I distinctly remember being a pre-teen and being handed a plastic packet with samples of plastic wrapped tampons, pads, and pantyliners one day at school. Even then I was taken aback by the amount of plastic waste used to wrap up these items, and I had the vague sense that the plastic wasn’t just for hygiene reasons but to hide these products from sight. It took a few years for me to figure out that there were alternative ways to manage my period, ways that are healthier for me and for the planet, but now I know, there’s no going back.
Always, Tampax, and o.b. are the big names in period products, but these have all been found to contain undesirable chemicals and have a significant environmental impact. Given that menstrual management products aren’t something you can simply choose not to use, what’s the alternative?
For many people, menstrual cups are the simplest solution. Often paired with reusable or disposable pantiliners for back-up support, menstrual cups come in all shapes and sizes and are simple to use, once you get the hang of it. Made from silicon or latex, these reusable cups sit in the vaginal canal where they collect menstrual fluid instead of absorbing it.
Non-toxic and comfortable to use, for most people, menstrual cups are a great option. They typically last two to five years, making them more eco-friendly, healthier, and inexpensive way to manage periods. With proper care, a single menstrual cup could last you decades.
Proper care for a menstrual cup means cleaning it thoroughly after each period. Most manufacturers recommend putting a silicon cup in a pot of rapidly boiling water for 5-10 minutes, making sure the holes near the top of the cup are clear of gunk (use a toothpick if necessary). Then, let the cup air-dry in a sunny spot before storing it in a breathable bag. If your cup starts to look discolored, smell funny, feel sticky, or has a powdery film, it’s time to replace it. Different cups have different care protocols however, so be sure to follow manufacturers’ instructions.
For decades, Diva Cup (View on Amazon) have been the go-to for menstrual cups, with an impressive record on sustainability. You can read my review of the DivaCup Menstrual Cup here. Many other brands now offer menstrual cups, with innovations in design helping even more people use this method of menstrual management.
Other options for non-toxic menstrual products include disposable menstrual discs. Currently only available as SoftDisc or SoftCup in the U.S., menstrual discs are similar to menstrual cups in that they collect blood internally. However, these discs are made of thinner material, sit higher in the body (closer to the cervix), and are discarded after each use.
Period underwear is another great option for eco-friendly, non-toxic menstrual management, especially for those who don’t want to use internal period products.
Made with absorbent natural fibers, period underwear can be worn with or without inserts for extra support and simply need rinsing in cold water and washing with your regular laundry after use. As with menstrual cups, period underwear costs more upfront than disposable tampons and pads but saves you money in the long-run, is arguably healthier, and is better for the environment. Try to choose period underwear made with organic cotton though, as conventional cotton is resource-hungry, may contain traces of pesticides and other chemicals, and is bad for the environment.
Reusable period pads
Reusable pads are also a great choice for eco-friendly period management. Available in a variety of shapes, sizes, and patterns, reusable pads and inserts are made with cotton and, sometimes, a thin leak-proof layer of polyurethane laminated polyester (PUL). While PUL is a type of plastic, it is often certified non-toxic and safe for use. And, as these products are used time and again, the environmental impact is a lot lower than that of conventional plastic pads and synthetic tampons, as well as all-cotton disposable tampons and pads.
Reusable tampons are not currently available in the U.S., but Imse Vimse sell these in the UK. Made with organic cotton, these reusable tampons work like regular tampons and need to be rinsed, washed, and boiled between uses. If you struggle to use a menstrual cup, but want an internal method of menstrual management, reusable tampons may be worth a try.
Organic cotton tampons and pads
If reusables simply aren’t your thing, disposable all-cotton organic tampons and pads are available. These typically limit your exposure to pesticides, dyes, perfumes, and toxins and have been around since the 1980s, when NatraCare introduced their first line of all-cotton organic tampons and pads.
It’s worth noting, though, that when it comes to tampons and pads, ‘organic’ just means made with organic cotton that has not been bleached using chlorine. Products are not necessarily free of perfumes, dyes, or other chemicals, and the ‘natural’ label means next to nothing in regard to tampons and pads. As such, it’s important to check with the manufacturer that products are free from dyes, bleached using hydrogen peroxide (or unbleached), and have USDA-recognized organic certification. Other certifications are also important here, such as Quality Assurance International (QAI) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) (see more on certifications here).
In one study, all-cotton tampons and menstrual cups were the only products tested that did not appear to promote the growth of Staphylococcus aureus MN8, the bacteria responsible for TSS. All of the other tampons (and diaphragms and contraceptive sponge) promoted the growth of the bacteria. One other interesting finding from this study was the apparent breakdown of an older type of tampon (Rely), which suggests that it’s best to avoid using older synthetic tampons (R).
Whichever type of tampon you use, they should be changed at least every 4-8 hours. Even organic all-cotton tampons and reusable tampons pose a risk of TSS. Always use the lowest absorbency level to meet your needs, and don’t use a single tampon for more than 8 hours or when you’re not actively menstruating.
Although I pretty much exclusively use a menstrual cup and reusable pads for period management these days, I like to keep organic, non-toxic tampons, pads, and pantyliners on hand in case guests get caught out when visiting. And, frankly, these are sometimes more convenient when overnight camping or otherwise adventuring away from home.