Tampons: Do You Even Need Them?

241 comments

New_7AltsIntroIllustrated by Emily Turner.
First, a little bit of math: I got my first period when I was 12, and I’ll probably have periods until I’m 45 or so. That’s 33 years — or 396 periods — of cramps, mood swings, bloating, and, of course, bleeding. I forgot to mention the fact that I’m cursed with a pretty heavy flow and can easily go through up to 30 pads and tampons during one cycle.

Conventional pads and tampons are usually made from a combination of plastic, rayon, bleach, and other chemicals. They pile up in landfills or sewers after women unthinkingly throw them away; each year, 20 billion disposable menstrual products end up in North American landfills alone. That's 20 billion. If I have 396 periods in my lifetime, I'll be responsible for approximately 11,880 disposables.

So, from menstrual cups and cloth to organic pads and sea sponges, the whole new world of "green menstruation" began to fascinate me — and I was ready to discover what it would take to make my cycle eco-friendly.

When I mentioned this project to some of my friends, they thought I was making a bad joke. To comfort myself, I browsed some online articles and learned that eco-friendly menstrual products were actually the norm before tampons and plastic pads were introduced in the 20th century. So, I took a page from the past and got started: Herewith, my eco-period pursuits.
7ALTERNATIVES_OrganicPadsIllustrated by Emily Turner.
Organic Pads
The easiest way to begin a foray into eco-friendly period products is with organic pads and tampons. While browsing through my neighborhood Duane Reade, I located some products made by a company called ORGAN(Y)C, which (as its name implies) produces organic, biodegradable, cotton menstrual goods.

I was used to pads that felt like moist, plastic diapers. But, with their highly absorbent organic cotton, ORGAN(Y)C pads felt like a breath of fresh air for my crotch. Still, even eco-friendly pads and tampons are disposable and, therefore, wasteful. And, because they have to be shipped using airplanes or trucks, they also contribute to fuel waste. My view, though, is that they’re an easy way for women everywhere to take a baby step toward helping the planet.
7Alternatives_MentrualCupsIllustrated by Emily Turner.
Menstrual Cups
When most people hear the words “menstrual” and “cup” used together, they cringe with disgust. I’d heard about the Diva Cup, but I wanted to explore my options before diving headfirst into their terrifying world. I learned that in addition to the Diva Cup, there’s the Moon Cup, the Lunette, and the Keeper. After consulting customer reviews, I chose to go with the Moon Cup, Size B, which is for women who haven’t given birth vaginally (and presumably have smaller vaginas than those who have). Priced at around $30, I thought it was a bit expensive compared to a $7 box of tampons. But, considering these cups last for a whopping 10 years, it seemed worth it. I bought my Moon Cup from Amazon and tried it out.

According to the instructions, you’re supposed to fold the Moon Cup in half, gently insert it into your vagina, and then release so it can suction to you and begin collecting blood. I quickly determined that the stem on my cup needed to be trimmed down (trust me, you'll know if a piece of silicone is ramming itself against your vaginal opening), but other than that, I didn’t feel a thing.

Getting used to inserting and removing a menstrual cup takes some practice. To take it out, you need to push down with your pelvic muscles, grasp the stem, and then squeeze the edges. The first time I did it, I was appalled by the awkward suction noises it made before popping out; beware of public bathrooms (and stall neighbors) for this reason. You should also bring a few napkins into the stall to wipe down the cup after emptying it.

Sure, wearing a Moon Cup is a lot more work than just shoving a tampon in and flushing it down the toilet when you’re done. It takes care and dedication — not to mention being comfortable knowing exactly what your period blood looks like. But, I'm happy to take a little more time and learn a little more about my body.
7ALTERNATIVES_ClothPadsIllustrated by Emily Turner.
Cloth Pads
I ordered the Heavy Flow Kit from GladRags.com for $100. It came with a handy, on-the-go carry bag, a mesh laundry bag, and six pads total for night and day. I was a bit wary; their bright, colored patterns reminded me of underwear I used to wear when I was 10 — plus I was apprehensive about thes pads' ability to soak up my heavy flow.

