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Eco-Friendly Options for Menstrual Products

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 17, 2021

When deciding what products to use for menstrual periods, most people will pick up what’s easily found in stores. These are usually single use tampons or sanitary pads. This results in an estimated 250 to 300 pounds of tampons and pads tossed in the trash over the average American woman's lifetime.

Single Use Menstrual Products and Plastic

Conventional menstrual pads contain a significant amount of plastic. One estimate is that these disposable sanitary pads contain up to 90% plastic. Tampons, excluding the applicator, may contain up to 6% plastic.

Scientists say that a regular nonorganic menstrual pad can take 500 to 800 years to break down. They're full of plastic, so they aren’t completely biodegradable. When they do break down, they eventually become microplastics, or pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size. 

If these items don’t make their way to landfills, they can end up in oceans or washed up on beaches. 

Tampons that are made from cotton can biodegrade within 6 months. But many tampon brands contain plastic or are wrapped in plastic. 

Single use feminine hygiene products may also contain chemicals that interfere with the way your hormones work. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals include phthalates, parabens, and bisphenols.

Many of these products also contain fragrances and dyes that may upset your vagina’s pH balance and affect its normal balance of bacteria.

Menstrual Cups

There are several eco-friendly menstrual products available. Menstrual cups are one of them.

Reusable menstrual cups have been around since the 1930s but have only become more commonplace in recent years.

Menstrual cups are made from medical-grade silicone, latex, or rubber. You insert a menstrual cup into your vagina, and it holds your menstrual fluids. Depending on your flow, you can leave it in for up to 12 hours. Then you remove, empty, wash, and reinsert it.

Sterilize your menstrual cup after each menstrual cycle and before you use it for the first time. You can do this by submerging it in boiling water for 5 minutes, or you can use a sterilizing solution.

It’s estimated that using a menstrual cup creates about 0.4% of the plastic waste produced by pads and 6% of the plastic waste produced by tampons.

Using menstrual cups can also lower your water use. In two studies, women said that fewer leaks meant not needing to wash stained clothes as often. Also, you use less water cleaning menstrual cups compared with reusable pads and cloths.

Menstrual Discs

Like a menstrual cup, a menstrual disc is inserted into your vagina where it collects your menstrual fluids. But a menstrual disc sits at the base of your cervix while a menstrual cup uses suction to stay in your vaginal canal.

Many menstrual discs are disposable. But there are some reusable options available.

Period Underwear

This type of underwear has many layers in its lining. The layers are usually made from microfiber polyester that traps your menstrual blood. Period underwear can hold as much as one or two tampons.

Some companies have even produced period swimwear, leotards, and athletic shorts.

Depending on the brand, a pair of period underwear can cost between $24 and $65. If properly taken care of, they should last for about 2 years.

Reusable Menstrual Pads

Regular disposable pads have layers of synthetic fibers. These layers include a center with absorbent polymers and a plastic waterproof backing to help prevent leakage.

An eco-friendly alternative to disposable pads is the reusable menstrual pad. It works like a disposable pad. You secure it to your underwear, and it absorbs menstrual blood externally. After using it, you rinse, wash, and dry it. You can reuse it after it dries.

These pads can be reused for at least 5 years.

Cost of Eco-Friendly Options

Eco-friendly menstrual products may seem expensive at first. But investing in reusable products ends up being cheaper than repeatedly buying boxes of tampons or menstrual pads.

One study found that participants used about 13 tampons per cycle, or 169 a year. The estimated cost of tampons for a year was similar to the retail price of one menstrual cup, which can be used for 10 years.

Greener Options for Disposable Menstrual Products

If you’re not ready for reusable menstrual products, here are some other ways to make your period more environmentally-friendly:

  • When buying disposable pads, look for non-chlorine bleached pads and tampons that are made with organic cotton and without harmful chemicals. 
  • Try reusable tampon applicators. Put the cotton tampon in the applicator and use it to insert the tampon, just like with a disposable applicator. Then rinse, dry, and reuse.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES: 

Canadian Family Physician: “FLOW (finding lasting options for women): multicentre randomized controlled trial comparing tampons with menstrual cups.”

Center for Young Women’s Health: “Eco-Friendly Period Products: All guides.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Are Scented Tampons and Pads Bad for You?” "Tired of Tampons? Here Are Pros and Cons of Menstrual Cups."

Environment International: “Phthalates, bisphenols, parabens, and triclocarban in feminine hygiene products from the United States and their implications for human exposure.”

Go Ask Alice!: “Reusable vs. disposable pads?”

Lancet Public Health: “Menstrual cup use, leakage, acceptability, safety, and availability: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”

Royal Society of Chemistry: “Reduce single-use plastic, period.”

Sustainability: “A Study into Public Awareness of the Environmental Impact of Menstrual Products and Product Choice.”

UCSD Climate Change Review: “The Problem with Period Products and Sustainable Alternatives.”

UT Health Austin: “Period Products: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Yale Medicine: "Women and the Post-Modern 'Period.'"

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