Making the Switch to Reusable Menstrual Products
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.