Photo: Some of the 415 plastic tampon applicators volunteers cleaned up on a beach in Lake Ontario, Canada. An estimated 20 billion applicators end up in North American landfills every year.
Let’s break the period taboo and talk plastic-free feminine hygiene products! This is an important topic to explore because these monthly visits from ‘Aunty Flo’ can have a large impact on our bodies and our environment.
Did you know that feminine hygiene companies aren’t required to disclose all of the ingredients in their products because the products aren’t considered medical devices? This is alarming considering many of the conventional disposable feminine hygiene products contain synthetic materials including plastics, adhesives and artificial fragrances, and toxic chemicals like phthalates, dioxins, and petrochemical additives.
Women’s Voices for the Earth commissioned an analysis in 2014 of various Always pads and found they contained traces of "styrene (a human carcinogen), chloromethane (a reproductive toxicant), chloroethane (a carcinogen), chloroform (a carcinogen, reproductive toxicant, and neurotoxin), and acetone (an irritant).” (for full article click here, for the testing results, click here). YUK!
Furthermore, the average woman will use 12,000 to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products in her lifetime and it can take up to 100 years or more for something like a plastic pad or applicator to break down! Luckily there are actually all kinds of safe plastic-free options that are available in various (and very interesting) shapes and sizes to suit your needs and match your comfort level.
Reviewing Your Options
When exploring safer plastic-free alternatives, here are some things to consider:
- Materials used in the product and how healthy they are for you
- Material used for the packaging
- How the product is used (and what your comfort level is)
- The lifespan of the product and it’s end of life options
- The cost over time
In our opinion, the healthiest options for you and our planet will be those made from organic and toxin-free materials, that have minimal packaging, that are not single-use and that have a longer lifespan. Best are those whose end of life option creates the least amount of persistent waste.
After thoroughly reviewing the different options available for feminine hygiene, we found that there is a lot of info to absorb. We want to help people make more informed decisions so we created a handy chart that runs through the options and their various impacts. Feel free to share it but make sure to give credit back to Life Without Plastic.
Talking about reusable feminine hygiene products may raise some eyebrows and prompt some intimate questions, but no worries, we’ve got the answers! Some of these products may require a bit more preparation, but are overall a lot healthier and earth-friendly.
Reusable Cotton Pads
Let’s start with reusable pads. These are an amazing alternative to plastic pads on all fronts!
✔ Healthy: Pads are made from undyed organic cotton cloth and flannel that is free from harmful additives.
✔ Earth-friendly: Pads are reusable and prevent tons of plastic waste. The natural materials are biodegradable and compostable at the end of their life. The packaging is made from 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard and is itself recyclable.
✔ Long lasting: Pads can be reused for up to five or more years.
Use and care instructions: Place the inserts in the back of the pad. Place the pad in your underwear (smooth side up and insert side down) and snap the wings to secure it in place. Change your reusable pads as often as you would a normal pad. After use, separate the inserts from the holder. Soak everything in cold water and baking soda (optional) to help prevent staining. Machine wash cold using natural soap or detergent, and either hang to dry or tumble dry low.
Expert tip: Adding an enzyme cleaner to the soaking water may help protect against staining.
Glad Rags is the brand we carry, but there are other notable brands out there such as Oko Creations and Luna Pads (although some of their products contain PUL (polyurethane laminate) in the layers of the pad).
Reusable Menstrual Cups
These menstrual cups are meant to replace regular tampons, but rather that absorbing your flow, they actually collect it in the cup. This can be helpful for those who may need to monitor their cycle. Rubber and silicone menstrual cups are gaining traction as an eco-alternative to conventional tampons — and with good reason!
✔ Healthy: The GladRags XO Flo Cup is made from body-safe medical grade silicone.
✔ Earth-friendly: The cup is reusable, which prevents the accumulation of persistent waste from disposable menstrual products.
✔ Long lasting: This one product can last you up to ten or more years!
✔ Cost-effective: Because it lasts for so long, you’ll only have a one time expense of $40-50 for multiple years of use!
Use and care instructions: Start by washing your hands, then press the ‘X’ sides to fold in half, then fold in half again so the rim makesa ‘C’ shape. Gently insert the cup (rim first) into the vagina. When it feels secure and comfortable, release and allow to open inside. These cups only need to be changed 2-4 times a day depending on your cycle. To remove the cup, gently pull on the stem and squeeze the base of the cup between your thumb and forefinger to break the seal. Empty the contents into the toilet bowl, rinse the cup and reinsert. To clean the cup, use mild, natural soap and water.
Expert tip: If you’re at a public washroom, simply empty the contents in the toilet bowl and use toilet paper to wipe the cup before reinserting.
Reusable Menstrual Sponges
Sea Pearl Menstrual Sponges are a unique and fairly underrated option. Essentially, they are sustainably harvested natural sea sponges that can be inserted and used like tampons to absorb your flow. These soft sponges require a bit of a change of practice, but are an amazing alternative for a number of reasons;
✔ Healthy: Simply made from natural sea sponges that are free of chemicals, bleach, chlorine, dioxins, fragrances, dyes or other synthetic materials.
✔ Earth-friendly: The sponges are sustainably harvested, biodegradable and compostable. These also prevent tons of plastic waste from disposable menstrual products.
✔ Long lasting: These sponges can last up to six months or more.
✔ Cost-effective: Since they come in a pack of 2 and last for so long, you’ll only have this expense every maybe once or twice a year rather than every month.
Use and care instructions: Start by washing your hands and the sponges. Squeeze out the excess water, scrunch up, and insert into vagina the way you would a tampon. Once saturated, remove the sponge, rinse it out with water and natural soap, and reinsert or let dry.
Expert tip: Tie a string around the sponge to help make removing it a bit easier.
Natural Pads Subscription Service
We also want to make a special mention to Tampon Tribe, a company who has made an extreme effort to create socially and environmentally responsible disposable feminine hygiene products. This international team of women is dedicated to stopping the use of single-use plastic where it is not needed and now sell tampons that are 100% plastic-free, toxin-free, hypoallergenic, chemical-free, and GOTS certified organic cotton. Furthermore, for every month of lady supplies purchased, they donate a day pack of products to homeless women!
We appreciate that everyone has different concerns, comfort levels, and priorities. We hope this review will help make you aware of the many healthier options you have at your disposal, and help you find one that is right for you. Some of the reusables may be a little out of the ordinary, but don’t let that scare you, they are totally worth a shot.
Go with your flow!
Sarah Wylie is the Operations Manager for Life Without Plastic. This article was originally published on Life Without Plastic.