What's so Bad About Traditional Period Products?
It's been nearly a century since tampons were first invented, and in that time they have become an essential for the majority of menstruators in the developed world. Single-use sanitary products allowed women to enter the workforce, athletic fields, academic establishments, and other male-dominated spaces without the embarrassment and sigma associated with homemade period options. Disposable period products are more leaks resistant and less of a hassle than even the best scrap fabrics or old rags, creating a massive market for pads and tampons that took them from hidden behind drug store counters to front and center on connivence store shelves. While traditional period products have had an undeniably positive impact on our society and quality of life for most women, there is a dangerous underbelly lurking just beneath the surface.
Let's start by asking what's in your period products? The truth is, no one really knows. Consumer protection agency's like the US's FDA don't require manufactures to disclose their ingredients, so everything from the pesticides on the cotton to the synthetic fibers used to make your tampon are a relative mystery.
The US saw a spike in toxic shock syndrome (TSS) cases in the 1980's brought on by new, ultra-high absorbency tampons. The majority of cases involved 4 main materials, which lead the FDA to outlaw 3 of these 4 synthetic fibers. Rayon, which is still allowed, is frequently blended with cotton to create a stronger and more absorbent material.
Today, the government trusts you to make the right decision on what brand of tampon to use, stating " the role of current tampon composition as an independent risk factor for TSS is unclear since composition may vary even for a particular brand and style of tampon marketed at a given time." A pretty difficult task when few companies share their tampon composition.
On top of your acute fears of TSS, we also need to research the long-term effects of the chemicals found in tampons ourselves. Relatively few studies have been conducted on the exact ingredients used by the major brands, and when that research finds a common component, such as the dioxins, research on how much of that chemical crosses into your blood stream is hard to find.
What we do know about the class of chemicals known as dioxins, is that they are known to interfere with hormones, distrust the immune system, and cause cancer, reproductive issues, and developmental problems. These along with the other toxins found in many period products come in very close contact with some of our most sensitive tissues, allowing the them to get absorbed directly into the bloodstream. While the literature is clear that the amount of exposure from a single tampon is no more than you would get from an average American diet and lifestyle. However, when you consider the number of tampons the average woman uses (16,800) and the average amount of time spent bleeding (6.5 years total), even small traces of chemicals can quickly bioaccumulate into unsafe amounts.
As consumers grow more concerned about the health effects of traditional period products, new companies have emerged to bridge the gap between what we're used to (single use pads and tampons) and what we really need (a unicorn: something safe, cheap, easy to use, and sustainable). The most successful of these companies focus on organic cotton.
Why cotton? By being 100% cotton, these products can completely side-step the issues brought on by blending plastics and synthetic fibers. The risk for TSS goes way down, with a study from the 1990's finding zero cases of TSS when tampons made of only cotton where used.
Using organic cotton ensures no pesticides can enter your bloodstream, dramatically reducing the number of known toxins you are exposed to while on your period. Additionally, organic cotton is a lot better for the environment. As the impacts of climate change become more and more apparent, younger generations are growing more concerned about their environmental footprint. Menstruators are by nature relatively young, creating a large demand for more sustainable period products. A recent survey of women in the US found that 60% of them were interested in a more sustainable period product
Best Organic Cotton Products
#1 Seventh Generation
What is it? 100% organic cotton tampons and processed chlorine free pads and pantyliners. Available in the period aisle, which means the only change in your routine is taking 2 extra steps to the right! These are a bit more absorbent than traditional periods, but do so slower than their less sustainable counterparts.
Price: $6-$8 a box. While more expensive than their non-organic counter parts, these are a bit cheaper than online options and the Seventh Generation brand has been around for a while, lending it some credibility and brand power.
What is it? Also 100% organic cotton tampons and chlorine free pads and pantyliners. Also available in the period aisle, which is very convenient.
Price: $10-$12 a box. These are a tiny bit more expensive than Seventh Generation, but are very popular and can be bough online as well.
What is it? Also 100% organic cotton tampons and chlorine free pads and pantyliners, but through a subscription service that sends you a box of 18 tampons each month. This is perfect for those who forget to stock up or just hate going to the store to buy period products. This company also offers healthier condoms and other sex products.
Price: $10 a box. Shipping will vary so prices will be a bit more than the promised $10, but for all your period needs to arrive at your door each month, it could be worth it!
