An Environmentally Friendly Period

Getting rid of the stigma around reusable period products.

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Periods. Yes, I have said the forbidden word. Before the disposable pads we know and use today, people used rags, cotton, rabbit fur and even grass to soak up menstruation. Nurses then developed a pad originally to help wounded men on the battlefield and tampons used to stop wounds from bullets. This then became a monthly usage for people who have a menstrual cycle. In Europe, homemade menstrual rags were used until the 1940s which were washed and reused, but we moved as a society away from reusable and recyclable products in 1933 with the introduction of Tampax. Although people were hesitant about them at first due to concerns about virginity and its social constructs (as inserting something into your vagina could make a woman impure – or some patriarchal nonsense), it was considered the healthier option due to them having less bacteria than ‘dirty’ reused rags. However, this obsession to be clean has led us to create on average 200,000 tons of waste per year of period products that can take centuries to biodegrade. So why did we turn away from the reusable, eco-friendly options for something that is full of chemicals?

On average, women in the UK use 11,000 disposable menstrual products during their reproductive life. That is on average £5,000 in someone’s lifetime. It is the same as buying a nice second-hand car or going on a luxury holiday. Most people have a period for 40 years, not including those who start earlier or finish later than expected and the NHS suggest that someone who menstruates will have around 480 periods altogether, less if they fall pregnant.

 The two main products used are pads and tampons. People like to use these due to convenience or because that is all they knew. I was always brought up on pads and thought they were the only option apart from tampons when going to the beach. These pads and tampons contain so many different types of chemicals that we are happy to insert into our bodies. The products most of us use are not made from cotton like many believe but are made of synthetic materials like rayon and SAPs (super Absorbent Polymers) which are bleached with chlorine to give them the pristine white look. Some of the concerns that are linked to the usage of these products are: Dioxins and furans: linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity. These are by-products of the bleaching process. Pesticide residues: linked to cancer. These have been detected in products made with traditionally grown cotton and undisclosed fragrance ingredients, which may contain chemicals linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and allergies. Many pads, and sometimes tampons, come in scented varieties. These products were advertised as the healthiest option to avoid bacterial infections, however, by doing this we are consequently allowing ourselves to be filled with different chemicals. Tampons also soak up all of the vaginal moisture which actually leaves us more prone to some infections such as BV & Thrush as it removes the good bacteria.

 200,000 tons of waste are produced on average in the UK alone due to period products. Sanitary pads can take 500 to 800 years to biodegrade meaning they sit in landfill for 6 or more generations for the four hours of use. With the growing concerns of climate change, you think there would be more of an emphasis on educating people to use reusable products. A reason for this (maybe just a conspiracy theory) could be because of the amount of money large corporations make out of people having periods, they do not want a cheaper way to become the norm, even if it is more environmentally friendly. Most do not realise how bad the one-use products are for the environment as it is so easy to just change the product, put it in the bin and open a new one. During a small survey, only 56% of the people knew the different types of reusable period products that are on the market with 100% admitting to never being taught about these products in school. This adds to the reason why people stick with disposable products even when knowing the risk; they don’t know the options.

During a small survey, only 29% of the people are currently using reusable products but 73% of those who said they were not already would consider using them. This shows that people are interested in switching to reusable products but do not know what options there are. That is why I am here. I am going to be educating you on the different types of reusable products along with average prices and the benefits of them. I will also be sharing my own experience with some of the products.

Menstrual Cups

Diva Cups are viewed by many as scary and weird due to their shape. They are a small bell shape that is inserted into the vagina. You can leave these in for 6 – 12 hours depending how heavy your flow is. You can get these for an average of £15 on the internet however, I got some for £5 each and these works perfectly well. You do need to ensure they are made from medical grade silicone! The first time I used this product I was honestly scared. I was more worried about not being able to get it out again and needing to go to the ER to get it removed. I watched so many videos of women using them, and it was disconcerting. They all complained about how hard it was to get in and to get out and that it felt uncomfortable while it was in. I do not know if just everyone has a different opinion on things or if they were being over dramatic for the camera, but I do not agree with this at all. The first time I used it was not hard, it was just different; a new experience. It took me about five minutes to get it in the first time but now I can put it in and take it out in a matter of seconds.

The best way to do it is fold it in half and sperate your labia majora with one hand and then insert in into your vagina with the other. Once it is in you, you will feel a small pop as it opens. I like to use these because unlike the women in the videos, I cannot feel it at all and sometimes honesty forget I am on my period. To remove them you insert your fingers into your vagina and pinch the base of the cup to release the suction and pull it out. You can then poor the contents down the toilet and give it a wash in the sink before reusing it.

Make sure to boil the menstrual cup to sterilise it in between cycles and then let it cool down before inserting it. This will completely clean the cup from all bacteria so that you do not get an infection. Make sure to let it cool down completely, not just a little. I made that mistake once, putting a hot cup into my vagina and I will tell you now, it is not a pleasant experience. You only need the one cup as you can sterilise it between usages. This does feel like a lot of effort and I know some of you will be rolling your eyes thinking I just do not have the time to faff about but realistically it does not take up a lot of time. At the Students Union we give out microwavable sterilising posts that you can use.

