Issue 98 is out now

By Keean Manktelow

05th November 2012

Menstrual products have come a long way since ancient times, when women used whatever they could get hold of to absorb their blood, from papyrus to animals furs, from mosses to rags. Today there are more easily procured items, all different and suiting different women for various reasons.

By Keean Manktelow

05th November 2012

By Keean Manktelow

05th November 2012

Only you know what would work best for you and your lifestyle. And it’s refreshing to know you have a choice, so you can make a decision based on environmental impact, cost and health factors. You have more choice than just the things you see on supermarket shelves!

For menarche gifts, post-partum mums and incontinence there are also options to choose from.
First to consider are the reusable items, some you may be familiar with and some, perhaps not…

Reusable
These items are all reusable. So in this respect they will be easier on your purse than something that is thrown away after one use. Obviously this varies with each one; with menstrual cups and pads likely to be the most cost effective in the long run.
Some people voice concerns with sterility of these items and so the possibility of infection. But no sanitary product is sterile, not even the plastic wrapped, one-use, bleached white ones. At least with a washable product you are in control of its cleanliness, unlike a pre-wrapped disposable product where you have to rely on a factory process.

Menstrual Cups
These are rubber or silicone cups that hold menstrual flow. Most are designed to be used over and over again for several years. Some on the market are slightly different and are designed to last for one period and then be disposed of. The cups are inserted into the vagina and so are not appropriate to use post-partum. Unlike tampons, there is not the added inconvenience of them drying you out.
Between periods reusable cups can be sterilised by boiling in water or just washed in warm soapy water. Day to day, rinse under the tap or, if water is unavailable, a wipe with toilet roll is sufficient if you are replacing it straight away. Otherwise washing in warm soapy water will be just fine.
There is less likeliness of odours and mess with cups as opposed to pads, although there is a slight learning curve with them. Sometimes they can take a few goes to get the knack of putting in and taking out. Once inside you, though, they are unnoticeable.
Try a Mooncup or The Keeper.

Reusable Cloth Pads
There are a wide range of cloth pads available to buy and they all do a similar job. Most have a waterproof backing to prevent leaks, but some people may find they do not allow you to ‘breath’ enough, so opt for all absorbent material with no water-proofing. This may mean more frequent changes to prevent leaks, but to some women, this is a willing compromise for comfort. They often come as either a one piece cloth that snaps onto your underwear or a two part system so you can tailor absorbency.
They are easily cleaned in the washing machine. Some women don’t soak them, but if you wish to, soak in cold water alone or add a pinch of pure salt or a light disinfectant, like tea tree essential oil. You could also rinse them before washing, as an alternative to soaking.
Many shops and websites sell extra accessories to make using your pads easier, such as bags to hold soiled ones. Specialist products for incontinence or post-partum bleeding are also available. It is also possible to buy entire packs with all the pads you need, especially useful as a menarche gift.
To save even more money you could make your own cloth pads using your own pattern or online instructions. This also has the added advantage of giving you the choice in material type and design, how big to make them and how many to make.
There is slightly more work with reusable pads, because of the washing aspect! Some people mention the environmental impact of washing them too, but this is negligible if done with your usual washing (they’re rather small in comparison after all) and you use the most efficient washing method possible (i.e. earth friendly cleaner, eco washing-machine settings, line drying). However they are very easy to use and there is no ‘learning curve’ with this type of menstrual product.
Try range at Honour Your Flow

Sponges
Sponges are used in a similar fashion to tampons. They are absorbent and come in various sizes for different flows. According to most brands they will last 3 to 6 months or longer. When ‘full’ pull them out gently, rinse and replace. To wash them there are various methods, from boiling (which shortens the lifespan) to soaking in boiling water and tea tree essential oil over night. Gift packs are available as menarche presents.
They are natural, being made from sea sponges. But with this is the issue that sea sponges were once living, so they are not suitable for vegans. Most companies state that they are a sustainable product, because of the way they are harvested. As they are absorbent there may be a slight issue with drying out, like tampons, although apparently less noticeable because they are natural.
Try Jam Sponges at Earthwise Girls

Reusable Tampons
These, as the name suggests, are just like disposable tampons, but, because they are made with absorbent fabric, can be washed and used again. They have the advantage of being just like disposables for people who are ‘new’ to this type of menstrual product. However, they may also be linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) just like the disposable type.
Try cloth tampons at Luxury Moon

Interlabial Pads
These rolled up swatches of absorbent material are placed between the labia and so held in place. They are somewhere between a pad and a tampon and absorb blood closer to the vagina, making them less likely to leak like pads and less bulky. They are made from absorbent material rolled into a sausage shape. They are especially useful to wear as well as pads or tampons if you have an especially heavy flow.
They are less absorbent than other products and may only be suitable used alone for people with a light flow. There may also be an issue with comfort for some people, so it would be best to test it out first with a roll of cloth or similar to see if it would work for you.
Try Labinni pads at Obsidian Star

