Making the Switch to Reusable Menstrual Products
When I first got my period at age 12, all I knew about was the standard disposable pads and tampons, and I experimented with an assortment of them into my adulthood. I was never thrilled with them — the pads were goopy and crinkly and sometimes leaked around the edges; the tampons dried me out and trickled down the string and got painful to pull out toward the end of my cycle — but that was all there was. Right?
The first time I heard about alternative menstrual products that were reusable, I was intrigued but also a little icked out. Wouldn’t it be gross to have to rinse out a cup or launder cloth pads?
Then I gave them a try, and there’s no going back. Not just because reusable menstrual products are more sustainable — but because they’re awesome!
Here’s an overview of why to switch to reusables and what’s available. I encourage you to give one or more a try, choosing the style that’s right for you. Care for them is simpler than you think, and the increase in comfort is unbeatable.
You’ll see some of the specific reasons as you delve into the different styles of reusable products below. Most offer increased comfort and safety, some offer less mess, and a lot are far more attractive than what they’re replacing.
However, the environmental reasons to switch from disposables are staggering. Here are some facts and figures:
From use of disposable feminine hygiene, an estimated 12 billion sanitary pads and 7 billion tampons are dumped into the North American environment each year (1998). More than 170,000 tampon applicators were collected along U.S. coastal areas between 1998 and 1999.[DivaCup]
And how many disposable products are you contributing to that mess? More than you might think!
Women, on average, experience a lifetime menstruation span of 41 years (11-52). … For argument’s sake, let’s pick the figure of 4 tampons/pads per day, for 5 days. That’s 20 disposable products per cycle. Twelve cycles per year equals 240 tampons/pads per year. Okay, now if you menstruate for 41 years…that’s close to 10,000 tampons/pads you’ll use in your lifetime![DivaCup]
If you’ve been thinking it’s gross to handle the blood in reusable products, remember that “disposable” products are not disappearing products. That blood from all those users still exists … in our landfills, and going who knows where else from there.
Consider as well the costs in energy and water, and the effects on our air and land, when you take into account the manufacturing, packaging, transport fuel, waste disposal, and other elements of making, using, and throwing away so many items.
Think also of a more personal cost: to your pocketbook. There’s an upfront investment to some sustainable menstrual products, but you’ll recoup your investment within as little as a couple cycles or, at most, a few years, and many of the items last for five years or more. You can make the cost almost negligible by making your own creations and reusing scrap material you already have at home.
Assuming you bought disposable products on sale, changed your pad or tampon (but not both) five times a day for five days, you might be able to keep your costs to $4.50 per cycle. (Many consumers would spend more.) Over a year, that would be $54, and in 41 years, over $2,200. A usable set of new, name-brand pads can cost under $100, perhaps up to $300 for a deluxe or heavy-flow set. A menstrual cup plus a few pantiliners will run around $50 or $60. These items can last five years or more. Over time, you will come out ahead, and any money you are spending is probably going to smaller, sustainable businesses, perhaps WAHM-led, rather than the big paper manufacturers.
I’ve also found reusable products to be space saving, not to have bulky boxes of disposables to cram into my bathroom cabinets. Easier on the wallet and a step toward simplifying!
Disposable tampons seem to carry a higher risk of toxic shock syndrome due to their inclusion of bacteria-happy rayon and, not as frequently now, dioxins from chlorine bleaching.
Disposable tampons and pads are not sterile, so there’s no reason in that sense to prefer them over reusable products where you control the washing.
If you’re having any vulvar or vaginal irritation, paper products with their rough surfaces and chemical residues are likely only to make it worse. Think about it: Would you rather wear paper underwear or something soft and smooth like cotton? Why wouldn’t you want the same pressed against or within your most delicate tissues?
Disposable pads and tampons are made from many of the same materials used in making disposable diapers — bleached pulp or viscose rayon from tree cellulose, super-absorbent acrylic polymers and gels, and plastic backings (a petroleum product) — if you’re a cloth diaper devotee and realize the hazards and costs of disposable diapers, switching to cloth for yourself might suddenly seem easier!
Another user-submitted upside to reusable and natural products is that periods can be or at least seem lighter and of less duration, with less cramping as well. Whether that’s your experience or not, it can’t hurt to try!
If you’re convinced there’s value in swapping out your disposables for reusables, here’s what’s available to try:
Menstrual cups are inserted internally and catch the blood, needing to be emptied regularly. Depending on flow, you can go up to twelve hours before emptying, though some people need to empty them more frequently.
I first started using a disposable menstrual cup (using the same one for my entire cycle) until I realized they made reusable menstrual cups that you could use for many cycles (for years), which was preferable.
