When it comes to ways to decrease our contribution to the waste stream, the thought of menstrual products often isn’t the first that comes to our heads. Increasingly, though, people who have periods are pursuing options that are reusable for their health, the environment and personal comfort.
Periods have a significant impact on the environment. The average person with a menstrual cycle throws away 250 to 300 pounds of pads, tampons and applicators in their lifetime, according to “Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation.” Many disposable period products also contain chemicals that can leach into the soil in and around landfills.
“Most tampons come with plastic applicators which take hundreds of years to decompose,” said Burgess Powell, head of sales for Casco Cup, a reusable menstrual cup company based in Sanford. “Tampons and pads can also contain bleach or chemicals designed to make them more absorbent.”
The Environmental Working Group reported on a 2019 study that tested period products and found chemicals linked to dizziness, kidney damage and central nervous system damage. These chemicals, combined with the materials used in disposable menstrual products, can also cause skin irritation and even allergic reactions.
“We don’t know the long-term impacts of these materials,” Powell said. “We also know that the vagina is one of the most absorbent parts of the human body. Tampons are also known to cause chaffing, which may thin the vaginal walls. They can also contribute to toxic shock syndrome.”
Besides, disposable menstrual products can carry a certain smell.
“You’re sweating down there and you have menstrual blood and other bodily fluids coming out,” said Amy Martel, owner of Twist Organic, a reusable cotton pantyliner company based in Portland. “Mix that with chemicals and plastic and it’s really gross. [Reusable cotton pads] breathe. There’s a fresher feeling.”
Plus, you can use them when other options for menstrual care aren’t available.
“I’ve had people buy these because [they’re] getting ready to do work [where they’re] not able to buy disposable pads,” said Sara Goodrich, owner of Renew You! Massage and Yoga in Lewiston who also sells Party in My Pants cloth menstrual pads. “You can take them camping and wash them and reuse them.”
Options for low-waste period care
There are a number of options for low-waste period care. First are reusable pads and pantyliners. Goodrich said that the main advantage to reusable pads over their disposable counterparts is comfort.
“A disposable pad feels like a diaper sometimes,” Goodrich said.
When choosing a reusable pad, Martel said to consider factors like material and size.
“Some people feel more secure with a longer pad,” Martel said. “Another [factor] would be closures. [If the pad is made from] woven cotton or flannel, you probably want some adjustability because they stretch less. Velcro probably wouldn’t work for very long.”
Then, there are menstrual cups, which are made of sanitary, durable materials like silicone. The cups are inserted into the vagina and collect menstrual blood, and you empty them out throughout the day. You don’t need as many menstrual cups as reusable pads or panties to get through a cycle, and they are easier to clean.
“There are so many advantages to using a menstrual cup,” Powell said. “You can wear a [menstrual cup] for up to 12 hours. When it’s inserted correctly, you won’t feel it at all. It also features a leak-resistant design and lasts ten years.”
However, learning how to use menstrual cups can be intimidating.
“A lot of people worry that they won’t be able to remove one or that it will get ‘sucked up’ into their bodies, which is impossible,” Powell said. “We remind people that they learned how to use a tampon when they first got their periods. Using a menstrual cup will become second-nature, too.”
Laura Martson, owner of GoGo Refill in Portland, who sells a brand called Luna Cup in her store, said that her customers’ experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.
“People ask all the time [if it is] comfortable, can you feel it, how do you empty it, how do you clean it, [but] I have rarely heard, ‘Oh it didn’t work for me,’ or ‘It’s uncomfortable or gross,’” Martson said.
Menstrual cups do not work for everyone, though, especially if you are perimenopausal or have a light flow.
“Anyone with an IUD should check with their gynecologist first,” Powell said. “Pregnant women should also not use a menstrual cup. A great rule of thumb is to speak with your gynecologist if you’re concerned or if you have a medical condition.”
For menstrual cups, finding your size is also important.
“I recommend everybody do research,” Martson said. “There are different shapes, there are different companies.”
Powell also noted that not all menstrual cups are created equal.
“Not all menstrual cups are subject to our quality control standards,” he explained. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of choosing an FDA-registered menstrual cup made in the United States: you know that the factory has met strict quality standards.”
If you are not ready to commit to these options, Martson said to consider options like organic cotton tampons, or applicator-less tampons with a reusable applicator.
“In terms of waste, there’s such a spectrum,” Martson said. “I always say make a small change, and then build on it.”
Caring for reusable menstrual products
Cleaning and care of reusable menstrual products may make some people squeamish, but it is an essential part of the process of using them. In rare cases, menstrual cups can even cause vaginal infections if they are not cleaned regularly before use.
“You don’t want to keep your cup in a plastic bag or cloth bag because it needs to dry,” Powell said. “It if stays wet, bacteria could form. We also encourage people to boil it twice a cycle and to rinse it whenever possible between uses. Also, make sure your hands are clean when inserting or removing it.”
Though committing to a regular cleaning schedule is essential, the cleaning process itself isn’t complicated.
“Because it’s silicone and it’s very smooth there’s not any place for anything to get stuck,” Martson said. “They sell a specific wash, but I just use a mild soap to wash it and clean it and dry it. Some people put it in the dishwasher. ”
For pads, Goodrich said to simply consider it “dirtier laundry than normal.”
“I will use a stain treater, sprinkle on top of the pad, let sit for half an hour and it goes in the laundry with the darks,” she said. “They don’t need to be washed immediately, they just have to be washed before your next period. They’re not doing anything funky once they’re dry.”
If you are on the go, you may have to switch out reusable pads during the day. Goodrich said when she has needed to change, she just throws them in her purse.
“They snap and fold in on themselves so you can take a plastic baggy and have that with you to swap out and wash when you get home,” Martel added.
Getting over the stigma
For some women, getting over the stigma can be challenging when it comes to adopting reusable options for menstrual care.
“It’s very difficult not to absorb some period shame in this culture, especially when you’re menstruating into something that’s trash and treated like something gross,” Goodrich said.
If you are having trouble getting over the squeamishness, Goodrich had a few tips, like starting with a thin liner and only using it on light days and building from there.
In general, though, Goodrich said you have to just commit to getting past any internalized squeamishness.
“Parents change poopy diapers, nurses do all sorts of weird things, people get over squeamish stuff all the time,” Goodrich said. “They just decide to do it.”