Green Menstruation – Reusable Sanitary Products
From my very first period, I have always been a tampon girl. I never liked wearing a bulky pad. I never liked having to dispose of them discreetly in the rubbish. My distain for sanitary napkins was so pronounced I regularly risked toxic shock syndrome by choosing to wear a tampon instead of a napkin overnight. I will even admit to past environmental abuses in my younger years as I guiltlessly flushed tampons down the toilet when there was no suitable receptacle or sanitary disposal unit.
It wasn’t until I had my first baby that I discovered how irritating disposable sanitary napkins were. Having all those synthetic fibres and gels against my delicate parts for weeks was equivalent to torture! Under the circumstances, I thought I had no other alternative. I tried a few different brands but all left me with that itchy, sitting-on-fibre glass sensation after a few hours of skin contact. I put up with it. What choice did I have?
When my cycles eventually resumed, almost two years of joyful amenorrhea had passed. Fortunately, only one cycle later I was pregnant again. This was the pattern for each of my four pregnancies and the remains of my bulk purchase of tampons in the bathroom cupboard has aged six years: an attempt to reduce the impact of the outrageous luxury tax imposed on sanitary products by our government and foreplanning to never have to do the dreaded late night dash to the pharmacy.
Contemplating menstruation, as you do during your period, I wondered about how women’s sanitary products are manufactured, what are their contents and does our skin absorb residues from these products, even in minute amounts? How ethical are these industries and what is their impact on our environment? I wondered if there was a link between my tampon-using habits and the recurring thrush I experienced in my youth.
So I did some homework. Yes, manufacturing pads and tampons produces chemical pollutants that get into our waterways. Yes, they do contain residual bleach and dioxin from the manufacturing process. Even cotton products require huge quantities of environmentally harmful chemicals to protect crops from insect and fungal invasion. And organic, unbleached products are too expensive for most women and, let’s not forget, still disposable. Considering that women have one period a month, about ten to twelve products used per period, twelve months a year, over thirty-five to forty menstruating years that amounts to 4,800 items in the landfill per woman! A tip truck load! And what about all the plastic we use in their packaging and disposal?
I have always been a dedicated cloth nappy user. I do use disposable nappies occasionally, but I always take pleasure in reducing our family’s waste through using cloth nappies at home and whenever else it is convenient to do so.
It wasn’t until a dear friend and local manufacturer of slings and modern cloth nappies, gave me a humorous gift of a set of washable hemp sanitary liners (complete with press stud leopard print cover – grrrr~!) that I seriously considered switching to reusable sanitary products. After all, in my grandmother’s day it was the only way and whichever rags could be spared would do. In my mother’s generation, consumerism got a stranglehold and disposable sanitary products became a hugely profitable cornered market. By the time I reached menarche, I was blissfully ignorant of any other choice but white cotton pads and tampons in assorted sizes and absorbencies. I never knew how women of previous generations managed their periods. I couldn’t bear to think of doing the washing and the embarrassment of carrying bloody rags from the bathroom to the laundry. How undignified! How unhygienic!! Well, the modern reality turned out to be quite the opposite! The hemp inserts were amazingly absorbent and the leopard skin fleece left me feeling physically dry and psychologically fresh. Locally, cloth pads are mostly sold via the internet. Check the links at the end of this article or look for patterns on the web to sew your own.
As for the washing, it’s easiest to keep a discreet lidded container in the toilet, half filled with cold water for soaking. Later, take the container with you when you shower and rinse pads there. I have friends who prefer to give their ‘moon water’ to the garden as a nutrient-rich tribute to nature’s cycles. Wash as normal with a small amount of detergent (yes, with your clothes!) or hand wash if preferred. Use an oxygen-based soaker on stains if you wish, then line dry. Like using cloth nappies, the sun is nature’s greatest sanitiser and you easily adapt to the routine.
It wasn’t until I learned about the menstrual cup (invented in the 1930’s!) that this tampon girl first thought maybe there is an adequate substitute for the tampon. So I bought one at the first opportunity. The $35 seemed a paltry investment compared to all the money I’d spent on tampons over the years.
The menstrual cup is a soft latex or silicone cup that is folded and inserted to pop open just inside the vaginal opening. It is soft and comfortable and forms a seal around the vaginal walls to catch menstrual fluid in the lowest part of the vagina. Because it is made from inert materials, it is not drying or irritating like tampons can be. When you become familiar with using the cup it is easy to predict when it needs to be emptied (in the shower or toilet or under your favourite garden plant) by the sense of weight or fullness in the pelvic floor – much as you would sense a full tampon that needs to be changed. For peace of mind, it might pay to wear a cloth or disposable liner until you find your rhythm. The cup can then be wiped clean and, when possible but not essential, rinsed with water before reinserting. In public toilets, the disabled cubicle allows access to a private sink if required. Equally, a dribble of water from your water bottle is adequate in a fix. Boiling the cup once a month maintains sterility. Simple!
Once I became proficient at inserting it, wearing it, emptying it and cleaning it I was hooked! Why didn’t I know about this when I was sixteen years old? Okay, so you do get a little bit of blood on your fingers and it’s important to wash your hands, but it’s really not so bad! It’s a great feeling to get to the end of the week with no stinky plastic bags and wrappers destined for landfill!
Imagine all the financial expense, toxic risk and sanitary waste that women can avoid in forty years of menstruating with reusable sanitary products! Now that I have made the switch I have no intention of using the unopened boxes of tampons taking valuable real estate in my bathroom cabinet. Do tampons have a use-by date? Anyone want to buy them? No, I didn’t think so.