Christmas is just around the corner and it is not to late to add some last minute items to your wishlist like: a menstrual cup, reusable sanitary pads, a sea sponge or some menstrual underwear.
It is now widely documented that commercial, disposable menstrual products offered to us by the FemCare industry are bad for our health, our budget and the environment. Tampons and pads are inserted and used next to one of the most sensitive and permeable body parts: the vagina and vulva. Commercial tampons use bleached, non-organic cotton, contain dioxins, absorb more than just your menses drying out your vagina and can leave micro-fibers behind. Commercial pads can contain as much plastic as four plastic bags, exposing you to harmful chemicals like BPAs. The synthetic materials and plastics used in commercial pads restrict your airflow and are a breeding ground for bacteria and yeast infections. Tampons have also been linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome, a life-threatening infection that caused up to thirty deaths between 1979 and 1983.
An average person will use up to 16,800 pads or tampons throughout their life time of menstruating, creating mountains of non-biodegradable waste that ends up in oceans and on land-fills. The yearly spend on Tampons for the average person is a minimum of €60 and that is if they only use one box per cycle and have 12 cycles a year.
Finally, there is the body shaming. How many adds have you seen for sanitary products where they used real blood instead of a mysterious blue liquid? Or an add for tampons where the fact that they are ‘discreet’ is not the main selling point? There are exceptions, but overwhelming the FemCare industry in its publicity reaffirms menstrual shame and stigma.
It all sounds pretty horrifying, but don’t despair we’ve all been there. At least these days there are more alternative products available than ever before. Countless of women run businesses dedicated to providing safe, environmentally and budget friendly alternatives have sprung up all over the world. In Ireland some of these are still hard to come by and have to be ordered online, but I swear once you try them you will never go back.
The Menstrual Cup: Designed originally in 1987 by Lou Crawford, the menstrual cup has become the reusable sanitary product of choice for many women, the perfect substitute for the tampon that can be used safely for up to 12 hours and left in overnight during every cycle for up to 10 years! They are small silicone cups that collect are inserted into the opening of the vagina (as opposed to the tampon which is generally inserted up to the cervix) where they create a seal and collect blood throughout the day. They hold a surprising amount of blood, up to three times more than a tampon, which for most users means less changing. For heavier flows they can be emptied, cleaned and reinserted as necessary. They come in an increasingly diverse range of sizes for younger and older people and people who have had babies.
I’m a die-hard fan of the menstrual cup, it has been amazing for traveling when it is not always possible to find a clean, or indeed any, toilet to change in. I can put it in in the morning and take it out in the evening. Sometimes I even forget its there. There are now a myriad of menstrual cups on the market, three of the most popular and widely available being the Keeper, the Moon Cup (available in larger Boots pharmacies and health food stores) and the Diva Cup. The only recommendations needed are to get the right size for you, and make sure it is medical grade silicone… you are going to insert it into your vagina after all!
Reusable Sanitary Pads: Did you ever wonder what your Granny used during her time of the month? Probably a rag or old piece of cloth pinned to her clothing. This is where the slang ‘on the rag’ comes from. And rags are certainly making a comeback. Reusable sanitary pads, possibly the oldest solution to menstrual hygiene, are becoming popular once again. Whether you make your own, or buy from a craftsy person on Etsy or order a complete set of cutsey pads from Glad Rags or Luna pads, the options are endless. From panty liners to night-time super absorbent pads, all flows are catered for.
They don’t create odd odors (just the slight rusty smell of blood), they can be used for longer than disposable pads and they don’t give you that horrible feeling of wearing a nappy. If they have any downsides is that they can be a little bulky and they must be washed thoroughly after each use. I have been using them more and more recently – especially when I am feeling to lazy to put in my cup – and I just wash them all together at the end of each cycle by soaking them in water and detergent overnight and then throwing them in with the rest of the whites.
Sea Sponges: Perhaps the least known of all alternative menstrual products, the sea sponge works like a tampon: it is inserted into the vagina and absorbs the blood. They are totally natural and chemical free and can be squeezed out, rinsed and reused during the same cycle. They have a shorter lifespan than the menstrual cup but are relatively cheap. Their greatest advantage is that they are perfect for sex on your period! They are so soft and flexible that they do not need to be removed for penetration, they just sit at the cervix unnoticed, protecting your sheets from potential spillage. In fact some women actually use them as a form of DIY contraception (impregnated with vinegar or spermicide – this is NOT doctor recommended). There are some brands like Sea Pearls that are marketed explicitly for menstruation but you can also find them in arts and crafts stores – just make sure there have not been treated with any chemicals.
Menstrual Underwear: We all have pairs of old, ratty, stained underwear we keep aside for ‘that time of the month’. Underwear we don’t mind ruining if there is leak or spill. Some sassy entrepreneurial women have taken this a step further and created the ‘period panty‘. Period panties are ‘reinforced’, absorbent briefs that are designed to replace pads or tampons (depending on your flow). There are many brands on the market but Thinx and Luna Pads are among the most ‘user friendly’ and fashionable: they offer everything from hip huggers to boxer briefs to thongs depending on your tastes and your flow. No granny panties, thank you very much! Their marketing also tackles period stigma, with the consequence that New York Taxis refused to post a Thinx publicity campaign. I like the idea of free flowing into some period panties but at $30 a pair and the need for at least four pairs per cycle I’m not convinced of giving up my cloth pads or cup just yet!
All in all there is no good reason not to explore at least one or two alternatives to the commercial pads or Tampons. The cost may seem a little high up front, but with the average menstrual cup costing €30 you will have recovered its value within six months and it can last up to ten years! Or if you really object to spending any money on menstrual products you could always try…
Free Bleeding: It is the practice of letting your blood flow freely without using any product for collecting or absorbing the blood. Free bleeding made news last year when Iranian athlete Kiran Ghandi ran the London marathon while free bleeding to raise awareness about menstrual stigma. In reality free bleeding is possibly the original way people dealt with their menstrual blood, particularly in cultures where the monthly bleed was seem as a normal, indeed welcome, bodily process and not something to be shamed or hidden away. Some menstrual activists have retaken the practice, armed with plenty of towels, changes of underwear and dark trousers!
If you are still not convinced about making the switch to sustainable products – commercial tampons and pads are convenient if nothing else – than consider the following points:
- In buying reusable menstrual products you are more often than not supporting small to medium women run businesses genuinely concerned with women’s health rather than massive corporations interested only in their profit margins.
- Many people who use sustainable menstrual products report feeling more connected to their bodies their menstrual cycle and experience less of the negative symptoms associated with menstruation such as PMS and cramps.
- Your monthly menstrual waste heap will be reduced to almost nothing.
- Your monthly menstruation can also create something: some women use their menstrual blood, collected in their menstrual cups to fertilize their plants and create art.
- Menstrual poverty is a real thing. If all menstruators had easy access to reusable products vulnerable people wouldn’t face the dilemma of choosing between food and tampons or opting for rags and news paper, but would have a long-term supply of adequate, hygienic and convenient products. Dropping the Tampon Tax is a start but perhaps we should be campaigning to make healthy and sustainable menstrual products available to all women.
If it’s a little late for a mail order to reach you by Christmas why not make it part of your New Year’s resolutions for 2017 to ditch the menstrual garbage of the femme care industry and adopt a healthier and more sustainable menstrual care routine?