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Health Matters: A Guide to Menstrual Options

Pads and tampons sold at the Mills Bookstore. (Photo by Mackenzie Fargo)
Pads and tampons sold at the Mills Bookstore. (Photo by Mackenzie Fargo)

Women are frequently not educated about different options for dealing with menstruation.

For many biological females of menstruating age, periods are multiple times per-year realities, yet most women are only familiar with tampons and pads. This is because female sanitary methods are largely undiscussed. The more aware women are of the options the more informed their decisions can be.

Even between tampons and pads, women are made to feel as if they should be furtively choosing on aisle six only to dash to the checkout line. The popularity is for a reason. They’re convenient — use once and throw away. Because there is no reuse, they are also easier to keep sanitary. Women have been using forms of tampons and pads for centuries—ancient Egyptian women used softened papyrus as tampons; pads have been made out of mosses, absorbent grasses, pelts and rags.

As noted by the “Random Facts” website, women of the recent generations who live in urban environments have roughly 450 periods in their lifetimes. For either disposable tampons or pads, a lot of waste is generated. The National Women’s Health Network states that women contribute approximately twelve billion pads and seven million tampons to landfills every year.

They are also expensive. Because they cannot be reused, they must be bought over and over. At Walgreens Pharmacy, a box of sixteen Tampax tampons runs about $4.99. A package of eighteen Kotex pads costs about $4.99. According to the Whole Foods Market website, American women spend about two billion annually on tampons alone.

But most pressing to think about are the materials that come in very close contact with the body. Part of the appeal of tampons and pads is how little interaction the user has to have with blood. Yet many women are unaware that tampons contain chemicals such as dioxin, that’s present because of the cotton bleaching process.

According to the Whole Foods Market website, “Conventional cotton is one of the ‘dirtiest’ crops in the modern world.” In 2003, the USDA released that U.S. farmers applied 55 million pounds of pesticides to their cotton fields. “Seven of the 15 most commonly-used cotton pesticides have been identified as possible human carcinogens by the EPA.”

Pads are often scented, which adds additional chemicals to the mix. The effects of the chemicals women are exposed to are largely unknown to the public. For those who still love the efficiency of a tampon, brands like 7th Generation have created organic and pesticide-free cotton tampons that don’t have synthetic additives, which can be purchased at health food stores.

Reusable pads are one option for women desiring a less environmentally and economically wasteful menstrual product.

A Bay Area student recently spoke about her positive experiences with washable pads.

“[When I’m on my period], I’m throwing away like six pads or more,” she said.  Because it’s so wasteful, “why not reuse them?”

The brand she uses is Lunapads; she has a few on rotation while she’s on her period so she can bring an extra with her when she’s out and about. When one is full, she squeezes it out and washes in the sink with a hypo-allergic soap (though they can also be put in the washing machine after being rinsed, for those with less sensitive skin). For her, the biggest benefit is that they feel comfortable.

“It’s next to my body,” she said. “I’ve got to feel comfortable.”

Reusable pads are highly accessible; they can be bought from online sites like Etsy, and in stores like Whole Foods and Walgreens Pharmacy. The Lunapad intro kit costs $59.99, which includes an array of pads and pantyliners that are supposed to last five years.

Another Bay Area woman uses sponges that are inserted like tampons into the vaginal tract to absorb blood. They are comparable to tampons but are more flexible.

“[They are] more raw, more in touch with my body,” she said. “And they come in a range of sizes.”

Sponges may seem strange but women have been using natural sponges for menstruation since the 17th Century, according to the Natural Menstruation Products website.

“But you have to be very comfortable sticking your hands in your body and wringing out your own blood,” she said.

There are possible downsides. Like other tampons and pads, when the sponge is full it can leak. When it is rung out in the sink, it can be difficult to squeeze all the water out.

“It can also be hard in public bathrooms,” she said, because of having to squeeze and rinse it in front of others.

A variety pack of three different sized Sea Pearls Sea Sponge Tampons cost $18. They should be replaced about every six months. Sponges are available online from multiple websites as well as many natural and health food stores.

The DivaCup is another option. The website describes the cup as a “reusable, bell-shaped menstrual cup that is worn internally and sits low in the vaginal canal, collecting rather than absorbing your menstrual flow.” The DivaCup requires the user to be comfortable with her body and her blood as well. However, the cups are a little easier in public restrooms because you can empty the blood in the toilet.

The cup is supposed to last without leakage for about ten hours and should be rinsed out two to three times every twenty-four hours. When not used, they should be cleaned and stored in a cloth bag. One costs $39.99 and it is recommended that it be replaced every year. Divacup is a specific brand but other period cups exist and have existed since 1937. The different brands may vary in efficiency and quality. Divacups are available online, in pharmacies and there is even a store locator on their website.

Laurel, a Southern California woman in her mid-thirties that currently resides in the Bay Area, uses a cup called The Keeper. She has been using cups for the last ten years; for her, they have many appeals.

“It’s good for the environment and works just as well as a tampon,” she said. “It’s also cost savvy and it travels well.”

For those who are not as comfortable with their menstrual cycle, pads and tampons are perhaps wiser choices. Sponges and cups require sanitary care. Whatever the decision, women should be aware that there are other choices–and know this article does not present all the options available.

Education is necessary to ensure safe usage for any method. Women, now more than ever, have the ability to access further knowledge that can aid decision-making and routine maintenance. The goal is to find the best option for the individual body.