(Today, we’re re-running one of our first posts – green alternatives to the tampons & pads you see on the typical grocery store shelf. There’s some great suggestions here!)
Walk down a “feminine products” aisle in any drug store and you will almost always see shelf after shelf of the same two things: tampons and pads. Tampons with applicators, without applicators, with perfume; pads, with or without wings, plastic sticky mini-diapers that smell like chemicals, or worse, perfume. These two products have probably been a staple of your life at least once a month for a while now, and if you’re like most of the women I know, you don’t like them very much.
Tampons can be uncomfortable and can leak, and if you try to avoid leaks by using a more absorbent one then you risk having to pull an abrasive tampon out of a dry vagina – it’s not only terribly uncomfortable but can put you at increased risk of infection and disease. Tampons, especially super-absorbent tampons, can absorb too much fluid, drying out the vagina and increasing the possibility of micro-tears upon removal or insertion of the next tampon. These tears can provide a window for the bacteria Staphylococcus Aureus, which is commonly present on our skin and can get pushed into the vagina during tampon insertion, to get into our system causing Toxic Shock Syndrome. TSS is “a severe disease that involves fever, shock, and problems with the function of several body organs…[it] may be deadly in up to 50% of cases.”
Pads are not any fun either; they feel diaper-like and crinkle and irritate delicate skin that was not meant to have wet plastic rubbing against it. Not to mention that environmentally, disposable tampons and pads are a disaster waiting to happen. So much extra waste for landfills! So what’s a girl to do? The good news is there are a lot of other options about there that are easier to use, more comfortable, environmentally friendly, and cheaper.
Reusable cloth pads
Similar to the ones you buy in the store, reusable cloth pads are made of a soft material, usually cotton or flannel, rather than plastic. They come with a pad with wings that snap around the gusset (the part between your legs) of your underwear, and a liner that you either slip inside the pad or place on top of the pad depending on the brand. The liners, made of terry cloth, are the part that actually absorb your blood flow. You change them about as often as you would a regular maxi-pad, every 2-6 hours as needed. The manufacturers also make panty liner and overnight versions. The pads themselves can last about 5 years.
The cost of one pad can run from about 13-16 dollars, which sounds expensive but makes cloth pads very cheap compared to the disposable store-bought ones in the long run. If you decide you want to convert, a cheap way to start is to supplement your current store stash with one or 2 cloth pads and stock up slowly until you have the full supply that you need. How many pads you will need in a cycle depends on your flow and how often you like to do laundry. To wash, you pre-soak in cold-water and then machine wash with your dark clothing, then machine dry.
- Pretty fabric choices makes shopping for them fun
- Cost-efficient in the long run
- More comfortable than plastic pads. The sensation of fabric vs plastic, especially wet chemical-filled plastic, is much more pleasant, and the softness of the material can decrease irritation many women experience with pads.
- Environmentally friendlier than disposable pads
- Pre-soaking means they are slightly more labor intensive than disposable pads
- Changing your pad while out on the town means carrying around the used pad in your purse the rest of the night. The pads often come with a special envelope just for this purpose, and while it is not necessarily unsanitary when this is used, it may make you feel a little squeamish. Don’t let your friends look for something in your purse without a warning.
- It’s still a pad.
Find them at:
Cost: $13-$16 for one pad with inserts, depending on brand, store, and type.
Sea sponge tampons
Literally, this is a sea sponge that goes in your vagina. But wait, you say, I’ve seen a sea sponge and it was rock hard and rough as a loofah – you want me to put it where? No worries! Before you insert it, you rinse it and it becomes soft as, well, a wet sponge. Your menstrual flow will keep it soft while it is inserted. No applicators here: you insert with your fingers until the sponge is behind your pubic bone, up by your cervix. You will probably need to remove them every 3-4 hours, but this will vary based on your flow. Most users report that the sponge feels slightly “heavy” when it gets saturated–however, you should not feel it at all most of the time when it is inserted correctly.
