Sustainable & reusable period products: Here’s how far we’ve come
We’re making strides towards planet-friendly periods
Disposable pads and tampons have been making the lives of menstruators more convenient for decades, but at what cost? A sanitary pad can be worn for 4-6 hours, but it takes 500-800 years to decompose.1 Plus, most pads contain plastic materials that can be irritating to the vulva’s sensitive skin.2
Tampons aren’t so innocent, either. The average tampon’s plastic applicator disintegrates into tiny microplastics that end up in the bellies of fish in the ocean. Plus, the absorbent cotton tube that gets inserted into the vagina can contain plastics, as well.
A study conducted by The Global Sustainability Institute shows that 86 percent of menstruators are aware of the environmental impact of disposable period products, yet the average menstruator uses 275-330 pounds of tampons, pads and applicators in their lifetime.1
Luckily, the period product industry has made significant strides in creating more sustainable options over the last twenty years. Pads and tampons have been upgraded with organic, biodegradable, and/or reusable materials. Menstrual cups, discs, and other insertable products have gained popularity, as well: The global menstrual cup market alone is expected to reach $963 million by 2026, up from $632 million in 2018. 3
Even after the birth of this greener generation of period products, we’re still up against the period stigma. Some of these products require cultivating a healthy relationship with your own period blood (i.e. they need to be inserted with your fingers, as opposed to using an applicator). Some cultures still believe that period blood is “gross” or “dirty,” meaning many populations remain uninterested in pursuing sustainable options for their period care.
The best thing we can do to combat the stigma is to keep talking about our periods. Let’s keep talking about ways that we can minimize our menstrual waste, how to treat our bodies with kindness, and the products that are safe for our vaginas and the planet. Every little choice adds up: A single menstrual cup can save ~4,000 disposables from sitting in landfills and polluting our oceans. 4
So, in the spirit of promoting environmentally-friendly habits in 2021 (and beyond), we’ve rounded up a few of the products on the market today that are helping reduce the impact of period-related plastic waste around the globe.
Flushable & biodegradable pads
The menstrual pad’s biggest sustainability issue lies in a single layer of non-biodegradable plastic adhesive at the bottom of the pad. Translation: this thin layer of plastic adhesive won’t eventually break down into nutrients that the earth could use in the same way that natural materials do. This is part of why flushing a pad down the toilet causes major sewage problems. 5
Enter Planera, a company that invented menstrual pads that are completely flushable and biodegradable. To solve this problem, Planera created a pad with three main layers made out of natural fibers, which disintegrate completely when you drop the pad in the toilet. Instead of the plastic adhesive layer that normal pads have, the Planera research and development team spent three years creating their “UpFlow Barrier,” which prevents leakage and is completely safe to flush.
Right now, Planera is still in its product trial phase. If you’re interested in supporting their cause, you can sign up to test their products on their website.
Looking for other biodegradable choices already available to purchase? Saathi, a menstrual products company based in India, has developed and launched sanitary pads made from biodegradable banana fibers. The banana fibers act as a super absorbent core, capable of absorbing nearly as much period blood as traditional pads – but they also break down after only 6 months in a landfill (1200X faster than traditional pads).
Saathi pads are currently only available in five global markets: South Asia, Southeast Asia, Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. Fingers crossed we’ll start to see more biodegradable choices entering U.S. markets in the coming years!
Reusable cloth pads
In developing countries like Uganda, menstruators don’t have the same access to pads and tampons. Most young people resort to using materials like cotton rags, newspapers, or goat skins as makeshift pads, which can lead to bacterial vaginosis, urinary tract infections, and pelvic inflammatory disease.6
Without proper menstrual hygiene products, students with periods are likely to stay home instead of going to school. In the long run, these young menstruators miss out on opportunities to advance academically and professionally, contributing to gender inequality and inequity.
