The menstrual health industry is letting people who menstruate down. Whilst we may be conscious of reducing our environmental impact in other areas of our lives – eating less meat, avoiding fast fashion, carrying reusable bottles and bags – the products used during menstruation are a hidden source of single-use plastic. Natracare estimates that sanitary pads are made of 90% plastic, whilst tampons contain 6% (source: AHPMA). However, manufacturers are not legally required to list the contents of their products, therefore these facts quietly slip under the radar.
According to figures from the Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association (AHPMA), 4.3 billion menstrual products are used annually in the UK; these amount to 200,000 tonnes of waste, which take between 500 and 800 years to break down. Additionally, menstrual products find their way into British waterways due to incorrect disposal; the Marine Conservation Society estimates that 1.5 to 2 billion items are flushed down Britain’s loos each year. Menstrual products are the fifth most common item found on European beaches, and yet we don’t see tampon applicators getting the same amount of media attention as plastic straws.
The Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), who coined the term ‘environmenstrual’, campaigns to raise awareness of the plastic and potentially harmful chemicals hidden in menstrual products and promotes alternative reusable and environmentally friendly options. No longer should we accept plastic-laden sanitary towels scented with a synthetic fragrance, not least because it promotes the idea that menstruation is in some way dirty, thus perpetuating shame.
In recent years it’s easier than ever to find sustainable and reusable menstrual products that simultaneously care for your uterus and the planet. Making the switch to plastic-free and reusable menstrual products can, however, be intimidating when all you’ve ever used are Tampax Compak, so here’s a handy guide to help you navigate the world of menstrual cups and period pants.
I love this little silicone cup and it’s honestly changed my menstruating life. I’ve used it whilst travelling, scuba diving, and running the London Marathon. It creates a seal with the vaginal wall and collects up to twelve hours’ worth of blood, depending on your flow. You simply fold the cup in half, creating a C-shape, and insert it into the vagina. It takes a bit of practice to get right, but once you’ve got the hang of it, you won’t be able to feel it at all. It makes bleeding on the go infinitely easier, as you don’t have to worry about finding a bin: simply remove the cup and pour the blood down the loo or sink.
Then either rinse under the tap or wipe with loo roll and reinsert. In between periods I clean it more thoroughly by boiling it for a few minutes in a pan. It will get discoloured with use, but you can make a paste of bicarb and water and give it a gentle scrub before boiling to remove some of the stains.
Menstrual cups are also a wonderful way to have a more embodied period. They allow you to see the quality and quantity of blood you lose through the cycle, which are valuable indicators of physical health.
I use a Mooncup, which is the UK’s leading brand and is widely available in Boots, Superdrug, and most supermarkets. It costs about £20 and comes in two sizes, depending on whether you have given birth vaginally. It can last you up to a decade and in that time, it creates 0.4% of the plastic waste generated by disposable sanitary pads.
When I first heard about reusable pads, I imagined sodden bits of cloth held together with safety pins, much like early 20th century reusable nappies. Rest assured that this is not the case – they’re simply material versions of your disposable pad, made of cotton, bamboo, or recycled PET from plastic bottles. They fix to your underwear with a popper and are highly absorbent, so no risk of a soiled-nappy feeling.
They come in a variety of thicknesses and sizes, ranging from pantyliner to night-time pads, and usually have a colourful outer fabric. I personally only use one at night at the start of my bleed when my flow is at its heaviest to catch any leaks from my menstrual cup. To clean, simply rinse with water and then pop in the machine with your washing – though avoid using softener or bleach as these will reduce absorbency.
Chances are your social media feeds have been spammed by Thinx period pants. The range of undies available is ever-expanding, with some brands such as Modibodi now offering a range of period-friendly swimwear, allowing you to free flow from your lounger by the pool.
These pants are a serious game changer and are a great option if you don’t like inserting anything vaginally, or if you need a bit of back-up for a tampon or menstrual cup. They come in a range of thicknesses, just like pads, and should fit snugly to ensure no leaks. Just like your good old M&S undies, period pants come in different designs, from thong to high waist.
I have a pair from the British brand WUKA, whose products are all vegan. Some brands use wool in their padding so vegans will want to check product details. Modibodi offers a vegan range. One drawback of these pants is they tend to be black, meaning you can’t monitor the quantity and quality of blood you’re losing. A pair costs around £25 but as a one-off investment, I’d say they’re worth it.
Organic pads and tampons
If reusables and menstrual cups aren’t for you, then there’s a range of wonderful companies who make organic tampons and pads made from cotton or bamboo, and which are free from chlorine-bleach, pesticides, wood-pulp and fragrance.
Natracare is the most established natural menstrual brand, selling home-compostable plastic-free tampons and pads since 1989. Their products are widely available on the high street and in supermarkets. Other brands such as Flo, OHNE and TOTM (Time Of The Month) sell products with fun, brightly coloured packaging which cheer you up when you’re bleeding. They also offer a subscription service, making the quick dash to Tesco for a pack of Always a thing of the past.
Applicators are the biggest source of plastic in tampons. They serve their purpose for just seconds but take centuries to break down in landfill. Alternative options include natural brands which offer cardboard applicators. However, as these are considered medical waste, they cannot be recycled; they will, though, biodegrade in landfill.
Alternatively, you could consider a DAME reusable applicator. It works just like a regular applicator but then you simply rinse and pop it in its case, ready to use again. It costs just under £17.99 and as an added bonus, it’s carbon neutral. Considering tampons without applicators cost on average £1 less than those with, it will eventually pay for itself.