule—but an example), the maximum that two women can be out of phase is 14 days,” said Beverly I. Strassman.(3)
What appears to be synchronous ovulation and menstruation, is actually just the overlap of different cycles, a phasing in and out of synchrony.
So it’s not that we’re bleeding at exactly the same time, it’s just that each of us bleeds so often we appear to be hoeing the same row simultaneously.
That being the case, psychologist and mathematical modeler Jeffrey Schank has asserted that true synchronization of periods isn’t actually possible.(1) Synchrony would require a lengthening or shortening of cycles among women to be taking place, which hasn’t been proven. (3)
If menstrual synchrony actually does occur, it can’t be scientifically proven until a cycle-altering pheromone has been chemically isolated.(3)
So, despite the witness of bathroom wastebaskets in dorm rooms everywhere, scientific skepticism is still warranted.
Reviewed June 22, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) Do Women Who Live Together Menstruate Together? ScientificAmerican.com. Retrieved June 21, 2016.
2) Menstruation and the menstrual cycle fact sheet. WomensHeath.gov. Retrieved June 21, 2016.
3) Menstrual synchrony pheromones: cause for doubt. OxfordJournals.org. Retrieved June 21, 2016.