The average woman spends 6.5 years of her life menstruating, and uses around 11,000 disposable menstrual products¹. Despite advice from water companies and manufacturers, 1.5 billion are flushed away in the UK every year. As well as contributing to ‘fatbergs’ in our sewers, many end up in the sea and on our beaches—on a recent trip to the Sussex seaside, it was hard to explain to my 3 year old exactly why he couldn’t add an attractive looking pearly pink tampon applicator tube to his collection of tidal treasures.
When I found out that mainstream brands of pads are made from up to 90% plastic² I switched to using plastic-free organic cotton disposable pads. It took another decade for me to start using washable pads, but now I’m a convert and I want to spread the word about how comfortable, convenient and economical they are.
With a huge range of washable pads, menstrual cups, period pants and even natural sponges to choose from, it can be hard to know where to begin, so I’ve made this handy guide:
Washable pads can be made from many materials, including wool, cotton, velour, polyester or bamboo fleece. Some contain a thin layer of plasticised fabric such as PUL or an absorbent layer of microfibre. I usually bleed for 5 days and find my stash of 14 pads is enough. I rinse them after use and keep a lidded bucket to soak the pads in the bathroom, then do one wash per month at the end of my cycle. If you choose pads which contain polyester fleece or other plastics, you may want to consider using a Guppy Friend* wash bag to help prevent microplastic pollution.
My total favourite is made by Honour Your Flow and is a soft cotton fleece pad with a felted wool backing. It is completely plastic-free, apart from the poppers—I’ve used it on my heaviest days and it just keeps on absorbing. They make a great selection of pads, available in UK dress sizes so it’s easy to find a good fit. I’ve also got two sizes of ImseVimse organic cotton pads*. Their clever design can be poppered completely shut, which is great for transporting used pads home when you’re out and about.
Ethical Superstore* do a range of washable pads from Bloom and Nora and ImseVimse. You can even buy a whole set in one big bundle!
If you’re looking for a zero-waste replacement for tampons, the menstrual cup is a great option: a soft washable cup which sits over your cervix. Different brands have slightly different capacities but they can hold between 20-30ml of blood and can go up to 12 hours before emptying. Because cups catch menstrual blood rather than absorb it they don’t interfere with your other vaginal fluids, so they can help prevent the vaginal dryness that some people experience during their period. Once a month your cup needs to be sterilised by boiling or using a sterilising solution. With proper care, a menstrual cup can last for years, which makes it a great choice for plastic-free periods. Mooncup and OrganiCup* are both made from medical grade silicone. TOTM* have three sizes of cup made from medical grade TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer). MyCup has written this guide to the differences between silicone and TPE. For a natural and plastic-free option, Fair Squared have created a cup from 100% natural Fairtrade certified rubber*.
Sometimes you need a back-up plan, and using plastic-free disposable menstrual products is a good option for holidays and lazy days. Ethical Superstore* sells 11 kinds of organic tampon from two different brands. Natural Collection* also sell organic cotton pads from Natracare, Organyc, ECO by Naty, and Tsuno bamboo fibre pads. TOTM* offers a subscription service to have your choice of organic cotton disposables delivered monthly or as a one off purchase. Make sure to check the manufacurers advice for disposal as some brands are even compostable!
Natural unbleached sea sponges can be used internally as an alternative to tampons. They need rinsing every three hours and aren’t suitable for using overnight. With proper care they can last for up to a year and be composted when they are no longer usable. Earthwise Girls and Babipur have a few in stock to choose from.
There are mixed reports about ‘period-panties’ such as Thinx—I haven’t tried any yet but would love to hear back from any users! Thinx are also developing a re-usable tampon applicator called the re.t.a made from medical grade silicone.
If you’re in any need of further persuasion, Earthwise Girls has made this useful price comparison guide to show how much you could save by making the switch:
A cost comparison over five years (60 periods) of using each option:
- Menstrual Cups £9 (around 15p per month)
- Reusable Sanitary Towels or Pads £30 – £70 (50p to £1.16 per month)
- Menstrual Sea Sponges £50 (83p per month)
- Disposable Sanitary Towels/Tampons/Pantyliners £120 – £300 (£3 to £5 per month)
Ridiculously, the UK government classes menstrual products as ‘luxury items’ which means they are subject to VAT. This pushes up the prices and can even lead to girls missing school due to lack of access to menstual products. It’s great to know that awareness of these issues is growing, as there are a lot of new initiatives to help tackle period poverty. Bloody Good Period is a project that donates menstrual products to asylum seekers and refugees. Hey Girls offer a ‘buy-one-give-one’ policy for all pads bought from their site. #PeriodPositive is an amazing campaign to raise awareness of menstrual issues and tackle taboos. I know I feel a lot more positive about my period since switching to reusable menstrual products—do you dare to make your period plastic-free too?