Why You Should Switch to Reusable Menstrual Products

Put all the flowers you want on your sanitary napkins; they still aren't earth-friendly. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock).

Disposability really bugs me. That's because I know that when you throw something "away," it just means that it becomes someone else's problem. So I don't "do" disposables. I carry my water bottle (and usually a spoon), I bring my own bags and baskets, and I generally invest in longer-lasting, non-disposable items in a variety of other categories. For example, I have a press orange-juicer that will never break, not one that plugs in.

But like many other women, for years I used disposable menstrual products. That and toilet paper were the primary disposables in my life, because for both, it seemed like there wasn't an alternative. Then I learned about the toxic risk of conventional tampons (more on that below), and switched to earth-friendly and toxin-free (but still disposable) products. Later I discovered reusables (in the form of Softcup), which not only save time, money, and resources, they let you avoid toxins and make your period easier to deal with too.

The idea of going back to disposables at this point seems medieval to me — though I admit they can be useful in a pinch‚ like most throw-away products. So why don't more women use these products? Probably because most of us feel uncomfortable talking about the subject. Many women don't want to even think about their periods — it is something to avoid until you have to deal with it, and that's about it.

But why? Most women between 15 and 40-something have periods — a huge part of the population — so why is it something to be embarrassed about?

It forces us all to ask the question: Are we using possibly unhealthy, less-effective, more expensive products because we've been taught to be too embarrassed to talk about our periods more openly? If that's the answer, that's pretty lousy.

You can't know what you don't see

Yes, of course there are options outside the conventional brands, the most obvious of which are organic cotton tampons, which are now widely available. There are also reliable and popular (at least in other countries) reusable products out there too, but there's a good reason you don't hear much about them. The companies that make disposable products would lose out if you were to switch. Their products are cheap to make and not so cheap to buy. A reusable means you don't have to run out to the store every month, which is better for you, but not for the companies that have built a business model on your last-minute shopping patterns.

Marketing periods as shameful and embarrassing is a good way to keep people doing what they've always been doing, isn't it?

“The paper feminine hygiene industry has done a very good job of convincing women that their period is something [which] should be out of sight and out of mind, something they shouldn’t talk about,” Sophie Zivku, communications and education director for Diva Cup, a reusable period option, told The Guardian. “Think about the advertisements we see — it’s all about silent wrappers, discrete and smaller products that are easier to hide or dispose of, and concealing the fact you have your period. Without opportunities for positive period talk, women and girls may not have the opportunity to learn about or even ask about other, more sustainable options.”

menstrual cup

You can avoid potential toxic risks

First it's important to know what's in your tampons or pads. Most major companies that make these products don't list what's in them — and they don't have to. In the United States, that's because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies feminine hygiene products as medical devices, not personal care products. But groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics report that women's period products "... may contain traces of dioxin from bleach, pesticide residues from conventional, non-organic cotton, and mystery 'fragrance' ingredients."

Dioxins are probably the worst offenders. While the FDA says the levels of dioxin in a given tampon, say, are at or below legal limits, dioxins are one of those things you really don't want to have in your body at all because they are known carcinogens, they can disrupt hormones, and they have been linked to endometriosis. As the Cosmetic Safety Database points out, "The amount of dioxin in our bodies is already above the 'safe' limits," since we are all exposed to the stuff via meat, dairy products, eggs, and fish we eat (because it builds up in their bodies and we eat them). The World Health Organization states that “reducing dioxin exposure is an important public health goal for disease reduction," and so the idea of putting them inside your body (in an area that is both highly sensitive and highly absorbent) seems like a risk not worth taking."

The cotton grown for menstrual products also contains pesticides (some of which are also known carcinogens and hormone disruptors), and sometimes "fragrances" are added (which could include anything from allergens to neurotoxins to phthalates, which can affect fertility). None of these are chemicals I want to put inside my body 11,000 times — that's the average number of tampons a woman uses in her lifetime.

It's way easier, cheaper and waste-free

Using a reusable cup is easy. You can read more about it elsewhere, but basically you don't have to buy or carry a tampon or pads. You don't have to remember to buy tampons or pads, you don't have to cart them around in your bag, or stick them in your pockets and hope you don't lose them. Once you are using your cup, you just dump out the blood every 12 hours or so — and the time you spend actually dealing with your period when you have it is reduced dramatically.

Made from soft medical-grade silicone, reusable cups are flexible and comfortable. They are less likely to cause vaginal infections, haven't been linked with Toxic Shock Syndrome and they don't leach chemicals into your body. You can wear them for up to 12 hours without a problem (meaning you won't ever have to change them in a public restroom unless you don't go home for long stretches of time), you can have sex and go swimming and ride a bike while wearing them. (I hope that you're getting the idea that they're awesome.)

The time you have to spend on a reusable cup (DivaCup or Softcup are both great options) is at the start. There are a few brands and some size variation, so it may require testing out a few options. Like a pair of jeans, you need to find a good fit for your body. But once you're done, you're good to go for years — cups last up to a decade. You'll have to get to know your body a bit (if you don't already) when you use a cup the first couple of times. Once you've got the hang of it, you'll be really happy to be tampon-free.

On top of that, you'll save about $60 a year not buying period products. That's a pretty good deal.