If you’re like me, you were raised to feel disposable tampons and pads were the only way to manage menstrual blood.
You never thought to ask if there was an alternative, and if you did, you were met with a smart answer from your mum along the lines of, “You should have seen what I had to wear!” Followed by a story of “diaper-like pads”, and the words “horrific” and “ungrateful”.
But, if you’re a (former) tampon user and, like me, naturally curious, eventually you begin to wonder about those warnings on the box: “Tampons are associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). TSS is a rare but serious disease that may cause death.”
When I found out about sustainable period products six years ago, it launched me on a journey I couldn’t have predicted, but which couldn’t have felt more natural: to divest from products that pollute the environment as well as our bodies.
So what period products are both sustainable and better for your bod? Grab some tea and let’s sit down and discuss!
First, What’s the Problem with Non-Biodegradable Products?
Well, besides TSS (which drew worldwide attention when 31-year-old Lauren Wasser lost both her legs to it from tampon use), conventional non-biodegradable tampons and pads are terrible for the environment.
Due to their absorption of bodily fluids, tampons and pads aren’t recyclable. And their materials present a huge problem for the environment. But why?
- Conventional non-organic pads are made from 90 percent plastic, and tampons aren’t much better.
- Most conventional tampons are made from a blend of cotton and rayon, which is a rougher synthetic fiber. Cotton is the most heavily pesticide-sprayed crop in the world, accounting for 16 percent of all pesticide use and 6.8 percent of all herbicide use.
- After period products’ manufacture and use, their life doesn’t improve. They are thrown away, ending up in landfills across the world, leaching hormone-disrupting plastics into the environment, and eventually breaking down into microplastics which enter the food chain through consumption by wildlife and humans.
- Since the average woman uses 11,000 of these products over the years she menstruates, that’s A LOT of plastic and toxic chemicals being used and ending up in our bodies and our environment. In the United Kingdom alone, disposable menstrual products account for 200,000 tonnes of waste annually.
- Conventional tampons also contain dioxin, a known carcinogen which the Environmental Protection Agency states can cause cancer, as well as reproductive and immune system damage. They also absorb the natural moisture of your vagina, leading to dryness and an increased risk of cuts – which could themselves heighten the potential for certain sexually transmitted infections.
So if you’re on board for trying out more ethical, eco-friendly, and healthier period products, check out the six options below!
If You Prefer Tampons…
Here are your top sustainable picks:
1. The Menstrual Cup
Small receptacles inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood, not only are menstrual cups cute, colourful, and convenient, it’s hard to overstate their other benefits.
Unlike a tampon, they don’t interfere with the vagina’s natural moisture, and can be worn for up to 12 hours without risk of TSS.
Menstrual cups can be made from materials including medical-grade silicone and natural rubber latex. I’ve tried both and honestly prefer the silicone; it’s softer and seems easier to insert and remove.
When inserted and worn properly, menstrual cups offer leak-free protection. But for many women, it’s a challenge to get the hang of correctly positioning the product to prevent leaking, which can take several menstrual cycles – or even years, if you’re like me.
Menstrual cups can be used for years. Manufacturers say up to a decade, but unless something is wrong with your cup, there’s no reason you can’t use it for longer. Your cup may stain, smell, or tear over time, at which point you may consider replacing it.
These cups are also affordable, costing approximately £20—which can save you thousands of dollars over the course of your menstruating years, and give the environment a much-needed break from disposable plastics!
When you’re done with your menstrual cup, there are ways to reuse it or dispose of it—check out some ideas here.
2. Reusable Sea Sponges
These small sponges are inserted into the vagina, and are natural, unbleached, and purportedly safe (although this has been disputed by some professionals). They can be reused for up to a year before you’ll need to invest in a replacement (a set of two costs about £20).
Sea sponges for menstrual blood aren’t a new idea – they’ve been around for decades, but use one at your own risk, and understand that sponges were once alive; if you’re vegan, this isn’t the product for you. People continue to argue over whether or not these multicellular organisms feel pain.
As a result of their life in the sea, testing has revealed that sponges can contain bacteria and sand, meaning they are difficult to clean and could potentially affect the pH and natural bacteria of your vagina.
Sellers such as Jade and Pearl say the sponges are sustainably harvested and biodegradable, as they regenerate from pieces left from the original sponge. Divers harvest them by cutting them off at the base so some of the sponge remains intact to reproduce. Sponges can’t thrive in polluted waters, and harvesting isn’t allowed in protected marine sanctuaries and coral reefs.
Using the sea sponge for your period is a choice that should be made with all the available information regarding their harvesting and safety – although they can’t be much worse than conventional tampons!
3. Reusable Menstrual Discs
Reusable menstrual discs are similar to menstrual cups, but with a different shape. Disposable versions are available, but obviously aren’t as sustainable.
Menstrual discs may be a more comfortable option for women with naturally low cervixes who can’t use many sizes of menstrual cups, especially those with longer stems. They also boast the benefit of allowing penetrative sex while in use.
