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  • Writer's pictureMeredith Holland

A Guide to Sustainable Periods: Sustainable Period Products and How They Can Help End Period Poverty

Ladies, let’s talk about periods! And to my gents, I encourage you to read on too, to gain an appreciation for what we women go through monthly when ‘Mother Nature’ pays us a visit. Periods are so taboo. I invite you to get past it and dive in with me on this topic as I think it is super important to normalize the talk of periods and understand how today’s conventional period products can have a detrimental impact on our Earth and health as women.

Many of us may not realize the environmental footprint our menstruation products represent. About 43 million women in the United States use tampons. A woman who uses tampons monthly will buy more than 11,000 in her lifetime. The vast majority of this ends up in landfills as plastic waste. However, it is difficult to understand just how much plastic waste comes from menstrual products since they are deemed as medical waste and therefore not tracked specifically.

Just think about it though: Tampons come wrapped in plastic, bound in plastic applicators, and with plastic strings dangling. In addition, many tampons even have a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part. Even though plastic applicators are recyclable, they are often not accepted for sanitary reasons. Further, tampons flushed down the toilet can end up in the ocean when sewer systems fail. Pads aren’t any better, often containing even more plastic. With its packaged wrapping, leak-proof base, and the synthetics that soak up fluid, pads are no more desirable environmentally. Additionally, production of the plastic components associated with tampons and pads requires massive amounts of fossil fuel.

Lastly and perhaps most disturbing, the additives in conventional tampons and pads are significantly harmful to a woman’s health as well as the environment. As with cosmetics, feminine-care product manufacturers aren’t required to tell you what’s in their products. Unfortunately, tampons may contain traces of dioxin from bleach; pesticide residues from conventional, non-organic cotton; and mystery “fragrance” ingredients. A major (and pretty obvious) reason for concern: Tampons come in contact with some of the most sensitive and absorbent tissue in our bodies. Even trace levels of these ingredients are concerning because they are linked to cancer, infertility, neurological dysfunction, developmental defects, and can disrupt the hormone system.

Most American women will menstruate for about 40 years. Do you want to lock in 40 years of your life contributing to the plastic and waste crisis? I would hope not. And what’s a girl to do to protect the health of her body and reproductive system from the toxic chemicals added to conventional tampons and pads? Have no fear! I am about to tell you four ways you can reduce your environmental impact when it’s your ‘time of the month,’ while ensuring that your health and safety are not at risk.

1. Choose organic pads and tampons

Look for organic tampons and pads that are free of bleach, dyes, pesticides, toxic chemicals and fragrance, unlike conventional tampons and pads. Not only are they better for you and your health, but also better for the environment. I’ve linked some here: Organic Cotton Tampons with Biodegradable Cardboard Applicator, Organic Cotton Maxi Pads, Eco Panty Liners, and Organic Cotton Panty Liners.

2. Go applicator-less!

Look for tampons (organic preferably) that don't include an applicator. Find tampons that just have the absorbent part only. Find my favorite here: Organic Cotton Tampons without Applicator.

3. Use a Menstrual cup

Menstrual cups are flexible, bell-shaped devices made of silicone, rubber or latex that are inserted into the vagina to capture menstrual blood. The cups can be left in place for four to 12 hours before being emptied, rinsed and reinserted. They are just as effective, perhaps more so, at preventing menstrual flow leaks found with pads and tampons. A menstrual cup is not only an eco-friendly alternative to disposable pads and tampons, but also less expensive. Just one year's supply of disposable pads or tampons can cost between $60 and $120, while a menstrual cup that can last up to 10 years is about $40 or less.

Trust me, coming from someone who has just made the switch, they sound scarier than they actually are! I know you see one and think…”How does that fit?” Menstrual cups come in different sizes and are actually very flexible. You shape the cup and fold it so you can insert it, and then it unfolds and opens up once inside. Additionally, studies are showing that women who use a menstrual cup are less at risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome. A menstrual cup is not very different from using a tampon, so I encourage you to give it a try! Find some great options here: Saalt Menstrual Cup, Saalt Soft Menstrual Cup, and DivaCup.

4. Use reusable cloth pads and period underwear

Another eco-friendly alternative to disposable pads are reusable cloth pads or period underwear. Once you get over the taboo that menstrual blood is gross or that reusable period products aren’t sanitary, cloth pads and period underwear can be a very useful alternative. Another thought: YOU are in charge of how clean your products are, so why should hygiene be a worry if you’re the one in control? Cleaning these products is easier than you think. It is recommended to soak your cloth pads and period underwear overnight and toss them in the wash for a hot water cycle.

Reusable pads or period underwear are also better for your overall health, without the bleaches, dyes, fragrances, and other toxic chemicals that conventional pads have. Additionally, the synthetic and plastic materials that conventional pads are made out of can block airflow and absorb all moisture, leading to rashes, pain, and infections. Reusable cloth pads and period underwear, however, can reduce the likelihood of skin rashes, pain, and infections. They are also cost effective long-term. Disposable pads can run $120 per year or $600 over 5 years. While buying a number of cloth pads to last you 5 years is a one-time cost of $150, the long term savings are clear. You can find my favorites here: Reusable Pad and Reusable Liner.

Other considerations for the eco-conscious consumer

There are plenty of period products on the market that claim to be eco-friendly because they’re reusable, but the truth is that many of the companies producing these products pay little or no attention to things such as dyes, packaging, and how the products are made. Look for companies that use vegetable-based dyes, minimal packaging (which can be recycled), and who work to off-set carbon costs of production by supporting sustainability projects. With this in mind, the sustainable menstrual products linked above are offered on, at a 10% off discount to my readers using the code “MER10”. EarthHero is an eco-friendly online marketplace curated to offer the most responsibly sourced and sustainably made products with carbon neutral shipping.

Breaking the Stigma

Another very important topic I would like to mention: Period poverty. Period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and/or waste management. The United Nations has recognized menstrual hygiene as a global public health and human-rights issue, yet it still is the reality for many women and girls globally. Many girls who are unable to access menstrual products resort to using rags, paper or other unsafe materials that cannot be properly clean and sanitized. As a result, this poses a threat to their health and well-being. Further, in many parts of the world, women and young girls who menstruate are ostracized from daily activities like going to school, work, or socializing. The cultural shame attached to menstruation and a shortage of resources stop girls and women from going to school and working when on their periods.

Sustainable period products may be a viable solution for the underserved cultures facing such issues, as they generally last longer and are more cost-effective than disposable pads and tampons. Reusable products, such as a menstrual cup, can be left in place safely longer than disposable items and research has shown that in developing countries, menstrual cups are a hygienic and sustainable option. Even in drought stricken or water scarce areas, cleaning a menstrual cup requires less water than is needed to wash out clothing stains or used cloths. Compared to disposable products, the menstrual cup presents the most feasible solution, in terms of its comfort, environmental sustainability, and hygienic superiority.

It is critical that women globally work together to break the stigma around periods and celebrate our womanhood! Periods represent a facet of the miraculous being that is the female body. Sustainable period products not only are the best solution for the planet, but also have the potential to empower hundreds of millions of women and girls!

Xx, Mer

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