Here are the most popular reusable brands available:
- The Keeper
- The MoonCup
- Instead Softcup — this is the disposable option I was talking about, though it’s now endorsed to use one per cycle
You can purchase any of these cups in Amazon’s personal care section, at the individual sites above, or at women’s or natural stores locally or online. For instance, our natural foods store carries a selection, and our sponsor GladRags does as well.
Menstrual cups come in different sizes, usually one that’s slightly smaller for younger users or those who haven’t gone through childbirth, and one that’s slightly larger. The difference in size isn’t substantial, but it’s best to read the information and reviews thoroughly to make sure you get the one you want.
They also come made of different materials, although many are of healthcare-grade silicone, which is safe for allergy-prone individuals.
Cups can take a little bit of fiddling to get comfortable, but by a few cycles in, and perhaps with some judicious web surfing to learn the best techniques, you’ll be a pro. I love the long time I can go between emptying my DivaCup; I just empty it once in the morning and then again at night before bed. If I’m near a handy faucet, I rinse it out with cold water before putting it back in, but if not (such as in a public restroom), it’s OK to put it back in after it’s simply emptied into the toilet. You might be surprised at how much collects during your cycle, but emptying it isn’t unduly disturbing. My four-year-old actually thinks it’s kinda neat, and who could blame him?
The care for your cup between cycles is a gentle wash and (ideally) a short boil on the stove to disinfect it. Many users are known to skip that step, but it’s a particularly good idea if you’re prone to infections.
I also love how the cup doesn’t affect the rest of my internal moisture, keeping me comfortable my whole cycle long. It’s less messy than pads, and the odor is kept to a minimum, since blood smells only when exposed to oxygen. I rarely leak, and usually only a few drops toward the beginning of my cycle from blood that was already below the cup when I inserted it.
‘Becca in the comments mentioned that she likes that the cup doesn’t allow absorption of water during a bath or swimming.
You have to be comfortable with sticking fingers inside yourself and just in general becoming intimate with your body — this is not a bad thing, though. Reusable cups are somewhat of an upfront investment, running about $35-$40 full price, though over time the savings is obvious. It’s challenging to impossible to have vaginally penetrating intercourse with most types of menstrual cup inserted, though some have tried.
The biggest complaint about cups, though, is that it takes some time to get used to putting it in and pulling it out, and you might even need to try more than one cup to find the right one for you. Some tips on those fronts:
- Cut the stem down to a comfortable level so it doesn’t scratch you. I also filed mine smooth. Some people use theirs to help pull it out; I found mine completely useless since I just grasp the sides once I’ve pushed it down within grabbing distance.
- Fold the cup up tightly before inserting. Here are some very useful pictures of various folds to try. I prefer the first, the “C” fold. Don’t be delicate about squishing it up tight, whichever you choose.
- As you’re inserting your folded cup, begin to rotate it, letting it unfold inside you. Push it up further if it feels too low.
- Don’t be afraid to take it back out and try again if it feels uncomfortable.
- To get it out, bear down like you’re pooping or birthing a baby. Stick a finger up the side to break the seal. You will not lose a cup inside yourself; that’s physically impossible, so don’t worry about it. It shouldn’t hurt to pull it out, so break the suction if it’s painful.
- Make sure you clean out the side holes (if your cup has one) before reinserting. This will help make sure it seals properly inside you.
- Sometimes I have an “off” cycle where nothing I do makes it feel right, and then the next cycle everything’s fine again. Don’t fret about that. Just try again the next month! You’ll love it probably 95% of the time.
Once I had a reusable cup, I knew the next step was trying out reusable pads. For some reason, I was more squeamish about this step. I was picturing uncomfortable wads of smelly rag between my thighs. The modern reality is discreet, plush, and — dare I say it? — even chic.
There are so many options for menstrual pads out there. For one, you could make your own, either going the super easy route of folding up some absorbent material into your underpants (yes, it’s that easy — just don’t drop it in the toilet!1) or constructing bona fide pads with wings and other fine features from patterns available online or in your imagination. Materials for pads include something absorbent (of course), which could be cotton, hemp, wool, bamboo, microfiber, or the like, and, optionally, a water-resistant barrier for the back such as fleece or PUL.
There are also many commercially available pads. A few from well-known but still small and admirable companies are GladRags (an NPN sponsor), Lunapads, Party in My Pants (NPN giveaway here!), New Moon Pads, Willowpads, Mother of Eden, and Mommy’s Touch. Many cloth diaper companies also offer mama cloth, such as Knickernappies, Sckoon, Imse Vimse, and FuzziBunz. You can find a nice selection on Amazon. There are also a ton of fabulous WAHP-run sellers on Etsy, eBay, and HyenaCart.
