This post has to start with an emphatic recommendation that absolutely EVERYONE should listen to a podcast called Ladies, We Need to Talk, an Australian radio show hosted by Yumi Stynes, which looks into the kinds of challenges and issues women are often too embarrassed to talk about, or maybe don’t even really notice because we’re just so used to it. This includes post-natal health, understanding your hormones, body image, sex and how to ask your partner to help more around the house.
The episode that sparked this blog post was all about menstruation and menstrual products (obviously). I’ve always been pretty shy about periods. I hate having to deal with my period more than any other regular biological function, and I’ve never been very comfortable talking about it. So I’d always just assumed that all women did things the same way as me: tampons, pads and panty liners. This episode, which has the tagline “When was the last time you sat down with your girlfriends and had a conversation about menstrual products? No need to. We did it for you”, sounded like just the kind of thing I could listen to in private, to learn about how other women deal with their periods, without having to have an awkward conversation with someone I actually know.
Interestingly, one of the first topics to come up was the environmental impact of sanitary products, which is something I’d never really thought about. One woman talked about something called a “moon cup”, which I had never heard of before. Thankfully Yumi hadn’t either, so my questions were quickly answered, but it’s a radio show, so even with a fairly detailed description of it resembling a small rubbery funnel, I was still completely lost as to what it actually was. This led me to doing some really interesting and eye-opening research which is what a I want to share with you today. Also, some maths… but that will come later.
On average, women menstruate about 500 times in their life for an average of five days. Based on this, it’s estimated that a woman will use between 10 000 and 16 000 sanitary pads or tampons. Most disposable sanitary products are made from cotton, rayon and processed wood pulp (wait, what? I know right?), all of which is bleached with chlorine to get that crisp, hygienic white we all know (chlorine? Yes, chlorine). Tampons take roughly 6 months to biodegrade, and pads can take 500 years because of that plastic coating. In addition to that, the chlorine bleaching creates a chemical called dioxin, which is carcinogenic and can leach into water and soil as the products decompose. Sound scary? If the environmental issues aren’t enough to put you off, tampons are also a risk factor for toxic shock syndrome (TSS) which is a bacterial infection that can develop if tampons are left in for too long (such as over night), if the absorbency level is too high for your flow, or if tampons are used too regularly. Bacteria can also build up in the ‘stale blood’ that collects in your vagina when you have a tampon in. Rayon, which is made of plastic fibres, can also cause tiny lacerations in your vagina, which can make you more susceptible to infections…
So, by this stage I was already more than a little freaked out. While I’m generally quite sceptical about medical scare mongering, I actually know someone who got TSS from a tampon because she was at a Glastonbury type music festival and got drunk and forgot about it for two days. I’d only been using tampons since I was about 19, but there had been plenty of days where I was too busy to replace it or unable to get to a bathroom, and ended up leaving it in for too long. Your uterus is also very close to a lot of other important organs, like your bladder and kidneys, and I don’t want to mess with the organs dedicated to removing toxins from my body!
Ok, so now that I’ve either freaked you out or upset you (I’m sorry), here’s what I learned about the alternatives to pads and tampons:
- Menstrual cups: the brand I’ve started using is MPower, which I chose partly because it was the easiest to find in my area and because they run a lot of social engagement initiatives, which help to support local communities, and they run education programmes for young women and girls, as well as a donation project for underprivileged communities. The benefits of a cup is that you can keep it in for around 12 hours, which means it is safe to sleep with, and it lasts for about 5 years (which the MPower website says is equivalent to 1200 pads or tampons). It’s also made out of silicone which is very hygienic and easy to clean, and it keeps the stored blood out of contact with your vaginal wall, so it reduces the risk of infection. Challenges: the first month was quite stressful. Inserting the cup for the first time was a lot more difficult than the internet led me to believe it would be, and there were a number of days where it took me several attempts over a couple of hours to remove it. I still struggle with removal in the mornings, because it often moves up higher into my vagina in the night, and I have to wait for gravity to do its thing before I can remove it. I also sometimes get a little bit of leakage right after I’ve removed and replaced the cup, which is a bit annoying, but that being said, I have experience much worse leakage from the wings on pads and tampon strings!
*NB: I would strongly advise against using a menstrual cup if you are haemophobic, as it does require you to be quite hands-on and directly in contact with your blood when you clean it.
- Washable pads: there are a few overseas brands which can be ordered online, but locally you can get these from a company called Subz, which was started as a way to help girls in underprivileged communities who were forced to skip school during their period, and still runs a number of outreach and donation programmes. I haven’t tried these, but I spoke to the creators and got the low down. Each pad lasts 3 to 6 hours (depending on flow), the pads are totally reusable and can simply be washed either by hand or in the washing machine, and they each last up to 5 years. The online shop offers very affordable packs of the specially modified panties and pads (R254 for three pairs of panties and nine pads). The idea is that the pads clip onto the panties with press studs, and during the day you just pop the dirty pad into a sealable bag, put on a clean one and take them home to be washed.
