Finding gentler sanitary protection: a personal story by Caroline Cole (see her blog Stone Age Parenting)
A selection of disposable sanitary wear products
The seeds of change
I stumbled upon eco-menstrual products after giving birth to my son in 2010. In the birthing centre I remember worrying about the number of postnatal sanitary towels I was using, which lay stacked up in a small bin in the toilets I shared with my roommate. Having already made the decision to use cloth nappies on my son, I decided to research the topic of reusable sanitary products, of which I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever. I had been brought up, like almost every other teenage girl in the UK, to not talk about periods, and to wear disposable towels and tampons. I had therefore never questioned this practice. Only on the birth of my son did I start questioning the impact of our throw-away, increasingly disposable culture.
Some months later I saw an advert in The Green Parent magazine for reusable sanitary towels. Intrigued, I looked online, amazed to find a large variety of alternative, eco-friendly sanitary products on the market. This was a revelation to me. I felt guilty for all the masses of disposable sanitary wear I had used and thrown away over the years, without a thought to the environmental and other costs. I started to wonder how women used to manage in the past, and indeed still do in less developed areas of the world. Certainly Stone Age women didn’t use disposable products I wondered, so why do we? I ordered a few reusable towels, packing them away in readiness for the return of my fertility, excited about trying a product which was far healthier for me, my wallet and the planet. About fifteen months after Ewan was born my periods returned.
Reasons for using eco sanitary products
According to the company Moon Times, women spend on average a phenomenal six and a half years of their lives bleeding! In the West, where we have access to and can afford disposable sanitary products, we use between twelve and seventeen thousand of these in our lifetimes! Simply stopping to consider the environmental impact of this high usage is enough to change many women’s age-old habits. However, most women are simply unaware about reusable products, how comfortable, easy-to-use, hygienic, affordable and varied they are. Most women also remain uninformed about how environmentally polluting disposable sanitary products are, or like me, choose not to even consider it.
Here is a simplified, brief list of some of the effects of using disposable sanitary wear; increased marine pollution, significant blockage of drains, risk to health due to toxins and dioxins found in bleaching disposable tampon (contributing to toxic stress syndrome) and the effects of using cotton on the environment. This is not to mention the more visible personal impact on women’s purses; whilst there is an initial cost in purchasing reusable products, this is an investment with lasting results, unlike disposable products which you have to keep replenishing.
Menstruating; Secrets and silence
There exists a taboo in our society about menstruation, which keeps us silent on the issue of periods. This area of a woman’s life is kept hush hushed, secret as if it is something to be ashamed of. Few of us celebrate the onset of menstruation, a girl’s Menarche, although it is a significant, life-changing event in a girl’s life. We certainly don’t get excited about getting our period every month for the next thirty years or so; a more typical response is to bemoan it for the pain and inconvenience it causes. Few girls or women feel empowered enough to ask questions or search for healthier alternatives to use on (and in) their bodies. We lose bodily awareness because we are shamed by this natural act. We are missing out on knowledge which if practised has a lasting positive effect on ourselves, because we are using products which are kinder on our skin and bodies, and therefore healthier for us on a personal, as well as a wider environmental, level.
I started using reusable menstrual pads when my periods returned. Because I was already in the routine of storing and washing my son’s reusable nappies it was easy to simply add a little to this pile with these pads. I found them comfortable, soft, easy to use, absorbent and efficient, so added to my small stock by buying a number of organic UK made cloth pads, which came in a wide selection of patterns and colours, shapes and sizes. The added bonus is that these pads are commonly made in the UK by stay-at-home Mums, a great alternative to funding big corporations. I found the Moon Times company offered a range of beautiful sanitary products and good customer service. However, this is one of many companies who supply these products. Regrettably, these products, like most other alternative products, are not commonly sold in the high-street, only online. However, awareness and use of these products is increasing, so hopefully in the future it will be easier to buy them!
Other reusable menstrual products
In searching online for reusable towels I came across a whole range of different menstrual products. Such a wide variety of products means it is more likely consumers will find a product which matches their needs. For instance, not all women are happy to wash reusable menstrual towels; they want something which is more convenient. Even though I didn’t mind washing these towels, I decided to try a few other products as a source of comparison. I tried Jam Sponges, natural sea sponges which are alternatives to tampons. This interesting natural alternative to tampons has, according to the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, been used by women to absorb menstrual discharge for thousands of years. I personally didn’t get on with them, finding they leaked and were slightly uncomfortable. However, this was perhaps because I didn’t give them a long enough trial run and had no-one face-to-face to talk to or offer me support in using this new product.
A little later I discovered the Mooncup, the reusable menstrual cup, which I decided to try, as it seemed a simpler product to use. The Mooncup is made from silicone, worn internally lower than a tampon is worn so menstrual fluid is collected instead of absorbed. It is removed, rinsed and reinserted up to every eight hours, instead of the more frequent changing of towels or tampons. I soon became a convert to this and have not looked back! Mooncups are very comfortable and as long as inserted correctly will cause no leakage. It only cost me £20, but will last for years and years, as opposed to reusable towels, which have to be bought in larger quantities and washed, thereby using more resources than menstrual cups (still minimal compared to disposable products however). Another similar alternative, which I have not tried because I am so happy with my Mooncup, is the Diva Cup.
I have shared my dawning consciousness of the impact of disposable sanitary wear and my search for a gentler alternative, in order to raise awareness of the negative impacts of disposable sanitary products, as well as the wonderful array of reusable products available on the market. By spreading the word I hope that more women will try out one or more of these products and in doing so feel as positive about them as I have. We can then spread the word to our families and friends, which in the long-term will contribute to a shift into more mainstream thinking.
I know I am using a product which is far kinder on the environment and on my person. This makes me feel proud and empowered. I feel more aware and in-tune with my body, as well as less negative about my period returning each month. Although I haven’t yet reached the stage I feel I can celebrate my period, in time this may come as I accept this is a natural cycle and a healthy indicator of my fertility. If I am ever fortunate enough to have a daughter, I shall teach her to be proud of her growing body, guiding her to touch a little more gently. Using reusable menstrual products is one way of contributing to this more gentle impact.
The kinder we are to nature, the kinder we are to ourselves. I therefore urge you to try out some of these products out, spread the word, and maybe drop me a line to let me know how you get on.
La Leche League International: The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Eighth Edition. http://www.llli.org/thewomanlyartofbreastfeeding/
Moon Times: http://www.moontimes.co.uk/
Moon Cups: http://www.mooncup.co.uk/
Jam Sponges: http://www.jamsponge.co.uk/
Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health: http://www.mum.org/