What style, absorbency level, and materials you like is up to you. Fortunately, it’s easy to mix and match as you build a good set! There are day pads, pads for heavy flow (even ones suited to overnights or postpartum), pads that fit bikinis and thongs, longer-coverage pads and teensy panty liners, pads with and without wings, pads that swap in liners and pads that are simple all-in-ones. You can even buy specially made padded underwear in stain-camouflaging colors.2
Cloth pads are comfortable! I can’t emphasize that enough. At first, I thought they felt bulkier than the disposables I was used to, but soon (within minutes) they just felt like underwear. The cloth moves with your body and is silent, unlike the crinkly paper and plastic of disposables. The cloth is also more breathable and less odorous, I find. It won’t tug or pull at tender tissue or stitches (such as postpartum).
Cloth pads are pretty. There are so many fabric colors and patterns to choose from, making you glad you’ll be seeing them every month.
Care for pads is so much easier than I’d feared. I just rinse or soak them in cold water to help with staining (this is optional), then toss them into either a cloth diaper wash or a regular wash, at whatever temperature. (I’ve had no problems either way.) They can usually be either machine or line dried. If stains bug you, a squirt of Bac-Out ahead of time will help, as will choosing busy or dark fabrics.
You might find you need to change your cloth pads more frequently than disposables, particularly if you have a heavy flow. Some pads don’t have waterproofing at all, and though I haven’t found this to be a problem, that sort of thing might make you nervous as you first get used to the rhythm of changing cloth pads.
While I stand behind my assertion that regular cloth pads are not more obtrusive than disposables, the heavier flow, overnight, and postpartum varieties can become ludicrously large so are perhaps not the kind you want to sport when you’re trying to set a mood.
Cloth pads can sometimes migrate. Many commercial and other well-made brands have wings with one or more set of snaps to go around the crotch of your undies to help hold them in place, though the required width to be snug can vary depending on underwear choice. A Facebook commenter suggested safety pinning the front of the pad to the underwear if migration is a problem. I also find some fabrics stay more firmly in place than others.
The initial cost of cloth pads can cause sticker shock, but consider that you can use them for years, or make your own to save some dough. Consider also that you’re supporting smaller, sustainable businesses with your purchase.
Changing out cloth pads on the go will require use of some sort of baggie or wet bag system, so you’ll want to plan ahead.
And you do have to wash them, but if you’re doing laundry anyway, it’s no biggie. Plus, you can easily wash them in the sink if you’re sans machine.
I have never used sea sponges, so I direct you to my favorite review of them at Raising My Boychick, a thorough recounting of her experience therewith, and the article I’m basing most of this section on.
Your choices are Jade and Pearl Sea Pearls (also available at Amazon, natural stores locally, or places like GladRags), Jam Sponge in the UK, or potentially using a generic (clean!) and appropriately sized sea sponge for the purpose.
You simply pre-moisten the sponge, squeeze it smaller, and push it into place. It expands inside near the cervix to collect the flow until it’s full, at which point you can rinse it out and reinsert it.
Sponges are inserted internally, so they are fully discreet as you go about your beeswax. If you’re a tampon user now and don’t relish the thought of a cup, this might be just the right next step for you.
They come in different sizes for various absorbencies. Sea Pearls are sustainably harvested and guaranteed free of toxins. They’re reusable for three to six months or more. They are wetted before use to be nice and soft, and they don’t dry out your normal moisture the way tampons do. This means they also likely don’t leave you at as much risk for toxic shock syndrome as tampons, since the bacteria in TSS need to get into the body through abrasions.
The sea sponge needs to be changed about every 4-6 hours, like other tampons. It reportedly becomes heavier and descends slightly as it fills, which will alert you that it’s time to squeeze it out. Care for them is easy enough: rinsing with water during use, and sanitizing with something like vinegar or hydrogen peroxide in between cycles.
I have been told you can have penetrative sex with these in — score! You can also swim and … well, whatever you want!
Jessica in the comments also mentioned that sea sponges are fully biodegradable and can be thrown into your compost pile when you’re done using them.
Sea sponges aren’t reusable as long as cloth pads or most menstrual cups, but they do last for several cycles, and the cost of around $13-$15 for two makes them comparable to or cheaper than disposable tampons for the same three- to six-month duration. As with cups, you need to be willing to navigate your own vagina and not squeamish about rinsing out blood.
Emptying one in a public restroom could be tricky, which means you might need to have a wetbag or baggie on hand, plus extra clean ones to insert.
