Navigating the world as a young person on their period is already difficult without the impending doom of climate change battering us daily. As a woman, I’ve certainly been drawn to using specific products due to them being branded as more hygienic or convenient than others. However, as my interest in the environment grew, and I learnt how much single-use plastic I produced once a month for just having a uterus, I knew there must be alternative methods out there.
During my initial research I found that in a UK beach clean conducted in 2010, an average of 23 sanitary pads and 9 tampon applicators were found per kilometre of the British coastline. I was initially shocked by this, but my horror grew when I discovered that the time it takes for a tampon or pad to degrade in a landfill is centuries longer than the lifespan of the individual who used it. This means sanitary products are frequently consumed by sea life and birds which often lead to their deaths. Pads have been branded as the favoured product around the world, but in some cases, they are made up of around 90% plastic which is enough to create four supermarket bags! I am a strong believer that the environment and our vaginas deserve better than this.
Whilst there are options such as sea sponges, organic tampons and pads, or even opting for birth control which eliminates bleeding, I wanted to share more practical products I have used, or have known others to use.
In recent years the production of menstrual cups has exploded, they now come in different shapes and sizes, and are accessible at most local supermarkets. Amazingly, a single cup’s lifespan can save the environment from up to 2,400 disposable products. Menstrual cups are typically made of medical-grade silicone and are inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood which the user disposes of themselves. Their contents are emptied when needed, the cup is then cup cleaned, and the product can be reused for up to 10 years.
The cup is simply washed with clean cold water and a sensitive soap after each use, or if you are on the go, specialised antibacterial pocket wipes are also available. The cup should also be boiled before and after each cycle. Initially, this sounded demanding, but after realising they are safe to be inside of you for up to 12 hours, I began to experience the most hassle-free periods of my life.
Due to their popularity, there are many folding tutorials and techniques online to ensure you get the cup inside of you safely and securely. Admittedly, the first few times are a bit tricky, but after you’ve learnt what works best for you it can be as swift as inserting a tampon. I haven’t stopped recommending this product to people, it is definitely worth researching!
Like menstrual cups, period underwear comes in a shocking variety of different shapes, sizes, and absorption rates, meaning you are protected at all points in your cycle. These styles include briefs, boxer briefs, bikinis, hiphuggers, cheekys, thongs, full shorts, and unitards depending on your place of purchase.
The underwear is designed to eliminate moisture and fight bacteria to prevent smells leaving you feeling fresh all day. Many brands create their underwear to sanitarily hold up to two full tampons worth of menstrual waste at one time. Most brands say you can safely wear one pair of these undergarments for a whole day before changing into a fresh pair at night when you go to bed. It is recommended to have one pair for each day of your period and to have a few extras if you want to sleep in the period undies.
In terms of care, period underwear is almost as easy as looking after any item of clothing you may own. The undies are traditionally rinsed with cold water immediately after they are used and then put in a cold wash (preferably in a delicates bag) to be left to air dry later.
Historically women used simple cloths to absorb their menstrual blood, but technology today has now created a developed style of this method in the form of reusable pads. Reusable pads typically consist of a holder (in the shape of a traditional pad), and different size inserts (depending on how heavy your flow is), which slip into the pad for absorption. The holders come in different lengths meaning you can wear them day or night. Most styles have wings which clip into place meaning toxic, plastic adhesives aren’t necessary! These pads need to be changed every 2-6 hours but again, this depends on your body, and time in your cycle. Their funky designs and bright colouring means seeing stains are rare, and this is more so the case when they are rinsed with cold water immediately after use, before being stuck in a wash. Certain tips and tricks can be used to make your experience more comfortable, such as wearing tighter underwear to keep the pad closer to your body reducing movement.
Using reusable pads requires a bit more upkeep. For example, purchasing and carrying around multiple pads, potentially carrying used pads in a scented carry bag (often purchasable by the same company), and of course making sure you wash them correctly. However, it’s good to keep in mind they have been described as ‘fluffy vagina blankets,’ and could be considered the most comfortable out of the sustainable options out there.
All of that being said, if using traditional tampons and pads is all you can manage right now, you shouldn’t beat yourself up. Also, I am certainly not a medical expert, so if you have concerns about changing sanitary products please check with a professional before doing so.