It's Time to Celebrate Enviromenstrual Week!

A week of activism raises awareness about plastic and chemicals in period products.

woman with menstrual cup

aldomurillo / Getty Images

This week, October 19-25, is Enviromenstrual Week in Europe. The campaign, now in its third year, is run by the Women's Environmental Network (WEN). Its goal is to raise awareness of the chemicals and plastic present in conventional period products and to educate women about alternatives that are cheaper, greener, and healthier to use.

Menstruation is a natural and necessary part of life, but it is subjected to ongoing stigma. Girls are not taught to be comfortable with the fact that their bodies bleed on a regular basis. The products they're told to buy (or rather, not told not to buy) reinforce the idea that bleeding is smelly and dirty, something to hide. That is part of the reason why uptake of menstrual cups is surprisingly low, considering what a game-changer they are; many women retain a lingering sense of shame about touching their bodies.

Many of the most common menstrual products pose an ongoing health hazard, exposing bodies – via a surprisingly absorbent place, the vagina – to toxic chemicals, including carbon disulfide, methylene chloride, toluene, and xylene, according to WEN. Traces of dioxin and chlorine are left over from bleaching and processing wood pulp; glyphosate and pyrethroids, pesticides that are carcinogenic and neurotoxic respectively, transfer from cotton to menstrual pads and tampons; and carcinogens styrene, chloroform, and chloroethane have all been found in pads.

Add to that the ambiguous "fragrance" that some products contain, the contents of which consumers will never know because manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients. WEN points out the absurdity of adding fragrance to menstrual products, and the fact that no other product used to soak up blood has added fragrance. Unfortunately, the presence of fragrance reinforces the mistaken notion that periods are smelly and dirty. An excerpt from WEN's "Seeing Red" report states:

"These are not harmless additives. A quick Google search reveals hundreds of questions from women on forums, blogs and chat rooms about allergic reactions to tampons and pads. The findings are hardly surprising, as synthetic fragrance is one of the most common contact allergens and is linked to health problems such as thrush. Synthetic fragrances can be made up of a cocktail of 3,000 chemicals and can contain carcinogens, allergens, irritants and endocrine disrupting chemicals."

Then there's all the plastic. Up to 90% of a menstrual pad and 6% of a tampon is plastic. The rest of a pad is wood pulp, and tampons are a mix of cotton and rayon. Plastic tampon applicators and even the strings attached to a tampon are made of polyethylene and polypropylene.

When discarded, these plastic products go to landfill, where they take many years to break down. Many get lost in the natural environment, leading to unsightly waste: "Figures from the Marine Conservation Society reveal that on average, 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste are found per 100m of beach cleaned. For every 100m of beach that amounts to 4 pads, panty liners and backing strips, along with at least one used tampon and applicator." When these products do start breaking down eventually, they create plastic microfibers (a form of microplastic) that contaminate soil and water. 

Last but not least, these conventional period products are expensive. A study by Plan International UK found that 10% of 14- to 21-year-old girls cannot afford period products. Twelve percent report improvising, wrapping toilet paper, or folding socks into their underwear, and 14% borrow from friends. And when they can afford products, they have to buy the cheapest, which come with elevated health risks:

"The fact that the cheapest period products are often those with the most potential to damage our health and planet means that people with the least power have the greatest exposure to dangerous products."

What's the Solution?

Much better alternatives exist, which is a driving factor behind Enviromenstrual Week. If only more people started using reusable products, which require an initial upfront payment but then last for years, many of these issues would be immediately resolved. 

But young girls often don't even know about the existence of products such as menstrual cups, washable cloth pads, and period underwater, or they may feel nervous trying them. They may not be informed about the different chemical composition of organic vs. non-organic cotton tampons. This type of education does not happen in schools, and sometimes not in the home either.

Nixit product line
Nixit (used with permission)

That's why initiatives like Enviromenstrual Week matter so much. It starts an important conversation, generating awareness and sparking curiosity. It encourages women to be proud and vocal about their periods, to make the shift to reusables, and to advocate for free period products to be distributed in schools.

WEN offers a list of plastic-free menstrual products that you can view here. (I can vouch for the Nixit cup, which is my new favorite.) Although the list is UK-based, you can find most of these in the U.S.