The reusable menstrual disc is a matter of personal preference. Made of medical-grade silicone like most menstrual cups, some women find them a more comfortable option – though discs can be more difficult to remove.
Companies making reusable menstrual discs include Intimina’s Ziggy Cup (despite the name, it is actually a menstrual disc), that costs £32; Lumma Disc, which goes for about the same price; and Nixit Menstrual Cup (again, a disc) that is £40.
If You Prefer Pads…
Don’t worry, I see you pad ladies out there! I do use pads on certain days of my period if I feel too lazy to put in my menstrual cup. Here are some great alternatives to conventional plastic pads:
Reusable Organic Cotton Pads
I invested in a set of washable and reusable organic cotton and bamboo pads and they’ve held up well for several years, though admittedly I don’t use them quite as much as my trusty menstrual cup!
Designed to be washed and reused, these pads can last for years with proper care, and many are machine washable. You can choose from fun colours and designs, or go for a more traditional white.
Organic cotton pads are available from many retailers, but be sure to check the material before purchasing. Though some brands say “made with organic cotton”, this doesn’t guarantee that the entire product is 100 percent cotton; it could instead be combined with a synthetic material such as polyester.
A single reusable pad can cost anywhere from £4 and up, but when they have reached the end of their life, you can discard them without worrying about pollutants leaching into the environment.
Another big bonus: many women say these pads are much more comfortable than disposable products!
2. Reusable Period Underwear
When I first heard about reusable period underwear, I admit I wasn’t completely on board.
But then I considered the section in my underwear drawer I’ve ingeniously named “period undies”: old or stained underwear I wear when I don’t want to wear a pad or a cup. Then the concept made more sense.
Period underwear fits just like regular underwear but have a very absorbent area to catch menstrual fluid. In fact, some brands hold several times more fluid than tampons!
The problem with some period underwear is that they aren’t always made with completely sustainable fabrics. Even the organic lines of popular brands Thinx and Lunapads are made with five percent elastane and polyester in the absorbent part – not exactly where you’d want synthetic fabric positioned.
However, other producers such as Minami Cohen on Etsy make alternatives solely from 100 percent organic cotton and bamboo. These products range from £20 to £30 each, and you can often save by buying packs.
3. Biodegradable Organic Cotton Pads
Okay, I get it. Whether because you’ve tried the products above and aren’t impressed or would just prefer to stick with disposables, there are some safe and relatively sustainable picks out there!
Founded in 1989, Natracare’s products are made entirely from organic cotton, including non-applicator tampons, and options with completely biodegradable applicators. Their pads additionally contain “ecologically certified cellulose pulp, plant starch, and non-toxic glue”, while packaging is either biodegradable or recyclable, using vegetable-based inks.
A Word on Homemade Alternatives to Period Products
If you want to decrease your reliance on mass-produced products even further, it is possible to make your own pads! If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can purchase organic cotton fabrics and create pads from fabrics lying around the house.
Check out this tutorial on making pads, to help save money on purchasing mainstream pads, and to recycle fabrics around the house.
A Word on the Benefits of Purchasing Locally
When looking for ethical alternatives to conventional period products, consider purchasing them locally to minimise your negative impact on the planet.
Though products manufactured in other countries may be great options, the impact of transporting them by plane could cancel out the positive environmental impacts you’re trying to achieve.
Many countries are introducing sustainable options for managing your period, so look locally before considering other possibilities!
Initiatives for Change!
It’s amazing that alternatives to conventional pads and tampons are available, but it’d be remiss to forget this isn’t true in most places around the world.
Where girls lack the means to deal with their period blood, they may miss school for days every month, with a hugely detrimental effect on their education. Many girls in countries such as India stop attending school completely once they begin menstruating, since there’s nowhere to change their pads or hygienic ways to manage their blood flow.
What can we do to provide better practices for these young women?
- Donate to causes that give girls better ways to manage their periods, from pads to menstrual cups; Ela Cup is one such brand changing the way girls experience their periods in India.
- Sign petitions for change, such as this one which asks manufacturers of disposable period products to make their pads and tampons plastic-free.
- Don’t ignore period poverty. Many people around the world, including in the United Kingdom, can’t afford period products. Normalising periods and breaking the taboo around the subject helps to increase awareness of these issues
- Volunteer at organisations such as Bloody Good Period and Freedom4Girls that are actively working to end period poverty. There are also other ways to become involved with these companies, including organising fundraisers, attending events to learn more about menstruation (abroad as well as locally), and donating period products for these causes.
Places such as Scotland are making pads free in public toilets for all students, including university students, giving women access to the resources to manage their flow. Though a step in the right direction, the plastic nature of these products must change!
Let’s End Plastics in Period Products – and Invest in a Healthier Body and Planet!
I know firsthand that it’s not easy switching from something you’ve used habitually for years to putting an unfamiliar object into your body.
But when you consider the impact on the planet – as well as on yourself – of conventional products, it’s hard to justify not switching.
Have you given any of these ethical period products a try? Consider changing to a zero-waste, natural way of managing your period with some of the above options.
Featured image via Etsy