DISPOSABLE
Organic Pads and Tampons
These products are organic and free from any synthetic materials, like plastics. Usually made from cotton, they are used just like ‘conventional’ menstrual products without the harsh chemicals, meaning no irritants near your skin.
They are the easy step up to more eco-friendly and healthy products; however they still involve rubbish (although most say they are biodegradable) and this still leads to sewerage problems and rubbish in our waterways and on our coastline, not to mention land-fill waste. Because they are a throw away commodity, each packet involves extra rubbish in the form of its wrappers, so there is another waste aspect. Most brands seem to use recyclable or biodegradable packaging, which is less harmful than conventional brands but still poses a rubbish problem if people don’t recycle or compost them.
Try range at Natracare

Tampons
Tampons are usually made from a mixture of natural and synthetic fibres. They are often bleached white with synthetic chemicals. They absorb blood flow inside the vagina so there is an increased chance of drying out, particularly with synthetic versions.
They are a convenient one use product, which is presumably why they are so popular. But this means a large waste problem. Tampons take six months to biodegrade, which is less than a disposable pad but still significant when you realise you are throwing many away during each period throughout your lifetime.
What may be of more concern, however, is the waste they produce in our oceans and on our beaches. They often get thrown down the toilet and cause blockages. 70% of blockages are caused by sanitary waste in the UK. When they do make their way through the drain system they then end up dumped on the coastline.
Tampons with plastic applicators seem to be a particular problem. The plastic applicators are often seen lying on beaches amongst all the shells and pebbles. The applicators take approximately 25 years to degrade, but even when they have, they may then be ingested by oceanic life forms and cause irreparable damage.
Every box of tampons contains plastic. The use of crude oil to make these plastics is also a huge environmental concern. Plastics from crude oil stick around in our environment and never truly biodegrade. And, although improper disposal is the main issue, even in landfill plastic poses problems: how much waste can the planet hold if it lasts indefinitely? Even incineration can be tricky if the toxic chemicals that escape are not dealt with properly.
Making these products also creates a lot of toxic waste, which is fed into our environment. The energy consumption to make them is huge. Surprisingly to some this also includes the natural part of these products: cotton. The cotton industry uses huge amounts of pesticides which lead to contamination of the earth, waterways, animals and people.
Some tampons may contain a harmful chemical called dioxin. This has been linked to cancer. Because tampons come into contact with mucous membranes any dioxin present could be absorbed into your bloodstream. Whilst usually very low per tampon there is a cumulative effect because these products are used over and over. There is some controversy with this, so it’s best to use your judgement.
Expense is another continual problem.

Pads
Disposable pads are made from natural and synthetic materials like tampons. They also contain an absorbent core made from synthetic chemicals. They are easy to use and are relatively cheap per box, but again, the cost adds up.
These products last indefinitely. Their excessive use of packaging also adds to this problem. All of the waste problems associated with tampons are also pertinent to pads, including their production and use of crude oil, the effect on oceanic wildlife and the toxic chemicals that are created to make them.
Some women also get irritated by the synthetic chemicals used in disposable pads. They do not allow your skin to breath and this also poses a comfort concern.
In regards to this latter group of products, there is also a psychological issue. The companies that sell them want to make people feel like their period is somehow unnatural and should be hidden away so that women buy their products. This leads to women and girls being less in touch with their bodies and even embarrassed by something that happens to all healthy females. This is a harmful view to pass on to our daughters. Who wants to be made to feel part of them is offensive? Most women think the solution is to pretend it doesn’t exist: wrap up the tampon or towel and shove it in the bin without looking at it – pretend it isn’t part of them.
Maybe the reason reusable products are not as popular is because of this conditioning. The reusable ones mean you have to confront your femininity because in general you see your monthly blood and even touch it. This helps you acknowledge your womanliness, but it is made to seem gross or wrong by the media.
As you can see, there are a huge variety of products available, so now you know your choices and you can make a decision based on them. You do this for the planet, your children, but mostly, for yourself.

Whatever you decide, make sure it is an informed decision and you feel comfortable with it.

References
http://clothpads.wikidot.com/disposable
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitary_napkin
http://www.labyrinth.net.au/~obsidian/clothpads/index.html
http://www.naturalmenstrualproducts.com/index.php
http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/features/tampons_003834.htm
http://www.panna.org/resources/cotton
http://www.thechicecologist.com/2010/04/the-environmental-impact-of-everyday-things/
Sisters website for young girls

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