- Natural, environmentally friendly
- Risk of TSS is little to none
- Each sponge can be used for 3-6 months, some say up to a year
- Easy to use and clean
- Cheap, about $16 for 2 sponges
- May need practice to insert and remove if you are used to using tampons with applicators and strings. If you like you could sew a string into the sponge for removal.
- May take practice to learn how often you need to change it for your particular flow
- Need to be near a sink when you remove and rinse it, making it tricky for when you go out, unless you don’t mind getting strange looks in public bathrooms.
- SpongeBob SquarePants jokes
Find them at:
- Jade and Pearl
- Your local health food store
Cost: Around $16 for 2 sponges, depending on brand and store
Small cups with a thick plastic band and a thinner clear, plastic bottom. It’s latex-free, for those with allergies. It’s placed into the vagina cupping your cervix, similar to a diaphragm. If you haven’t used a menstrual cup before, it may be hard to believe when you see it that something that size can be comfortable, but I swear that when it’s in place you can’t even tell it’s there. The manufacturers say it can last up to 12 hours, but that will vary based on your flow. For insertion, it’s best to be in a sitting or squatting position. Squeeze the band until it is a narrow oblong shape and slide it into the vagina as far as it will go. You want to angle it down and back, not up. Make sure the bottom of the cup is facing down when you insert it! When it’s in place, it will open up to its full shape and adjust itself to your body and you should not be able to feel it. If you can, it’s probably not in far enough. For removal – again in a sitting or squatting position – insert your finger until you can hook it under the rim, and pull the cup gently forward, keeping it as horizontal as possible to prevent spilling.
- Comfy and can last longer than a tampon or pad, up to 12 hours depending on flow
- Can be kept in during sex. It is NOT to be used as a birth control device; however, it can make period sex less messy.
- Lower risk of TSS
- Not as environmentally friendly as other methods, since it is disposable.
- Design does not have a “seal” as reusable menstrual cups do, which may result in more leakage. Some users find this product leaks more than other, reusable cups.
Find them at: Your local drugstore
Cost: Usually about $8 for a box of 14
Reusable menstrual cups
My personal favorite of all the options. There are a lot of varieties out there and the Keeper and the Diva Cup are the most well-known in the US. The design is consistent across the brands. It’s an oblong shaped cup, in rubber (the Keeper) or silicone (Diva Cup), with a stem on the bottom for removal. It is usually sold in two sizes, pre- and post-childbirth. It doesn’t cup your cervix like the softcup does, but rather sits just below it. Again, if you haven’t used one before it will seem improbable that it will be comfortable–it’s like putting a narrower version of a teacup in your vagina (sans handle, of course). But I have a Diva Cup and it’s the most comfortable thing I have ever used, hands down. When in correctly you cannot feel it, although some find that trimming the stem is necessary. The best part of the design is the small holes at the very top of the cup. They create a seal when inserted correctly, which means your chance of leakage is minimal to zero. To insert, you fold the cup in half lengthwise and insert into the vagina until it is comfortable. It is helpful to rotate it a full turn to create seal. To remove, you insert your fingers, squeeze the base of the cup a little to break the seal, and pull downward. Empty and rinse it, making sure the holes at the top of the cup are not clogged before reinsertion. The cup lasts several years–the makers of the Keeper say 10 years; Diva Cup says, depending on how it is cared for, it can be worn up to 12 years. Unlike softcups, these cups cannot stay in place during sex, due to their location and the stem.
- Comfy and can stay in up to 12 hours, possibly less on heavier days
- Low risk of TSS
- The fact that they can last so long makes them very cost-effective and environmentally friendly
- Like sea sponges, it’s best to be near a private sink when time to change them, although some sites recommend bringing in a wet paper towel to wipe down cup after emptying into toilet.
- May take practice to get used to inserting and removing
- May need to trim stem for comfort
- Although it is cheaper in the long run, it is the most expensive of the alternative methods, and if you don’t like it, you just wasted money. (The Keeper has a 3 month money back guarantee, though.)
Find them at:
Cost: $23-40, depending on the brand and where you buy it
Have any of you tried these methods already? What did you think?