A History of Menstrual Products:
- The first time historians saw menstrual hygiene products mentioned was around the 10th century A.D. Women used rags as pads and lint wrapped around a small piece of wood or used materials like moss, animal skins, and grass as tampons.
- By the early 1700s, most women would use old rags as pads and would wash and reuse them. A few other options were using sheepskin, boiling it clean with each use, or cheesecloth sacks stuffed with flattened cotton.
- In 1896 the first commercial sanitary pads, Lister’s Towels, went on sale. They failed to sell because women hated the thought of declaring to the public that they were menstruating by buying pads.
- French nurses in World War I figured out that Curad bandages were much more absorbent than their homemade menstrual rags and started using them as pads. In 1920 Curads by Kotex, worn with a re-usable belt, hit the market.
- The first commercial applicator tampon with a cord for removal was invented in 1929 by Dr Earle Haas under the name Tampax, hitting the market in 1936.
- The 1930s saw the invention and production of the first reusable menstrual cup. After becoming used to disposable products many women resisted a ‘backwards step’ in menstrual products.
- In the 1970s most companies started selling pads with adhesive backing, putting an end to the need for belts. Cloth pads made a comeback during this time as they saved money and were better for the environment.
- After the 1970s, the biggest change to sanitary pads and tampons was to become more discreet. Tampons got smaller, pads got thinner, and the packaging hid the products inside.
Realistically, there are only a couple of options for dealing with menstruation.
- First, you can use a product that goes inside your body, like a tampon or cup.
- Second, you can use something absorbent on the outside, like a pad.
THREE PROBLEMS WITH DISPOSABLE TAMPONS AND PADS
1. Disposable tampons are potentially unhealthy and dangerous. Anything on the tampon like bacteria, allergens, fragrances, pesticides, preservatives or bacterial toxins will go straight into your body. If you are using 16 to 20 tampons for each period, 13 times a year for 30 to 40 years, you are racking up a lot of chemical exposure. Some exposures are particularly dangerous, like Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare but potentially fatal infection that typically happens when a common skin bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, grows in a tampon and releases toxic poisons. TSS is associated with tampon use, and symptoms of TSS include high fever, sunburn-like rash, nausea, diarrhea, headache, sore throat, and muscle aches. No matter what kind of tampon you use (rayon, cotton, or a blend), Staphylococcus aureus can grow on it.1 Additionally, merely inserting and taking out a tampon can inflame or tear the vaginal walls.2
2. Disposable tampons and pads generate a lot of garbage. Most tampons come with plastic or cardboard applicators, so every tampon you use means more garbage for your local landfill. If flushed, tampons and applicators can clog toilets and sewage treatment plants, or create litter on beaches or in the ocean. Menstrual pads come with plastic wrappers and adhesive backings that cause similar problems.
3. Disposable tampons and pads cost a lot of money. A single box of 34 tampons costs over $5 and will last about two menstrual cycles. If you switch to a menstrual cup (see below), you will spend around $25 for one cup which can last you years. So you break even on the menstrual cup in less than a year, and everything after that saves money.
ALTERNATIVES TO TAMPONS AND PADS
There are two main alternatives to disposable tampons and pads: reusable menstrual cups (inside-of-body) and reusable cloth pads (outside-of-body).
Alternative 1: Menstrual Cups.
The menstrual cup is a type of cup, worn inside like a tampon, that collects fluid rather than absorbing it. Cups can be reused and usually hold roughly 30 ml (2 tablespoons) of fluid. That’s about one third of the average total produced each menstrual cycle. To use your cup, fold it twice, creating a U shape, and insert it. When you feel that it is full, empty the cup, rinse/wipe, and then reinsert. Cups should be emptied every 6-12 hours. At the end of your cycle, wash the cup with soap and water. Check the instructions on your specific cup for more information. If needed you can pair a cup with a cloth liner to prevent accidents.
Popular brands for menstrual cups include DivaCup and the Moon Cup (made out of high-quality silicone) and The Keeper (made out of natural gum rubber latex). I would stay away from knockoffs that use questionable materials–remember that this is a product that you insert into your body hundreds of times over the years. If you have latex allergies/sensitivity, get the DivaCup. If you aren’t sure if you are have latex allergies/sensitivity… get the DivaCup anyway. I’ve used the DivaCup and the Keeper and prefer the feel of a silicone cup, as it feels more comfortable and smoother going in. Silicone cups also bend into the U shape for insertion more easily than rubber. The only reason you would want a rubber cup is if you don’t like the idea of silicone for some reason.
The DivaCup is available in two sizes, Model 1 and Model 2. Model 1 is for women under 30 who have never given birth. Model 2 is for women over 30 or who have given birth, vaginally or by C-section. Similarly, the Moon Cup also comes in two sizes, size A and size B. Size B is for women under 35 who have not given vaginal birth (e.g., C-Section). Size A is for women over 35 or who have given birth vaginally.
All of the cups have stems on the bottom. The stem is to help you remove the cup. If you find it uncomfortable, you may trim the length, but don’t cut it off completely or it may be much harder to remove.
Alternative 2: Reusable Cloth Pads.
Most pads are made with the intention that the printed fabric to go up against the skin against. The other side of the pad (e.g., fuzzy fleece) goes against your underwear. You will change your cloth pad about as often as you change a disposable pad. If your pad feels wet, it’s time to change it. The pads don’t smell any worse than reusable pads, because blood only starts to smell when exposed to air. When you finish with a pad, you can turn it inside out and snap them closed or put them into a travel-sized wet bag. At home you can put the pad directly into the laundry or wash.
There are a number of brand with different materials (e.g., cotton or flannel top, absorbent charcoal or cotton middle, and nylon bottom). Among the most popular are these Heart Felts (also available in Extra Large size).
Below is a rough guideline of how many of pads each weight you need.
- Light pads and/or liners: 1-2 a day with a cup to stay dry and 4-6 if as a liner.
- Regular/Medium: 6 to 10 pads.
- Heavy/Overnight: 6 to 8 pads or 2 two for overnight.
- Postpartum/Super heavy: 8 to 12 for postpartum or 1 to 2 for occasional use instead of a heavy pad.
There are a few different ways you can store and wash your used pads. Some people put them directly in the laundry. If you are concerned about staining you can use a bucket to soak the pads or rinse them and then store them dry. I prefer to collect them at the end of the day and rinse them out and then put them in the laundry hamper.
- Bucket soak. Find a empty bucket about the size of an ice cream container and soak the pads in cold water. You should have enough space to soak 2 days’ worth of pads. If you are worried about staining add a little bleach, oxy powder, laundry detergent, or other stain remover. Check the care instructions from your manufacturer before using bleach.
- Rinse and throw into the wash. Start with a quick rinse of your pad in either the sink or the bathtub with cold water. Squeeze out most of the liquid and place them in the laundry–or if needed keep the pad in a bucket or a small wet bag so they don’t dry out. When it is time to do laundry, the wet bag goes straight into the wash.
- Drying. Either hang the pads on a clothesline or use a regular dryer as long as you aren’t scorching the pads on high heat. You may want to avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets as well, in case they release chemicals that interfere with the absorbency of the pads.
The biggest day-to-day change I’ve noticed since switching to reusable menstrual products is that I don’t have to remember to buy tampons and pads any more. I wash the cups and put them away every month. The pads go into the laundry and are put away with the rest of my clothes in a drawer. All in all, it’s an easy change that benefits the environment and saves you money!