The Sustainable Period: Getting Started with Green Menstrual Products

Menstrual cup next to fabric holder. Photo from menstruationstasse.net via Flickr.

Before I begin, it’s important that I mention that not all women menstruate, and not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman, so I’ll omit the term “feminine hygiene products” in order to be more inclusive. It’s also important to note that people who have periods in developing countries are often still persecuted, and usually lack access to adequate menstrual hygiene products and period-related education.

Even people in our own communities aren’t always able to afford the necessary products for their period. While we’ve come a long way in that regard, some of us are still suffering from a lack of menstrual hygiene and education, and this problem needs attention so we can continue moving forward.

Historically, menstrual products included cloth rags and pads made from sheep’s wool, cotton, fur or knitted fabric. Free-bleeding onto clothing was also prevalent. One of the most common products was the Hoosier belt, which was fairly popular between 1890 and 1970, and consisted of a belt worn around the waist that attached to a washable pad between the legs.

In 1888, the first disposable pads were manufactured, with the idea coming from nurses on the battlefield who used disposable bandages to absorb blood from wounds. The first tampons were produced in 1929, by a man named Dr. Earle Haag. Finally, in 1970, the first disposable pads that could stick to underwear appeared on the market, making the Hoosier belt pretty much obsolete (and thank goodness for that!).

There’s a deep-seated stigma around menstruation, due to various beliefs held throughout history. In ancient Judaism, women who were menstruating were kept separate from everyone else until they’d gone through seven “clean” days without any bleeding. Even in medieval times, periods were seen as the price women had to pay for Eve’s sin—there were no pain-relief products, and there was a lot of religious shame associated with menstruating. Without proper period products, a bad smell often came with menstruation, which only added to the stigma. Some societies even believed that menstruation was associated with witchcraft!

Disposable menstrual products (and birth control!) certainly revolutionized women’s health and the women’s movement. It gave users the ability to be even more discreet—and thus, avoid the aforementioned stigma. It also gave women more freedom to pursue education and careers without worrying as much about persecution from their peers.

Nonetheless, we now know that these disposable products are incredibly harmful to the environment, as they often contain plastic or other materials that aren’t biodegradable. Pads and tampons are often treated with chlorine and other harmful chemicals that can leach into both our bodies and the areas in which these products are thrown away. These products also tend to end up in sewage systems and waterways, which only adds to their harmful effects on the environment.

The good news is that since we’re continuing to revolutionize period products, there are now many environmentally friendly ways to manage your period without contributing to an abundance of harmful waste! As an added benefit, these options are also more cost-effective in the long run, in comparison to disposable alternatives, and have the potential to increase access to period products for those in financial need (including people in developing countries).

Below, we’ll go through the essential facts surrounding four of these eco-friendly options—all of which are becoming increasingly popular, as many of us decide to pursue a low-waste lifestyle.

Reusable Pads

A bunch of different-colored cloth pads. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, this may seem like a regression, but hear me out. The reusable pads of today are quite an upgrade from the rags and Hoosier belts of the past!

Examples of available brands include Lunapads, hannahpad and GladRags, and even more options are available through websites such as Etsy.

Many of these incorporate highly absorbent materials and leakproof layers into cute fabric designs that can be secured to underwear with Velcro or wings that clip together. After use, they can be tossed into the laundry pile. Then they can simply be washed by hand or in a machine, and reused over and over again.

There’s more of an upfront cost associated with getting a set of reusable pads, as opposed to a box of disposable ones, with prices varying widely throughout the market. Prices will often depend on how many pads you want or need.

However, with proper care, reusable pads will last at least three to five years, but many sets will last even longer than that! So when deciding what to buy, compare the cost of a box of single-use pads for one period to the cost of a set of reusable pads that can be used for dozens of periods throughout its lifetime.

Period Underwear

A handful of brands have developed cutting-edge, leakproof underwear that offers a high level of absorbency for periods or even bladder leaks!

Knix, Thinx and Lunapads are just a few brands carrying period underwear that’s received excellent user reviews. Different styles of underwear also come with different levels of absorbency that are identified based on how they compare to tampon absorbency. For example, the Knix leakproof high-rise underwear can absorb two regular tampons’ worth of liquid!

The price of period underwear can range from $25 to $50 USD per garment, but discounts are common if you buy a set. The lifespan of period underwear is comparable to that of reusable pads: about three to five years, and sometimes they’ll last even longer than that, with proper care. These pairs of underwear can be hand-washed or machine-washed in a lingerie bag, making them another simple and effective alternative to disposable pads.

The added benefit of purchasing a set of period underwear, instead of reusable pads, is that the underwear can be used on regular days, too. It’s also a great backup method for the cup (discussed further below), organic cotton tampons, the sea sponge and more—especially on heavier flow days!