Sea sponges are technically animal skeletons, so you might consider the ethics of using them if that affects your value system.
Another option I discovered on the site EcoMenses (which is a fabulous source of information on all reusable menstrual products) is washable tampons. They can be made out of absorbent fabric (such as cotton, bamboo, wool, or hemp), or knitted or crocheted out of absorbent yarn (cotton, bamboo, or wool). They are inserted vaginally, like disposable tampons, or worn interlabially, as a sort of hybrid between a tampon and pad.
It’s easy to make your own, though. You basically need rolled-up absorbent material, with or without a retrieval string attached. Born to Love suggests using baby socks. With a Tangled Skein offers three options: rolled fabric with ribbon, a knitted drawstring with inner batting, and a knitted roll. Fern & Faerie sells a 50-cent pattern of a “stuffable” design for knitting, crocheting, and no-sew methods (seen in the picture).
As with cloth pads, cloth tampons must last quite a long time before needing to be retired. They also are quite cheap, considering you’re likely going to have to make them yourself.
Advocates report similar absorbency to disposable tampons once you’ve determined how much material you need.
EcoMenses suggests that cotton tampons would have a lower risk of TSS than commercial disposable tampons, which are made with bacteria-friendly rayon threads.
Interlabial pads can be useful for overnight when otherwise blood sometimes “channels” up the buttocks and causes leaks, as EcoMenses points out.
It’s hard to find commercially available reusable tampons; however, making them yourself (particularly if you go for less fancy designs) should be fairly simple and inexpensive. You can even use scraps of fabric.
You’ll have to be comfortable inserting the tampons with your fingers, or you’ll need to rig some sort of applicator device, and you’ll need to be comfortable removing them manually if you don’t attach a retrieval string.
As with all tampons, the material will absorb all secretions, which might make you chafe toward the end of your cycle.
If you’re just considering more eco-friendly menstrual options, this final possibility might be too far out there even to consider, but I present it in the interests of thoroughness and also because it’s kind of cool. Some people prefer not to catch or absorb their blood at all and just allow it to flow.
I found interesting links on the subject at EcoMenses and especially appreciated the information on All About My Vagina: “Free Bleeding” and The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health: “What did women use for menstruation in Europe and America from 1700 – 1900, and probably earlier?” and “What did European and American women use for menstruation in the 19th century and before?”
Free bleeding has quite a range. If you live in a naturist commune or a home with dirt or straw floors, you might get away with wearing nothing at all. However, there are options even if you wear Western clothing and have upholstered furniture that you wish to sit on at some point during the day.
If your bleeding is light enough, you can make frequent trips to the toilet to expel and wipe. (I do find that bearing down helps “empty” things out temporarily, though I’m not otherwise a free bleeder … yet.) You can wear thicker or appropriately colored underwear (such as Lunapanties, which would be easy enough to engineer from a pair of your own red or black underwear by reinforcing the gusset), or no undies but a voluminous skirt or underskirt.
You might sit on a towel, puddle pad, or something like a Lunablanket (presumably many elimination communication families have something appropriate), or even outside, if you’re at home, then wear other protection when out or around other people. You might choose to bleed freely only at night or in the shower, when you can wear no clothing and have a towel handy.
The benefits to free bleeding is feeling very, I suppose, free. You’re not tied to having a product around, and you can get to know your flow intimately.
You are not introducing any potentially hazardous and, at any rate, foreign entities into your vulvar or vaginal areas.
You might have nothing to wash except for the clothing you were going to wash anyway.
You might discover a new trust in your body.
You might make a huge mess, particularly if you’re a heavy bleeder. I could see this being especially challenging to pull off if you’re not in a red tent for the week but are instead running errands, nursing a little one on the couch, sitting cross-legged on the floor to play blocks with your preschooler, going to work in nice clothes, etc. However, I could totally get on board with a little free bleeding at more relaxed times, such as at night and toward the end of a cycle.
I didn’t realize it, but I apparently already free bleed at the end of my cycles, when I pull out my DivaCup for the last time, put on some hot pink undies, and let things manage themselves. I haven’t yet made a bad decision about when to switch over to this method, and I’ve been pleased at how much of the final bleeding stays tucked within until I wipe.
When you switch to reusable menstrual options, it’s easier on the environment, yes — but it’s also easier on you. You’ll soon realize how deceptive the advertising is for the disposable products. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel more comfortable, assured, frugal, grounded, and eco-minded if you only give one or more of the above options a try.
Have you tried any reusable menstrual options? How do you like them? Did I leave any out? Feel free to make a case for your favorite options or brands!
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