I was wrong. First of all, these are the softest pads I’ve ever used. Seriously. They are so comfortable that sometimes I forget I’m even wearing a pad. They’re more absorbent than regular plastic pads, and there’s absolutely zero skin irritation. However, while cloth pads are less wasteful in the long run, there is one sizable caveat: cleaning, which involves soaking a bloody pad in cold water, washing it, and then drying it. Every time you wear it. Carrying around a soiled pad in your purse all day long can be really gross, despite the fact that they usually come with a plastic bag. Also, soaking, washing, and drying every single pad is very labor-intensive and time-consuming (not to mention wasteful of water).
7ALTERNATIVES_SeaSpongeIllustrated by Emily Turner.
Sea-Sponge Tampons
“Sponges are plant-like creatures that grow in colonies on the ocean floor,” says this product's package. Yikes, I thought. What have I gotten myself into? I read further and discovered that women have been using sea-sponge tampons for thousands of years. Even Cleopatra supposedly used them — I figured if she could do it, so could I. Apparently many women (not just eco-minded ones) are sea-sponge converts. These "tampons" are not only biodegradable and sustainably harvested; they’re also super comfortable to wear. I purchased mine from Jade & Pearl for $15.

I was terrified at the prospect of losing my sea-sponge virginity. With their pale, yellowish hue, the little fluffy things looked like something from biology class — not from my bathroom cabinet. The instructions said to gently wet the sponge, then “squash [it] and gently push into your vagina.” I took a deep breath...and it was in. The sponge was, and still is, the most comfortable tampon I’ve ever worn. Taking it out was easy (it just requires a gentle tug), and washing it was pretty painless, too: just a few seconds of rinsing with warm water, after which I laid it out to dry. Conclusion: Sea sponges are pretty damn good tampons. Caveat: They're essentially impossible to use if you're in a public bathroom, because you have to wring them out in a sink.
7ALTERNATIVES_PaddedPantiesIllustrated by Emily Turner.
Padded Panties
Sometimes, you have those days when you think your period’s over — and bam, it's not. You get a big, bright, red stain in your underwear. This has happened to me too many times to count. Enter Lunapanties: “smart, stylish underwear that has your back.” Crafted with organic cotton and an absorbent liner, these were the answer to my period-leak prayers. I went with Lunapanties’s Selene Lacy Thong, retailing for $31.99.

The material was soft and slightly stretchy, and the liner really wasn’t as thick as I expected it to be. Seeing as it was incorporated directly into the thong, I honestly forgot that I was even wearing a pair of "period underwear." Lunapanties also produces several other garments meant for heavy flows, such as their Alexandria Hipster and Maia Hipster panties. Of course, padded underwear is not a good option if you're bleeding in it all day — nobody wants to be sitting around in dirty panties.
7ALTERNATIVES_PADSMADEATHOMEIllustrated by Emily Turner; Photo by Marina Vykhodtseva.
Pads Made At Home
DIY pads are the final frontier of eco-periods. That’s right: These are do-it-yourself, as in "sew-your-own." I’d read about homemade pads on some hippie-ish blogs where craft-inclined women praise them as the most environmentally friendly menstruation method of all time. As someone who’d never really sewn before, this was the most daunting part of this project. Most of the blogs I read mentioned sewing machines and patterns — but I decided to do things my way. After all, it’s not do-it-yourself without...yourself.

The beauty of making your own pads is that you can choose the fabric you like best, so I browsed among the aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond and happened upon these smooth, feather-like microfiber cleaning cloths. I also found a sewing kit from Real Simple for $9.99. Later that day, I traced the outline of a cloth pad onto some paper to make a pattern. I cut two microfiber towels and sewed away. There were several frustrating moments and a few curse words thrown about, but I managed to produce something that actually resembles a pad. It’s not nearly as good-looking as the ones on those crafting sites, but who cares? I tested it out during a light-flow day, and it worked: no leaks, rips, or otherwise unpleasant outcomes. While I probably won’t sew a pad again, I’ll forever cherish this one as my little labor of eco-love.