When they do gain access to pads or tampons, it’s unlikely that menstruators’ schools or communities will have the correct sanitation practices to dispose of their waste, which can add to feelings of shame around their periods. If students don’t get proper education on how to properly dispose of their pads, their plumbing system suffers significant damages over time and there are less spaces for menstruators to change their products privately.7
Thankfully, Ugandan company AFRIPads is making waves in African menstrual equity by creating reusable cloth pads. Sold in Africa, these pads feature a soft top layer made with quick-drying fleece and snap buttons at the wings to attach the pad securely to underwear.5 AFRIPads are an affordable and sustainable solution for period needs – plus, they can be used for up to 12 months, saving the earth from non-biodegradable menstrual waste.
If you’re interested in jumping on the reusable pad bandwagon yourself, there are a number of manufacturers that offer cloth pads in the United States:
- Rael sells organic cotton reusable pads that can be machine washed after each use. They feature a button snap closure at the wings (in place of the non-biodegradable adhesive) to keep the pad in place and can be used up to 120 times.
- Aisle offers reusable pads, liners, and period underwear made from breathable cotton. Like Rael, they’re machine washable and use snaps to stay in place.
- Lunapads are available on Amazon and work similarly to the other brands mentioned above, but feature a high-performance wicking cotton top layer and a super-absorbent microfiber core.
Reusable tampon applicators
Disposable tampons are made of three distinct parts: the barrel, where the bullet-shaped compressed cotton rests until it’s time for application; the plunger, which gets pushed to help guide the tampon into the vaginal wall; and the actual tampon, which refers to the compressed cotton that sits in the vagina to absorb period blood.
Some tampon brands have a flushable and biodegradable cotton core – but their applicators are often made of plastic, which sits in a landfill for years, or cardboard, which breaks down a bit faster than plastic but still isn’t necessarily biodegradable.
As mentioned above, when plastic applicators disintegrate, they turn into microplastics that make their way into our oceans and are consumed by fish and other marine wildlife. According to The Center for Biological Diversity, fish in the North Pacific ingest anywhere from 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year. This not only harms marine life species, but also transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish, marine mammals and human seafood eaters.8
To help solve this problem, the creators at DAME invented the first reusable tampon applicator. According to DAME’s website, the material used in the applicator contains zinc, which has natural antimicrobial properties. They state that, “As long as the material is treated properly (i.e., no dishwashers, no boiling water and no harsh chemicals) this [self-sanitizing] technology lasts a lifetime.”
Each Reusable Applicator Set comes with a tampon storage tin, a travel wallet and 6 organic cotton tampons. You can pair the reusable tampon applicator with other non-applicator tampons, but their own brand-name tampon refills fit perfectly and are completely organic.
Reusable & washable period underwear
For those who prefer wearables over insertables, period underwear might be your best shot. There are a number of brands to choose from within the U.S. and they’re pretty similar to reusable pads or liners in terms of wear and upkeep.
Knix, an underwear brand based in Canada, uses triple-layer technology for their period underwear that absorbs up to 8 tablespoons of urine or blood, depending on the type of style that you get. According to their website, the absorbent layers of fabric dries period blood instantly while simultaneously trapping odors. Unlike many other brands, Knix period underwear can be machine washed and tumble-dried (so you don’t have to leave your undies draped around your house to hang dry).
Another popular period underwear pick is Bambody, a brand available on Amazon at a somewhat lower price point than other competitors. They can be worn during your period – or during times when you’re experiencing more vaginal discharge than usual, such as around ovulation.
While period underwear has rapidly gone mainstream over the past several years, there isn’t a lot of research that helps us understand their long-term sustainability, environmental impact, and their relationship to vaginal flora. But it’s pretty clear that investing in a few trusty pairs of period underwear can save you a ton of cash down the road – while also allowing the earth to breathe a little bit easier.
Menstrual cups & discs
Finally, we’ve come to the royalty of sustainable period products: the menstrual cup. Of course, we’re partial to our very own Flex Cup, but there are dozens of brands on the market to experiment with until you find your perfect match.
