Stop Putting Plastic in Your Underwear

Public Domain. MaxPixel

Or, why you should care about how menstrual products are made.

I have never met a woman who enjoys getting her period – unless, of course, she's waiting anxiously for it to show up! It's a messy, irritating, and inconvenient process at the best of times, but now technology and design are helping to make that time of the month somewhat less unpleasant.

A fine example of this is a slideshow recently published on Good Housekeeping, featuring the "best new tech gadgets in women's health for 2018." The list has everything from period-friendly underwear, gentle-glide and compact tampons, disposable menstrual discs, and reusable tampon applicators, to fascinating wearable tech that blocks cramps from reaching the brain and monitors when your tampon needs to be changed. The menstrual industry has come a long way from the days of our grandmothers boiling pads and wearing girdles.

Women need options, and I'm all in favor of innovation, but I do feel concerned about how infrequently the health risks of some of these products are discussed – specifically, the long-term effects of disposable tampons and pads that contain large quantities of plastic and toxic chemicals. Many women do not understand how unhealthy these products can be; and because they are essential, their makeup aren't often questioned. When a woman needs a tampon, she needs a tampon, and she's going to take whatever's available.

The problems with tampons and sanitary pads go beyond the obvious issue with single-use plastic applicators and wrappers (which, by the way, can contain hormone-disrupting bisphenol A). Pads are full of plastic, with the average pad containing the equivalent of four disposable shopping bags. All this plastic in such a sensitive part of the body causes problems by reducing the flow of air and trapping heat and dampness that can lead to yeast infections, vaginal irritations, and allergies. It's no wonder that many women experience rashes and itchiness during their periods, not realizing that it's caused by the pads, not the period itself.

Tampons are made from viscose and rayon (derived from cellulose wood pulp) and cotton. These ingredients are bleached with chlorine (of which a byproduct is dioxin, damaging to hormones and the immune system) and spritzed with phthalate-containing fragrance. In non-organic tampons, 85 percent of tampons contain glyphosate, a herbicide that's been labeled as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. Tampons are notorious for leaving tiny fabric shards in the vaginal wall, causing irritation.

So, just because a product is convenient and effective does not make it a healthy choice for your body, and I really wish Good Housekeeping wouldn't advertise it as such. Until companies redesign their products in truly woman-friendly ways, you can rely only on your own research to ensure that what goes into the most sensitive and absorbent area of your body for multiple days each month is actually safe.

Fortunately, better options do exist and are fairly easy to source. On a day-to-day basis I cannot recommend menstrual cups highly enough. (I use a Diva Cup.) It's been a game-changer for me, allowing significantly longer time between changes, greater comfort and mobility, and significant savings. When disposables are required, always opt for organic, paper-wrapped tampons and pads, such as those sold by Tampon Tribe, TOTM, Natracare, Hesta Organic, etc. (Feel free to share brand suggestions in the comments below.)

TreeHugger writer Kimberley speaks highly of menstrual underwear, which I have not tried myself, but sounds like a great option for people accustomed to using cloth pads. It's less bulky, with a more seamless appearance.

Cloth pads, of course, remain an old-fashioned standby that, thanks to modern washing machines, are not as big a deal to clean as you might suppose. They come in a wide range of lengths and absorbencies, and are much nicer to look at and handle than a disposable pad. Check out Glad Rags, Luna Pads, Wee Essentials, to name a few.

The more women who scrutinize their menstrual products and refuse to put chemical-laden plastics into their bodies, the sooner we can hope for systemic change in the way these products are made – and a healthier population as a result. Spread the word, too. Educate young girls about the health risks of conventional disposable products. (If you're an educator, check out the Period Action toolkit prepared by Friends of the Earth that strives to reclaim menstrual education from corporate producers like Tampax and Always, and the work being done by City to Sea's Plastic-Free Periods campaign.)