Lots of people are grossed out by menstrual blood but trust me, after using a cup, you will be so comfortable with your own body. Before using this, if I touched any blood on a pad, I was fully disgusted, now I am pouring it down the toilet and washing it in the sink without a care in the world. These products also let you get to know your own body. You begin to know what your cycle feels like. I can now tell when I am coming to the end of my period as can feel my uterus wall expanding. I feel more comfortable with my body after using these.

Menstrual Disk

Menstrual disks are very similar to cups, but they have a different shape. Instead of looking like a bell it has a rounder flat shape. You can get these on average for £29. These work by being tucked between the space behind your cervix (the vaginal fornix) and your pubic bone. I know this sounds complicated and a little scary, but it is not as bad as it sounds; they are actually quite easy to put in and take out. They only need to be changed every 12 hours which is perfect for someone with a busy schedule. These disks are held in by your body’s anatomy rather than a suction like that of a cup. This means when removing it, you do not need to squeeze it to release this suction, but simply pull it out.

To insert the disk, you squeeze the sides together (almost halving the size) making it look like a tampon and inserting it into your vagina. It will feel like you are inserting a tampon without an applicator. Use a finger to push it up until the back of the disk is behind your cervix and then simply tilt the front of the disk up to set it in place behind your public bone.

Reusable Pads

These are something I was not convinced of before using them however now I would never go back. They are so easy and so much more comfortable that the traditional disposable pad. I had to borrow a disposable pad as I forgot to bring mine with me once and I found these so uncomfortable. I felt it was rubbing against my leg the whole time, irritating my skin, and found them almost sticky. These were things that before when using them I never even thought about. Now using reusable pads, I could never go back to the discomfort.

On average theses sell for around £25 for a pack of them. I bought mine online for £24 which was a pack of 12. These came with small discharge pads which are the equivalent to panty liners and then a range of medium to large to extra-large pads. They came in a cute little bag which I now use to carry a couple of them around with me everywhere in case of emergencies. You wear these like a normal pad, clipping them on the bottom on your pants and then after a few hours you change it for another. I tend to keep them in a small bag and at the end of my cycle, I put them in the washing machine, and they are then ready for my next use. It’s important to rinse them after use in water until it runs clear, then pop them in the washing machine and don’t use fabric conditioner. They wash so easily. I tend to wear these when lounging in the house, but they would work just as well if wearing them out and about.

Many are turned away from this product because they believe their flow is too heavy and that the pad would not be able to handle it. It however has been proven that these pads soak up more than the disposable ones. I personally have never had any leaks; I have never even come close.

 Period Underwear

These are great for people who do not like to feel like they are on their monthly. They work the same way as the pads but by having the pad inserted into the underwear. You can get these online for around £19.99 for a pack of three. Although these are more expensive than pads, it is more comfortable as it feels like you are wearing a normal pair of pants; they are also very discreate. You do not need to worry about leakage in these as they attach to your body, so they hold everything in. You

Although some of these do include plastic in the products such as the menstrual cup, or the buttons on the pads, because you would use significantly less than normal disposable products, you would be helping the environment significantly. Some use around 17 pads or tampons per period and in the space of a year that is 204 pads a year. That would be the difference of 17 pads in landfill compared to 204. That is if you throw away your reusable pads every year which many do not as they can last you a few years if looked after properly. Lots of these products also seem quite expensive which may turn people away from buying them. However, if you think about how many you would need to buy it turns out cheaper. The average pack of pads costs on average £2 - £4 which is £24 - £52 a year or £24 for a pack of pads from online that would last you a few years.

                The Students Union provides free reusable period products in the Advice service in the union building. If you would like to see what options we have, email Molly at Union.advice@avber.ac.uk to arrange an appointment.

 

 

 More Information.

Sabrina, “The History of the Sanitary Pad”, femme international, (2013) <https://femmeinternational.org/the-history-of-the-sanitary-pad/#:~:text=Before%20the%20disposable%20pad%20was,women%20to%20handle%20their%20periods.>

Laura Hampson, “Women spend £5,000 on period products in their lifetime”, Evening Standard, (2019) <https://www.standard.co.uk/escapist/health/how-much-do-women-spend-on-period-products-a4299531.html>

Made Safe, “Feminine Care”, Made Safe <https://www.madesafe.org/education/whats-in-that/feminine-care/>

Jennifer Kotler, “A short history of modern menstrual products”, Clue, (2018) < https://helloclue.com/articles/culture/a-short-history-of-modern-menstrual-products#:~:text=1930s%20to%201940s%3A%20%E2%80%9CThe%20Kotex,under%20the%20name%20%E2%80%9CTampax.%E2%80%9D>

Anne Loreto Cruz, “Everything you need to know about menstrual discs”, Mashable UK, (2021) < https://mashable.com/article/menstrual-discs-explainer/?europe=true#:~:text=Disposable%20discs%20are%20made%20out,discs%20are%20a%20little%20intimidating>

 

 

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