Five better ways to have your period
Did you know that many primates, as well as some bats and elephant shrews, menstruate just like humans? They are the only other animals that do, yet somehow I don’t think they consider it disgusting like we do. Periods are a part of life for human females, but an age-old taboo about the topic has resulted in our standard ‘sanitary care’ products being unchallenged for too long. They also present concerns for our health and the environment.
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There are a number of new ways to take care of our periods now that are more eco-friendly and better for us than the standard pads and tampons. The disposable ones we buy at the supermarket are reported to contain pesticides and bleaches, and have been linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome. As cotton is a crop that is heavily dependant on chemical spraying, I do not doubt that pesticide residue would remain on most cotton products.
This is bad news for our bodies, especially when using tampons that are inside of us for many hours per day. Obviously pads and tampons are also single-use products, which is not great for our waste systems and landfill. It is said that one woman will use approximately 17,000 pads or tampons throughout their lifetime! And with every purchase we make contributing to the demand of conventionally grown cotton products, we basically guarantee that the cotton industry will continue producing these products in the harmful ways it currently does. Consider this:
Cotton covers 2.5% of the cultivated land worldwide, yet cotton growers use 16% of the world’s pesticides. Cotton is also one of the top 4 GMO crops in the world. (source: https://rodaleinstitute.org/chemical-cotton/)
The pesticides run into waterways and are harmful to many animal species as well as to humans, plus cotton farming wastes huge amounts of fresh water. If we want all of this to change, we MUST vote with our purchases.
So I’ve done some personal research in my quest for better options, and here’s my run down:
- Organic pads and tampons
These are now readily available in supermarkets as well as health stores, and are great to overcome the chemical problem with conventional brands.
These may be the best option to switch to initially, to break out of your routine brand and transition into more sustainable options. You will know you are safe from absorbing nasties into your body while still being confident dealing with your period. I have never had an issue with any organic period product; they have been as reliable and effective as the conventional ones. Organic disposables are probably the best emergency-supply stash for your handbag or suitcase too.
As with most organic products, they are a bit more expensive than conventional options. To keep the costs down, you could use them when out and about and try a reusable product at home.
- Washable pads
These are thicker than disposable pads, and are made of cotton (often organic) or bamboo. They come in different sizes and absorbencies. I have only used one brand and find them uncomfortable for wearing around all day, but I can’t comment on other brands. I don’t mind wearing mine at night. Wearing them through the day also may present other difficulties: if you have to change it while you’re out of the house, you will need to keep the dirty one with you. This just takes a bit of extra planning, for some sort of tight-sealing container that you can confidently carry around.
The pads are easily rinsed and washed with the normal washing load, just like other blood spilled on clothing. Some people find it a bit gross to be dealing with menstrual blood, but is it really so different from other blood throughout the body? One you’ve had a baby, it’s really no big deal!
- Menstrual cups
These are a tampon replacement, which collect the blood and then are emptied, washed and re-inserted. After each cycle the cup must be thoroughly cleaned or sterilised in boiling water, and then its ready for next time. These have many advantages over tampons: they can last for years, you can have it inserted for up to 12 hours at a time, and as they’re made from medical-grade silicone or natural rubber latex, they do not leach any chemicals. They do feel a bit different though: they are worn lower in the vagina, and they are bigger than a tampon as they are not absorbent. They come in two sizes, and please note which one is which carefully, as some brands have A as their smaller size, while others have B as their smaller size!
They take some getting used to, perhaps especially if you are comparing them to tampons. I don’t like wearing mine for several days and nights in a row, and although I am confident in using it, I can’t just forget about it as I can constantly feel it. I do have many friends who use theirs comfortably throughout their periods though. Also, the cup may not always be convenient when you’re camping or somewhere that’s not close to fresh water. But I think they’re a wonderful creation, and they’re especially handy for swimming sustainably.
Different brands vary slightly in their sizes, so it pays to read up on them and make an informed purchase. I wish I did as I might find mine more comfortable. As they’re an investment of about $50, not many people want to buy several to try them out! This Aussie site compares four menstrual cup brands and has lots of information about them:
- Period-proof underwear
These are my favourite solution! They are knickers with an absorbent inner layer, which hygienically contain fluids and minimise odours. Menstrual blood is the main aim, but they work for light bladder leaks too: perfect for that delightful time after giving birth when sneezing or coughing is a scary situation.
The underwear comes in various options: moisture-wicking, liner-replacements, light, medium and heavy flow. They are wonderful for travelling, especially on those days when you’re expecting your period, or when it’s a heavy day and you’re worried about leakage from your other menstrual product. And what a comforting creation they would be for young girls worried about getting their first period!
I bought mine from Australian brand Modibodi, and love that they’re made of eco-friendly bamboo too. They are comfortable and slinky and stretchy. I also love that Modibodi has a donation program, so you can empower homeless and other disadvantaged women to deal with their periods.
They are of course more expensive than most traditional underwear, but as they completely negate the need for pads and panty liners, the cost savings are reached relatively quickly. They’re not suitable for swimming as they’re absorbent, but Modibodi have released some period-proof swimwear now too.
- Sea Sponges
Yes, actual sea sponges! I just found out about these but apparently they’re not such a new option. They are fully biodegradable and last for about 6 months, and claim to be sustainably harvested. There are synthetic options too, but they’re not as absorbent and I doubt they would be as eco-friendly either. They are disinfected with tea tree essential oil (often provided with a pack of sponges) or boiled and stored dry.
I haven’t tried them personally, but from articles I’ve read people seem to find them quite comfortable, as they shape to your body and come in 4 or more sizes. Another reported benefit is the ability to have sex while using them, without making a bloody mess! However removing them gets very messy (think of wringing out a sponge) and you may have to sew your own thread into it if you want a string to help with removal. Also, some articles warn that they’re may not be as hygienic as reported, and pieces may break off while they’re inside you. Do some thorough research on this one if you’re interested. I think I’ll pass on sea sponges myself: being vegan, using a dead sea creature just doesn’t seem right to me.
Check out this brand comparison if you’re interested to know more:
Please have a think about some of these new options available, and maybe question for yourself why you might resist some of the non-disposable ones. Women are not disgusting and our periods are a natural and healthy release. It’s easy to buy into cultural and media messages encouraging disposing of our shameful fluids as quickly as possible. But it’s also easy to choose a different way, to talk about ourselves openly, and have more respect for our bodies and the amazing things they can do. We really need to be thinking clearly about what we’re doing to ourselves and our environment, and making informed choices that support the long-term health of both.
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Want to make your beauty routine healthier for you and the planet too? Check out my thoughts on giving up cosmetics here.