If I had to personify periods I would definitely not describe them as a friend, but rather an annoying visitor who comes barging through the door every month with a gift-wrapped box full of a few days’ worth of painful cramps, backache and the uncontrollable urge to eat everything carb-laden and sugary in sight. But the fact is, unless certain contraception options intervene, periods are unavoidable and will continue to say hello each month whether we like it or not.
According to the Women's Environmental Network, the average woman uses between eleven and sixteen thousand disposable sanitary products in her lifetime, and will spend thousands of pounds on essential sanitary items, pain relief and chocolate (also essential). This means that women will throw away up to one-hundred and fifty kilograms of sanitary waste over the years, which is the equivalent weight of an adult male panda! Unfortunately, this waste ends up in landfills, rivers and the sea and pads alone can take up to eight hundred years to decompose. As many disposable sanitary products are made from plastic and non-organic cotton, the manufacture of sanitary products also contributes to the vast problems caused by plastic pollution and mass cotton production.
Disposable sanitary products are not only bloody expensive (pardon the pun) and bad for the environment, but over the years there has been speculation surrounding sanitary products— mostly tampons—and what they’re actually made from. This explains the rise in organic brands on the shelves. But if you ask yourself the question what is a tampon actually made from? I'm sure most of us will agree that besides plastic and cotton, we have no idea. Most tampons are made from a blend of cotton and rayon, but due to the huge global demand for cotton it’s often farmed using chemical pesticides and insecticides. One study found that eighty-five percent of tampons tested contained Glyphosate - the active ingredient in weed killer. Ok, “lady garden” may be a well-known euphemism for the lady parts but weed killer and vaginas aren’t a common association.
Until the nineties the process used to manufacture the other ingredient—rayon—produced a by-product called hydrocarbon dioxin which is a known carcinogen. The method was replaced with a chlorine-free bleaching process which minimises dioxin production, and experts say that only trace levels of dioxin can be found in tampons today. Years of pollution means dioxin is present in the air, water and ground and according to the FDA, dioxin exposure from tampons “is many times less than normally present in the body from other environmental sources” such as food. However, other experts claim that even low dioxin levels in tampons are a cause for concern because they come into direct contact with the absorbent vaginal tissue which leads to the reproductive organs. The thing is, it can seem like everything is bad for us these days and there are experts and studies left, right and centre saying different things. There’s no need to panic and bin your tampons but raising awareness about what’s in the products we use and making informed decisions about what we buy can only be a good thing.
A cheaper, chemical-free and environmentally-friendly alternative to tampons and pads are menstrual cups. Menstrual cups have been around for a long time but over the past few years they have become popular and well-known brands include TOTM, Mooncup and Lunette to name a few. There may be questions about what’s in tampons, but menstrual cups are made only from TPE, latex or medical-grade silicon. Compared to the thousands of tampons and pads a woman will use throughout her life, one menstrual cup can last up to ten years if it’s cared for properly. Not only does this make menstrual cups the most environmentally-friendly sanitary product, but it saves a crazy amount of money too.
So how does it work? As opposed to a pad or tampon which absorbs fluid and can only be worn between four to six hours, a menstrual cup collects fluid and can be worn for up to twelve hours before being emptied, washed and used again. There’s also less chance of menstrual cups disrupting sensitive pH levels and bacteria compared to tampons which absorb all vaginal fluid. Each menstrual cup has a stem at the bottom, so it can be inserted and removed with ease and there’s a wide range of cup shapes and sizes to cater for all women. All cups come with detailed information and instructions showing exactly how to use and maintain it.
Some women think menstrual cups are a bit weird and gross but if used correctly and cleaned properly, and with a bit of getting used to, many women have never looked back since using a cup. Ultimately, the most important thing is to choose what's best for you and your body, but if it's chemical-free and doesn't cost the Earth then why not give it a try.