Until recently, I’d been on the mini-pill for roughly five years, with no periods at all in that time. During this lockdown, I made the decision to stop taking the pill and give my body a break from the daily hormones in the hopes that it would find its natural rhythm again. Having had no periods since going on the progesterone-only pill (9 in 10 women don’t bleed on this pill), I hadn’t had to buy any period products for nearly half a decade (result!). But coming off the pill and becoming a person who menstruates again, I needed to stock up.
Despite not having had periods for a while, I’ve been following the ‘sustainable period’ discourse and really liked the sound of eco-friendly period products. According to Friends of the Earth, the conventional sanitary pad is made up of 90% plastic, and a pack of menstrual pads is equivalent to four plastic bags. But it’s not just pads that contribute to the problem. It takes a tampon longer to degrade than the lifespan of the person who uses it, and the average person who menstruates uses over 11,000 disposable, single-use menstrual products in their reproductive lifetime (roughly from the age of 12 to 52).
As someone who is trying to be more aware of my impact on the earth – through fashion, diet, transport and consumer habits – it seems only natural to think about my period products too. I did a bit of research and decided to invest in some sustainable period products in order to have a #PeriodWithoutPlastic. In my search, I decided early on that I wanted something re-usable with zero waste, rather than switching to organic biodegradable products, as I liked the idea of investing in products that last. It’s worth disclaiming that whatever period product you choose to use, there is no shame in it: it’s your body, your choice, and whatever works for you is what’s best for you. If tampons are the only thing that feels comfortable, or pads are the best fit for you, you go for it! Periods are already bad enough without the added pressure of being environmentally-friendly – or worse – shamed that you’re contributing to plastic pollution simply because you menstruate.
Reusable menstrual products have been around for decades, but they’ve been left in the shadows by their plastic disposable counterparts. It has always been true that the cheapest options are those with the most potential to damage the planet and our own health. For example, did you know that most of the conventional menstrual products are made from non-organic cotton, and the high percentage of plastic – along with the synthetic ingredients and fragrances – often causes irritation or even allergic reactions in their users? For these very reasons, this is a class and environmental justice issue: people who are the most vulnerable have the greatest exposure to dangerous products. Being able to choose sustainable period products is a privilege, especially with the high rates of period poverty, most notably amongst refugees, homeless people, students, and those in low income employment.
With that said, if you’re looking to switch to more sustainable products, there are several options available to you. Here’s what I tried:
I’d seen adverts for WUKA (Wake Up Kick Ass) period knickers for a long time, and once I came off the pill I immediately searched for them to make my purchase. WUKA claims to be a ‘complete tampon and pad replacement’; you can wear these knickers for up to 8 hours on light days, 4-6 hours on your heavy days, or all night, depending on your flow. They vary in capacity, as they market for a low, medium and heavy flow. The heavy flow ones hold at least 20ml of period flow or light leaks, which amounts to 4 tampons worth!
I LOVED these pants. They are super comfortable and help take the stress out of leaks and bleed-throughs. I bought the ‘cycle set’ of 3, which retail at £74.97. Although I managed to buy them when they were on sale (for more like £65), it’s still an eye-wateringly high sum. That said, they are supposed to last you for at least ten years, and since it eliminates the need to buy tampons or pads, you’ll be saving money in the long run. These are a great alternative for pad wearers as they work just like a pad, integrated into your underwear, and are made from eco-friendly fabric with a super-absorbent hi-tech fabric and moisture barrier, making it ‘period proof’.
They don’t feel bulky or nappy-ish, which is sometimes how it can feel wearing a pad. They put the dignity back into bed time which, for me, used to consist of laying down a towel on my mattress, wearing the chunkiest night time pad available, and worrying about leaks and staining of bedding all night. The only downside is that you have to rinse the knickers after use, and then wash and dry them – a laborious process compared to the disposable alternatives. The material they’re made from means the drying process takes up to two days at least before they feel dry enough to wear again, and so only buying three knickers for the whole cycle probably isn’t enough if your period is on the longer side of 5-7 days.
I’d be lying if I said these didn’t scare me a bit. They are a tampon alternative, but instead of absorbing your period, they collect it in a little silicone cup which you empty and re-insert every 8-12 hours. They hold much more than a tampon – up to 3 times more – and whilst tampons absorb up to 35% of vaginal moisture, your menstrual cup doesn’t dry you out or leave any fibres behind. I chose to buy the Mooncup – a brand that I’d heard about through friends – and I was really impressed.
The cup itself is made from soft, medical-grade silicone, and, like a tampon, once inserted correctly, you can’t feel it’s there. That last bit is important though, because it takes a bit of getting used to in order to insert it and take it out comfortably. In fact, Mooncup’s website states that it can take up to three cycles to get used to the product. Although that seems like a faff, it’s worth persevering, since you only need one menstrual cup, and as it retails at around £20, it pays for itself after around 6-8 months. After that, you’re saving money monthly on sanitary protection!
As I said, I was a little intimidated by these at first. They are quite large, and need to be folded in order to be inserted. But even when folded, they’re larger than a tampon, which can be a little daunting. There are different ways to fold it to make it easier to insert, however, so it might take a few goes to find the best method for you. Handily, there are videos on different folding methods which you can check out here. Once inserted, the cup works by creating a seal, so it shouldn’t leak if it is inserted correctly and emptied and removed within the recommended time frames. It sits much lower than a tampon – as low as it can comfortably sit – and to remove you have to pinch the bottom of the cup to break the seal, gently wiggling it out, then emptying, rinsing or wiping, and reinserting.
The drawbacks of this product is that for the first few times of use, insertion and removal can be a little tricky, and in these times it can feel like a tampon is much easier. The cup does move around a bit too (not that you can feel this), but this can mean a bit of digging around to remove the cup, which is about as fun as it sounds… It’s definitely the kind of product that you get used to and learn the ‘knack’ of – just like tampons which were intimidating in themselves for many of us when we first started using them.
I took to wearing both my cup and my period pants for the first few days when the flow is typically the heaviest, and wore just the knickers at night, which worked really well for me as I used to wear both a tampon and a pad for maximum protection against leaks. For the rest of the period, I wore just the knickers, as even though the cup can be used on lighter days, I found the knickers to be the more comfortable option for that portion of the period.
Overall I was really impressed with the products, and I think they’re great alternatives for pads and tampons respectively. I cannot rave about the comfort of each product enough, and the best bit is: I don’t need to purchase any further products for next month – or for the foreseeable future for that matter!
Of course, these options aren’t for everyone: some people might prefer to use disposable tampons and pads, in which case organic and plastic-free options that are biodegradable but that aren’t bleached or filled with chemicals might be the answer.
My experience of sustainable, reusable period products was really positive, however, and I hope that in sharing my experience of them, it encourages people to make the switch to sustainable products if they feel comfortable doing so. It really is the kind of investment that, once you buy into, means you never look back.