(EDIT: Since writing this, I have learned about another SA based brand called Hannahpad. They are aimed at a more adult market and offer some extra nice-to-haves like soap for washing your pads, special hangers for drying them etc, but they are also more expensive than the SUBZ pads)
- Period Panties: these were also talked about on Ladies, We Need to Talk. As with the pads, there are a number of international brands which you can order online, but ModiBodi are available through a South African platform called Feel Good & Co which is slightly cheaper than buying from the international sites. The panties work like the pads in that they are washable and absorbent, but are aimed at a more adult market, so they come in seamless, high-waisted, briefs, bikini, boyleg… etc, so you can still feel sexy and comfortable. The ModiBodi website is also advertising period swimwear, which would be a godsend for a lot of women I know, but that doesn’t seem to have hit SA yet. I would love to try these, but I haven’t really got around to working out what I need yet. Ideally, I’d like to use my M-cup for the first few days and then switch to period panties when my flow lightens up, so I want to actually browse their store in detail and choose the right style and work out how many I would need… but see my earlier comment about being a bit lazy. They’re also fairly expensive.
- Flushable pads: apparently, these are a thing, and they sound really interesting, but when I tried to Google them I ended up on a building materials company’s website, so I can’t actually tell you very much about them. According to this blog, the product is biodegradable in water and breaks down in 28 days. Unfortunately the post was written in 2005, so I can only assume that the product doesn’t actually exist anymore. Ideally, you shouldn’t really flush anything other than bodily waste down a toilet (especially absorbent materials that can soak up things like oils and chemicals and cause massive blockages), but I can imagine there are millions of women who would be overjoyed at this product.
- Organic cotton pads and tampons: what if pads and tampons weren’t made out of rayon, and weren’t bleached with chlorine? Oh well, then they’d be eco-friendly and biodegradable and a lot healthier to use! A brand called NatraCare is apparently the only certified 100% organic cotton sanitary products brand in the world. They are more expensive than regular pads and tampons (tampons are about R20 more expensive than Lilets, and the extra long absorbent pads are about R20 more expensive than Always Platinum Night pads), but if you are able to overlook that, the health and environmental benefits are significant. I couldn’t find out how long they take to biodegrade, but they can be composted, which would probably be really good for your soil, but runs the risk of attracting pests if your compost is kept outdoors.
Another topic the Ladies team discussed was free-bleeding. This is the healthiest way to get through a period, but I like my clothes, and underwear is expensive and I don’t want to mess up my panties every month. This is a very ideal-world kind of suggestion, but realistically, I believe period panties and pads are the closest we could get to free bleeding. If any of you have tried free bleeding, and can offer insight, it is always welcome!
And now… the maths!
So, reading various articles online, I noticed that everyone gave a different average for the number of pads and tampons used by a woman in her life. So I wanted to try to work it out for myself. I’m not very good at maths, so bear with me as I work my way step-by-step through the calculation.
My cycle is pretty irregular, but let’s says it’s 30 days with 5 days of period. I used to use about tampons during the day and then a pad at night.
15 tampons per cycle + 5 pads = 20 sanitary products
30 day cycle = 12 periods per year
240 sanitary products per year
Period start = 16 years old
Average age for start of menopause = 51 years old
35 years of menstruation
8400 sanitary products (minimum)
Now that I use a menstrual cup, I was wondering how much that had saved me. (All the prices here are accurate at the time of writing).
1 box of 10 Regular flow Lilets non-applicator tampons at Pick n Pay = R20.17
1 pack of 7 Always Platinum Night pads at Pick n Pay = R30.25
1.5 boxes of tampons per month = R30.25
1 pack of pads per month = R30.25
Monthly total = R60.50
Yearly total = R726.12
Life total = R25 414. 20 (WHAT THE WHAT???)
1 MPower Menstrual Cup from Thrive in Kloof = R299.99
1 cup lasts 5 years
Yearly cost = R59.99
Life total = R2 099.93
8.26% spent, 91.74% saving
Woah! That saving alone would be enough to sell me on menstrual cups (if I wasn’t already sold). But what about period panties? They are quite a lot more expensive than a cup. Based on the ModiBodi store, I would probably need moderate absorbency, and I love me some seam-free panties.
1 pair ModiBodi Moderate absorbency seam-free bikini panties = R490.00
I would probably need at least 3 pairs to comfortably get through a period.
R490.00 x 3 = R1470
1 pair lasts 2 years
Yearly cost = R735
Life total = R25 725
If you’re looking to save money, period panties aren’t really the way to go, but if cost isn’t a big concern, this option is only about R300 more expensive over your whole menstruating life, which works out to about R10 extra per year for me.
Finally, let’s look at Subz. I wish more than anything that Subz had existed when I was at school, because our uniforms were white and pale blue and concealed nothing… less than nothing. I’d most likely be buying a pack with panties and pads. Let’s stick to three pairs, as with the ModiBodi panties.
SUBZ3 Pack = R254 (includes 3 pairs of panties and 9 pads)
I would probably also buy two of the extra long pads for night time: 2 x R42 = R84
Total cost = R 338
Each pad lasts up to 5 years.
Yearly cost = R67,60
Life total = R2 366
9.3% spent, 90.69% saving.
Like with a cup, you’re looking at less than a tenth of the cost of pads and tampons if you were to use Subz pads. They may not be as glamorous as ModiBodi, but for me, that is the last of my concerns when I’m on my period.
Periods are really personal, and everyone deals with it differently. For most of my young adult life, I thought that pads and tampons were the only options, and I think for some of that time they were. Knowing that there are so many other products, and products which are healthier for me and for the environment is strangely empowering!