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by Liz Barteldt
People who menstruate use over 9,000 tampons in their lifetime. In fact, these products can take up to 800 years to decompose. Clearly, switching to eco-friendly menstrual products can help you reduce significant amounts of monthly waste.
Conventional Pads and Tampons
Regular tampons and pads often contain lots of chemicals and synthetic materials. However, the FDA categorizes tampons as medical devices, so companies don’t have to disclose any of the ingredients on the packaging. So, we’re breaking down what’s in these products and why you may want to avoid them.
Most conventional tampons and pads are made from non-organic cotton. A very absorbent plant, cotton has the ability to soak up pesticides or any harmful chemicals in the soil. Rayon is another common ingredient in menstrual products to make them leakproof. This is a semi-synthetic fiber that is made from wood or other sources of cellulose. While this may sound good, the purification process of rayon often includes bleaching (which is how tampons and pads get their perfect white color). Dioxin, a chemical linked to cancer and endometriosis, is a byproduct of this bleaching process. While studies show the amount of dioxin in menstrual products is negligible, others argue there hasn’t been enough research done.
Aside from potentially harmful synthetic chemicals, conventional menstrual products create a whole lot of waste. Pads contain the equivalent of 4 plastic bags and are often made of SAPs (superabsorbent polymers), which are made of sodium polyacrylate, a synthetic material that is not biodegradable. Pads are often packaged in individual wrappers, and most conventional tampons have plastic applicators and are not biodegradable.
Conventional tampons and pads seem to be ridden with problems for our planet and for our health. However, there are lots of eco-friendly – and safer – alternatives. Disclaimer: When making the switch to a more eco-friendly alternative, it is important to know that you should typically avoid DIY alternatives like rolled-up toilet paper or old cotton t-shirts unless it is for an emergency. Since they aren’t designed specifically for menstrual use, it can increase your risk for vaginal infections.
We rated menstrual cups at the top of our list because 1 cup (made with 100% medical grade silicone) can last up to 10 years if cared for properly. However, most people typically replace theirs every 2-3 years because of wear and tear. It is also a more inexpensive option– while it has a higher upfront cost compared to tampons, it lasts much longer, so you can save money in the long run.
So what are menstrual cups? Menstrual cups are small, flexible cups that you wear internally to collect blood, just below the cervix. They can be worn for up to 12 hours– so much longer than a tampon! They have to be sterilized monthly, which can be done by boiling them in water, but afterward can be emptied, rinsed, and reinserted for the rest of your cycle. When cleaning the cup, be sure to use nontoxic soap without fragrance and anything too basic or acidic that can throw off your pH.
Look for: Menstrual cups made with 100% medical grade silicone rather than thermoplastics. Thermoplastics can contain BPA/phthalates which can leach into the vagina. Also– while little research has been done about the ability of dye to migrate from colored silicone, if this is a concern for you, we recommend menstrual cups that aren’t dyed. Dying menstrual cups also adds another step in the manufacturing process, which means more emissions and waste.
Our picks: Our top picks are all 100% medical grade silicone, plastic free, and made without dyes or toxic chemicals.
We rated reusable pads as the second most eco-friendly – tied with period underwear – because they can be used for up to 3 years if cared for properly.
So what are reusable pads? Reusable pads are worn similarly to single-use pads, but you can typically snap them into place. They contain multiple layers of fabric with an absorbent inner core. The amount you need depends on your cycle length and flow, as well as how often you are willing to do laundry during your cycle. Herein lies a con of reusable pads: you may have to invest in multiple pads (which can be expensive).
Look for: Reusable pads made with mostly organic cotton.
Our pick: While Aisle pads are not made with entirely organic cotton, they absorb 8x as much as a conventional pad, which makes this reusable option convenient. Rael makes reusable pads with 100% ‘organic cotton,’ but we were unable to find any organic certifications on their website, so proceed with caution.
Another eco-friendly menstrual product you can use is period underwear. We ranked this as a tie with reusable pads because they can also last for 2-5 years depending on the product.
So what is period underwear? Period underwear is just what you think it is: underwear that absorbs your flow instead of a tampon or pad. It is recommended that you rinse and machine wash.
Look for: Period underwear made from primarily organic cotton, which is more breathable. Another thing to look for is whether it contains silver nanoparticles, which can sometimes be added as an antibacterial. Studies have shown that silver has the ability to migrate, which could potentially negatively impact the bacteria in the vagina. While it hasn’t been tested on period underwear specifically, it could be something to consider. If this is a concern for you, click here to learn more: https://womensvoices.org/nanosilver-in-period-care-products/#fn5
Our picks: Sustain Natural period underwear is a cheaper option and can last 2-3 years. It is also made with almost 100% certified organic cotton. However, it can only hold 1 regular tampon’s worth of blood, so it may be wise to use these as a backup to an organic cotton tampon. While Aisle period underwear is more expensive, it can hold up to 8 tampons worth (which is more practical) and has a great size range. While they use organic cotton, they use other materials as well for improved comfort.
Organic Tampons and Pads
If you aren’t ready to make the switch, there are still more eco-friendly tampons and pads similarly priced to conventional ones.
Our picks: While all our links for these products go to non-applicator tampons, we also recommend these companies’ applicator tampons and disposable pads if that is what works best for you personally. However, non-applicator tampons produce the least waste which is why we included them in the ranking. All our top picks are made with 100% organic cotton which makes them compostable. Totm takes first place among disposable menstrual products because of their care in recyclable paper packaging.
Avoid: “organic” without mention of any certifications, and tampons sold with applicators that are made of “plant-based plastic.” This is actually polyethylene, which has a high carbon footprint and takes years to decompose.
When looking for cotton-based products, these are the main certifications for organic cotton:
- USDA Certified Organic
- Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS)
- Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO)
- 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste By Kathryn Kellogg
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