The Cup

Two V-cup menstrual cups next to user's manual. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The menstrual cup is a revolutionary option for people who prefer tampons to pads. To use it, you must have a high level of comfort with your own body. One of these can also involve a bit of a learning curve, but a lot of people end up loving their cup way more than tampons!

The cup is, more specifically, a flexible cup made of silicone. It’s safe to use inside your body for longer periods of time than a tampon is, because there’s absolutely no risk of toxic shock syndrome. Cups can be safely used for 12 hours at a time. However, in online reviews, some folks have shared stories of needing to use theirs for longer periods during travel; for example, when they haven’t had access to a bathroom in which they can wash and reinsert their cup.

The cup can be folded in one of several ways for comfortable insertion, and then it’ll open up and create a natural suction seal to prevent leaks. This is the trickiest part of the whole process—sometimes it can be difficult to get the cup to open up and create that seal, but with experience and practice, it becomes easier each time. Since the cup can safely be used for 12 or more hours, it can be inserted at home in the morning, and left in until you’re back in the comfort of your own bathroom at night.

When it’s time to remove the cup, use a finger to push one side of it towards the other, in order to break the seal. Next, you’ll need to pull it out, dump the contents directly into the toilet, and then wash the cup in the sink with warm, soapy water before you reinsert it. Voila! It’s also ideal to boil your cup in water between each period, in order to fully sanitize it and avoid any staining.

There are dozens of brands of menstrual cups: Lunette, Diva, Blossom and many more. There are normally two or three size options, and the best one for you will typically depend on if you’ve given birth before or not. If you’re unsure of what size to get, it’s easier to try the smallest size first, and then go up a size if you experience any leaking. As mentioned above, leakproof period underwear or even a reusable pad can serve as an excellent backup method while you go through the learning curve with your cup.

The cost of a cup can range between $12 and $40 USD, depending on the brand, making it a less expensive option than a set of reusable pads or period underwear—and you really only need one, though some people may keep a spare! A single cup can also last for approximately five years, with proper care.

Biodegradable Pads and Tampons

If the above options really aren’t your thing, or you’re a bit too squeamish to deal with the associated cleanup, and you’d prefer to just dispose of your period products, then that’s OK, too! The same goes if you can’t afford the upfront cost of your preferred reusable method.

There are some disposable products that are better for the environment and the body than most traditional types of pads and tampons. The most important thing is to respect your own comfort level and pick the option that’s most accessible for you.

Sea sponge tampons are an organic type of tampon that can actually be reused a few times, if you’re in a place where you can conveniently rinse and reinsert. However, it’s also OK to dispose of these if you’d rather not clean them, and they’re entirely biodegradable.

You’ll simply need to squeeze up each sea sponge tampon to make it smaller before you insert it, and when you’re done using each one, you can choose to either rinse and reuse it or dispose of it. People who’ve used these have claimed that they’re more comfortable than a typical tampon!

Organic cotton pads and tampons are treated with peroxide instead of chlorine, which eliminates the potentially harmful effects that chlorine byproducts can have on the body. They also contain no plastic derivative (looking at you, rayon!) like traditional pads and tampons do.

When choosing tampons, it’s best to find a product without an applicator, but a cardboard applicator is better than a plastic one, since plastic won’t break down and cardboard will. Organic cotton is also biodegradable and will eventually decompose, while products that contain rayon aren’t biodegradable.

Unfortunately, the risk of toxic shock syndrome still comes with any type of tampon, even if it’s made of organic cotton; however, the risk increases with a tampon’s level of absorbency. Therefore, as higher-absorbency tampons carry a higher risk, you can minimize that risk by using the lowest level of absorbency needed for your flow, and by only using tampons for six to eight hours at a time.

A Final Note: Improving Accessibility

Donated pads and other toiletries in a box. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

If you have the opportunity to choose a product that’s better for the environment, then a switch to any of the above options is a step in the right direction.

Once you find a product that you love, though, don’t just toss your unused disposable period products! Consider donating them to a food bank or an organization that can distribute them to people with periods who may not be able to afford the right products.

Better yet, if you have the financial means to donate reusable period products as well, then you can help provide others with reliable period protection, even in the face of financial hardship or insecurity. The person who receives your donation won’t have to choose between their next meal and period products, and they also won’t be forced to miss days at work and lose pay, thus continuing the cycle of financial insecurity.

We can all work to decrease the stigma surrounding periods by talking about them more openly and sharing our experiences with more sustainable and cost-effective period products. To be an advocate for the environment, it’s helpful to encourage others to make the switch to reusable products, too, and to donate products when they can.

To read more about green products, check out our article on 9 Green Products Made From Recycled Materials»

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image 1: menstruationstasse.net; image 2: Wikimedia Commons; image 3: Wikimedia Commons; image 4: Wikimedia Commons

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