More Than Just Human Health
Traditional period products aren't just bad for your health, they're tough on the environment too. To start, traditional period products are inundated with plastics. Wrappers are plastic, applicators are plastic, tampon strings are re-enforced with plastics, and even some of the absorbent material itself contains plastic. Plastics are so common, they account for roughly 90% of a pad and roughly 6% of a tampon.
Then there is the issue of single use. While disposables are what let women leave the house any time of the month, they generate a lot of waste. Tampon applicators alone were the 5th most common single-use plastic found on the beaches of Europe in 2018, and it is estimated that the average menstruator will throw away up to 440 lbs (or 220 kgs) of period products in their lifetime.
440 lbs is a lot of waste that will never go away! Whether it is filling your trash can or inconveniencing you while backpacking, it is hard to ignore the build-up of waste each period, creating a growing demand for non-single use period products. While no one is looking to go back to sewing their own liners or hand washing bloodstained fabrics, the re-usable period market is rapidly expanding, with dozens of new companies trying to cash in on the successes of menstrual cups and period underwear, and even more women switching to use these products.
Best Multi-Use Products
#1 Thinx Underwear
I know there are a lot of brands out there now doing absorbent, period-proof underwear, but you can't be the original Thinx Underwear.
What is it? Underwear that can hold between 1-4 tampons worth of blood depending on the pair you pick. After wearing, rinse them in the sink in cold water, ring it out, then wash with your dark laundry; line dry as instructed. If you accidentally pop in the drier, it's not a problem. Though don't do it too often as drying the underwear can cause it to smell a little bit as will waiting to wash them.
Pros: Period-underwear is very comfortable! They're light, breathable, and come in a variety of styles that are actually cute. Pads can feel like giant diapers that have to be noticeable even if your friends swear no one can tell you're wearing one. Period undies don't have that problem because they're much thinner and fit like normal underwear. You can feel confident walking around because you know you're protected and looking good!
Cons: You can't exactly change throughout the day the way you would with a pad, unless you have a millions pairs and never leave your home. On lighter days or if you're always pretty light, that's no problem. On heavier days, you might want to use Thinx in conjunction with anther period product like a tampon or menstrual cup.
Price: Most pairs of Thinx are between $30-$40, making them a lot more than a box of tampons or package of pads. I would recommend starting with 3 pairs to see how you like them and then building from there. If you're willing to do laundry a couple of times while you're on your period, you won't need too many pairs.
Longevity: 2-3 years, though the newer designs seem to be slightly more durable (the hip hugger design now makes the waistband less likely to rip), so I would fully recommend the long-term investment.
#2 The Diva Cup
This would be my number one pick if they weren't so intimidating and hard to first use. Full disclosure, I owned mine for over a year before finally getting the hang of it, but now this is my go-to period product. The Diva Cup was the first (and the only available at Target when I went) so they are the brand I've stuck with.
What is it? Simply put it's a menstrual cup. It is inserted low in the vagina to collect your menses before anything has a chance to leak out. The Diva Cup is a sustainable, re-usable alternative to tampons. All you need to do is wash it with soap between uses to prevent discoloring and store it somewhere safe between periods.
Pros: Imagine a tampon that rarely leaks and lasts the whole day. That's a Diva Cup! You can say goodbye to awkwardly showing a tampon in your sleeve to walk to the bathroom, to rushing to the store after a long day when you really just want to do is wear sweats and sleep, and to doing mental math to see how long it's been since you last changed your tampon and when you think your next opportunity to change it will be.
Cons: Do you remember when you first used a tampon and how invasive it seemed compared to a pad? Well this is a level above that. First, can be challenging to first insert the Diva Cup, like crying on your toilet, height of all your failures, soul crushingly challenging, but once you do get it, it is amazing. My tip, watch the insertion video on their website (this wasn't available when I first started using it) and use the tulip method not the c method. Also make sure you are using the model that is right for you.
Price: Roughly $40. Think of how much you spend on tampons now and how many periods it would take for this to pay for itself.
Longevity: When I bought this product about 3 years ago, they said to replace it every 2 years. Now, the website says every year. It is made of medical grade silicone so unless it is damaged, I don't see why you would need to change it that frequently. At the risk of giving bad advice, I would say you can count on the Diva Cup for at least 2 years and check the websites for signs and reasons to change it sooner than that (for example, it starts to turn white signaling the silicon is compromised or you used it during a yeast infection so there is a very good chance using the same cup again will re-start that infection).