Over a lifetime, a menstruating woman can use up to 15,000 disposable pads and tampons. Unfortunately, most of them are made with synthetic materials, a.k.a plastic, that will end up in landfill and oceans, contaminating our environment. However, plastic is one of many problematic materials in period products. Conventional pads and tampons contain toxic substances, which come into contact with one of the most sensitive and absorptive parts of women’s skin.

disposable pads

Plastic has infiltrated our everyday life, and menstruation is no exception. The most common menstrual products, tampons, come wrapped in plastic, have a plastic string dangling from one end, and some also come encased in plastic and have a thin layer of plastic inside the absorbent part. The other popular menstrual product, pads, generally include even more plastic that makes their leak-proof base.

One study found significant exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including phthalates, parabens, and bisphenols, through dermal absorption from the use of period care. These may also have odour neutralisers, fragrances, dyes, bleaching agents, and residues of pesticides from the cotton blends. 

Reusable alternatives to single-use period products could reduce the amount of plastic ending up in landfills as well as our exposure to toxic chemicals. These are the best options for healthy and sustainable periods:

Menstrual cups

Silicone menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina; instead of absorbing blood like a tampon, they collect it. When it’s time to take it out, simply empty the blood into the toilet bowl, rinse with water, and reinsert it. Menstrual cups should be free from dyes and made of 100% medical-grade silicone to be toxin free. 

Pros: 

  • You can leave it in for around eight to twelve hours because it holds three times as much fluid as a regular tampon.
  • They last between 5 to 10 years.
  • Saves money in the long run. After a few months of use, you recover the initial investment you would have used in disposable products.
  • You can swim with them.
  • Prevents vaginal dryness (unlike tampons); they don’t absorb moisture and maintain the pH balance.
  • Reduces waste.

Cons:

  • It has an upfront cost.
  • It may take a couple of cycles to get used to it (like the first time you tried a tampon, right?).
  • You may need to try a few different brands before finding your preferred one.
  • Emptying it in a public restroom can be messy without a private sink. You can simply wipe with toilet paper, reinsert it, and then rinse it properly once you return home.
  • It is recommended to boil before and after every period to disinfect properly.

Menstrual cupPeriod underwear

Regular underwear with a few layers of super-absorbent fabric. When choosing period panties, make sure they’re made from cotton, preferably organic, and that there are no plastic, nanomaterial, or PFAS chemicals in the mix of fabrics. 

Pros

  • Plenty of sizes, models, and light to heavy absorption.
  • Comfortable and not bulky.
  • Great for sleeping. 
  •  Perfect if you don’t like inserting something inside your body. 
  • Odourless.
  • They can last for years, depending on how you wash and care for them. 
  • No adjustment period, as it’s like using regular underwear. (There’s even seam-free options, and they come in various colours and styles.)
  • There are ones made for swimming!
  • They can also be used for incontinence, pregnancy, and postpartum.
  • Saves money in the long run. 
  • Reduces waste.

Cons:

  • The upfront cost of getting a complete set. 
  • You will need at least 5 to 10 to get you through your whole period without washing.
  • They need to be washed with care to last; it’s usually recommended to use cold water and by hand. 
  • You need a wet bag if you plan to change in public, although you wouldn’t usually need to because they absorb for hours. 
Period underwearOther options:

Cloth pads

Washable, reusable cloth pads are environmentally friendly and cost-effective. They come with wings to snap underneath your underwear and stay in place. Like period underwear, you want to choose those made from organic cotton if you can.

Cloth pads

Organic cotton disposable pads and tampons

If reusable is not an option you’re ready to explore, you can still choose better disposables made of organic cotton, fragrance-free and unbleached. This doesn’t solve the environmental issue of period care, but it will definitely have a positive impact on your health.

Switching to eco-friendly and toxin-free period products is imperative for your health and the environment. Not only does it reduce waste, but it can also help you save money. Plus, it’s a way of reconnecting with your body, understanding your cycle, and releasing shame around blood and menstruation.

References:

Science Direct, "Phthalates, bisphenols, parabens, and triclocarban in feminine hygiene products from the United States and their implications for human exposure", March 2020.