According to several studies, menstrual cups are proven to be the most sustainable and cost-effective period product option. Dutch researcher Iris Flamand found that a typical menstruator will use 11,342 disposables in their lifetime – all of which could be swapped for approximately four menstrual cups, since each cup can last up to 12 years if properly cared for.4 Imagine only having to go to the store and buy period products once every ten years… Wow, heaven is real.
One thing to note when considering switching to a menstrual cup is that it does take some time to get used to the insertion and removal process. The position of your cervix, heaviness of your flow, and comfort level with your own body will all play a role in how quickly you acclimate to menstrual cup use, especially if you’re switching from pads or tampons for the first time. However, we’ve found that it only takes a few cycles for new users to master the technique.
Menstrual cups also require a little bit of love and upkeep to keep them functioning at their best for their 12-year lifespan. You’ll need to boil your cup at least once a month to sterilize it and wash it with a gentle, oil-free and fragrance-free soap between wears.
If you aren’t quite ready to commit to a menstrual cup and value the convenience of a disposable product, menstrual discs present an excellent alternative to tampons. While they’re still a single-use product, most menstrual disc brands (including Flex Disc) can hold three to four times as much blood as pads and tampons – and can be worn for up to 12 hours.
By switching from pads and tampons to menstrual discs, you could reduce your plastic waste by up to 75 percent. While you won’t be going fully plastic-waste-free, making the switch will still have a very real impact on your sustainability efforts as a whole.
Vaginal sea sponges (maybe someday)
Yes, you read that right. An actual sea sponge from the ocean can be inserted into the vagina to absorb period blood. Historians speculate that they were one of the earliest methods used to contain period blood – but they did present several health risks that users should be aware of before considering sponges as an alternative period product.
Namely, sea sponges from the ocean tend to contain grit, sand, bacteria, and other contaminants that put users at risk for vaginal infection or toxic shock syndrome. For this reason, brands like Jade & Pearl (one of the more popular sea sponge producers) can’t advertise their products specifically for The process of discharging blood and other materials from the lining of the uterus at intervals of about one lunar month from puberty until menopause, except during pregnancy. because the FDA has not approved their products for safety standards.9
According to Jade & Pearl’s website, their sponges are antimicrobial and do not contain any harsh chemicals like chlorine and bleach, for example. They last 3-6 months and, since they’re all-natural, they will decompose at a faster rate than most disposable products. However, due to the magnitude of risk for infection, we don’t recommend using sea sponges in our around your vagina at this time.
It’s possible that we’ll see more innovation around the “period sponge” concept in the coming years, perhaps using newer, reusable and/or biodegradable materials with a lower risk for infection. Until that time comes, stick to the other eco-friendly choices on this list!
Do your part: How to take steps towards a greener future
When you’re staring at an entire supermarket aisle full stacked with disposable products that contain plastics and chemicals, it’s hard to feel like your actions matter. But trust us: They do!
Armed with a wealth of new knowledge about sustainable period products, you can now go forth with confidence that every little choice makes a difference. Here are a few things you can do to create change:
- Free-bleed. Let the good times roll when your period comes around and get comfortable with the wonders of menstrual blood. If you’re working from home, throw down an old towel and go pants-free (or put on a pair of dark-colored underwear that you aren’t too attached to).
- Switch to a sustainable period product. One menstrual cup can save almost 4,000 disposable pads and tampons from ending up in landfills and sewage systems. We can’t stress this enough: every little choice makes a big difference.
- Be patient. Switching to a new sustainable product can take some getting used to, but if you ride out that transitional period, you’ll be on your way to big cost savings and major benefits for the planet.
- Tell your friends about it. It’s always a good time to talk about sustainable period care options. Slip it into the conversation the next time a friend asks if you have a spare pad or tampon, or post about what you know on social media.
Know of any other sustainable period care options that we should share with our readers? Feel free to send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.