A Beginner’s Guide to Plastic-Free Periods

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

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 Imse Vimse 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.

Eco Femme pads are made at a social enterprise in India, and you can order in the UK from In Greens plastic free store.

Ethical Superstore* do a range of washable pads made from organic cotton by Imse Vimse*. They even make reusable tampons!

Menstrual Cups

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*.

Natural Disposables

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.

Grace & Green are a new brand, with stylish modern packaging and a strong sustainable ethos. All their pads are made from certified organic cotton, and the packaging is made with bioplastic film.

TOTM* offer a subscription service to have your choice of organic cotton disposables delivered monthly, or as a one off purchase. They also do a workplace scheme for employers. The world would be a better place if all places of work offered free natural menstrual products! If you are an employer, get in touch with TOTM ASAP!

If you like applicator tampons but hate waste, Thinx sell a reusable tampon applicator called the re.t.a made from medical grade silicone.

Period Pants

There are mixed reports about ‘period pants’ such as Thinx — I haven’t tried any yet but would love to hear back from any users! ModiBodi* are an Australian brand who make a huge range of period pants, as well as leak-proof swimwear and maternity vests. FLUX Undies look like a good option for period pants, with Oeko-tex certified fabrics and an ethical manufacturing policy. The reusable baby wipe company Cheeky Wipes have started making pads and pants now too.

Other Options

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.

Ethical Consumer have produced a new guide to menstrual products which you can find online here. 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. Maybe some UK companies should start publishing ‘tampon books’ like The Female Company in Germany. I love the idea of exploiting this loophole to raise awareness of the #tampontax.

It’s great to know that awareness of these issues is growing, as there are a lot of new initiatives to help raise awareness of plastic free period options and tackle period poverty.

  • Bloody Good Period is a project that donates menstrual products to asylum seekers and refugees.
  • The Women’s Environmental Network Environmenstrual campaign is amazing! They are working together with City To Sea’s Plastic-Free Period campaign.
  • 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?

  1. https://www.mooncup.co.uk/why-mooncup/why-should-i-use-a-menstrual-cup/
  2. http://www.natracare.com/why-natracare/plastic-free/
*If you buy any products after clicking on links marked with an asterisk you will be supporting The Green Shopper blog through affiliate marketing at no extra cost to yourself.

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8 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Plastic-Free Periods

  1. Nice rundown of all the options for eco-friendly period prodcuts! My personal favourites are a menstrual cup (I used the Sckooncup) paired with reusable cloth pads (Blushing Bluebirds from Canada). I LOVE that I’m not throwing stuff into the trash every single month. It’s also an excellent way to save money as well.

  2. Menstrual cups are the most eco-friendly option – 15 gms of silicone every 10 years. ( About the same as a crisp packet.) Why no picture of a menstrual cup? They should not be boiled for 10 minutes, that will wear out the silicone quicker. 1 minute is enough to kill any germs ( which belong to the user anyway) and current research i s investigating if boiling at all is necessary. ( Who boils a sex toy? Or a contraceptive cap?)
    Sponges can lead to Toxic Shock Syndrome – bits fall of them and remain inside. Also difficult to wash out properly, and like tampons absorb the ‘ good fluids’ from inside the vagina.

    • Thanks for commenting Janie, I’ll change the advice about boiling times! There is a picture of a menstrual cup in the top right of the illustration 🙂 I’ve never tried menstrual sponges, so it’s interesting to hear some user feedback…

  3. Ah yes, the picture of the Menstrual Cup has now APPEARED! They don’t ” fit snugly over the cervix”. A cup sits inside the vagina, below the cervix. This is why it can hold menstrual fluid up to 12 hours, or 3 tampons worth.

  4. My 13yo started when she was just turning 11, she’s now 13 and uses pads. I’ve suggested period pants but they’re an expensive option if she doesn’t like them, so that only leaves pads, also expensive. I think we’ll try 50/50 until she’s more confident about using anything else. Any suggestions welcome.

    • Hi Pam, thanks for getting in touch. You could try just buying one washable pad or pair of period pants to see if they work for her. Even just using them at home or at night will save on waste! Otherwise just sticking to natural disposables will still make a difference. TOTM are great, there’s a link in the article. Best of luck!

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