There are more options than ever for feminine hygiene products. Compare this to even two, or three hundred years ago when our sisters had far fewer choices.
Some of these included old rags, sheepskin, or cheesecloth stuffed with cotton. I certainly don’t envy them—that must have been quite difficult to avoid stained clothes and bedsheets!
These days, we can choose from reusable (menstrual cups and cloth pads), or disposable (pads or tampons) menstrual products. There are organic, and non-organic versions of most of these products as well.
Let’s look at these two basic categories of reusables and disposables and compare health benefits, environmental factors, cost, and usability. The goal is to figure out which one will work best for each of us.
Many disposable, non-organic tampons and sanitary pads contain trace amounts of chemicals and pesticides. The chemicals are from the manufacturing process; bleaches and dyes are particularly toxic. The pesticide is from the cotton growing process.
A big part of the problem is that in most countries, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose what’s in these products. In the USA, they’re considered “medical devices” by the FDA and therefore don’t have to list ingredients. In India, these products are tested according to standards that haven’t been updated since 1980.
These chemicals and pesticides, at worst can cause some serious health problems. It’s not certain that there is a link to things like cancer because it’s an under-researched area. There is, however, most definitely a link between tampon use and toxic shock syndrome. Hopefully, more long-term studies will be done.
Menstrual cups, as long as you buy a top-quality one made from medical grade silicone don’t have these risks associated with them. Nor have there been any reported cases of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) being caused by cups, unlike tampons.
Cloth menstrual pads have far fewer chemicals and pesticide in them than disposable pads, especially after a few washes (wash them first before using). It’s even better if you buy the organic version of this product.
Overall, reusable menstrual products are the clear winner in the area of health.
Next up is the environment. It’s thought that the average woman throws away 250-300 pounds of period products into the landfill during the course of her life. That seems like a lot, especially when considering that much of it is plastic and not biodegradable.
The alternative are reusables like a menstrual cup and cloth pads. The average menstrual cup lasts for around five years with proper care and cleaning. Many of them last for up to 10. Cloth pads are similar in terms of lifespan.
If the average woman menstruates for 40 years, that’s 4-8 menstrual cups, and perhaps 50 cloth pads during that time. Menstrual cups can often be recycled, depending on where you live; cloth pads are biodegradable because they’re usually made from all-natural materials.
In terms of the environment, reusables have the clear edge.
Consider all those pads and tampons that go to the landfill. To state the obvious, they cost money! And often, a lot of it, particularly if you have a heavy and/or long period.
Let’s say that the average woman uses $5 USD worth of period products each month. That’s $60 per year, and then multiply this by 40 years. That comes out to a couple thousand dollars.
Compare this to reusables. A reputable menstrual cup (Diva Cup, MoonCup, Lunette Cup, Anigan EvaCup, Me Luna Cup) costs between $15-30, while cloth pads are about $5. If you use six cloth pads, and one cup, you’ll have recouped your upfront costs in just a few months when compared to disposables.
Short-term, disposables have the edge. But over the long-term? Reusables can save you a ton of money.
The last thing we’re going to look at is usability, with the most important thing being not leaking. This is after all, why we use menstruation products!
Disposable period products work extremely well at preventing leaks. It’s very difficult to insert a tampon incorrectly and the only time it leaks is if they aren’t changed often enough.
Disposable pads are super-absorbent, wick away moisture from the skin, and don’t leak through the back due to the plastic lining. They stick to underwear very well and usually don’t shift around, even during heavy exercise. In short, they’re great at doing what they’re designed to do!
Menstrual cups have a bit of a learning curve associated with them, and it can be difficult to figure out the correct sizing. The learning curve is related to inserting them – it’s not easy to get them positioned correctly and make sure that they suction well to the vaginal canal walls. If they’re not suctioned, they’ll leak like crazy!
As far as sizing of menstrual cups goes, there are usually two options from most companies-a small, and a large. There are some companies offering a much wider range of choices, but it can often be difficult to decide which one to buy initially.
The general guideline is to go with a smaller version if you’re under 30, or have never given birth vaginally. Then, stick with the large if over 30, or have given birth vaginally. The other major consideration is low vs. high cervix. If you have a low cervix, you’ll need a shorter cup, and vice-versa. It can be quite confusing!
However, one huge advantage to menstrual cups in terms of usability is their capacity. The average tampon has a capacity of 5 ml, while a jumbo tampon has a capacity of 10 ml or so. Compare this to an average menstrual cup that comes in at 30 ml.
There are even some high-capacity cups with capacities of up to 40 ml (Super Jennie, Anigan EvaCup, and Meluna Cup). If you have a heavy period, this might be exactly what you need. If you pair one of these high-capacity cups with a nighttime pad, you may be able to sleep through the night without having to get up!
The other factor to consider is care and cleaning. Disposables pads and tampons are very easy to deal with—just throw them in the trash when you’re done and don’t have a second thought about it. This is, however, not the case with reusables.
Cloth menstrual pads can be laundered with regular laundry and most of them are very stain resistant and/or have dark fabric. When you’re out on the road, it’s a bit more difficult and you have to carry a wet bag with you to store the used ones until you get home.
Menstrual cups require some care if you want them to last for more than a year or two. During your period, wash them with soap and water. After your period, boil them in a pot of water for five minutes in order to sterilize them. You can clean the holes, ridges, and stem with an old toothbrush if necessary.
To sum this up, if you find a menstrual cup that works for you and doesn’t leak, reusables have the edge. If not, disposables come out ahead in this one.
Reusable Period Products vs. Disposables: The Final Takeaway
In terms of health, the environment, and cost, reusables have the clear edge. There are no toxic chemicals in them, and you can use them for up to 10 years.
However, when you consider usability, it’s a bit of a toss-up. Disposable pads have the edge over cloth ones simply because they don’t shift around, and are better at preventing leaks.
Tampons are easy to use and dispose of. Menstrual cups can be quite a bit more difficult to figure out, and they also require some care and cleaning to keep them in tip-top shape.
The choice is yours! But, if you do decide to go with disposables, please consider using organic ones. Although they are a bit more expensive, they are much better for your health because they don’t contain chemicals and pesticides.
Jackie Bolen is a tree-hugging, friend of the Earth that can often be found catching a wave, on top of a mountain, or drinking organic coffee. When not doing these things, she’s usually working away on her website, Reusable Menstrual Cups. Her hope is that one day, a reusable feminine hygiene product will be found in the hands of every single menstruating person, because this has the potential to change the world for the better.