Get Back on the Rag. ~ Beth Bartel

Via on Jul 30, 2010

A Case for Reusable Menstrual Products.

On a sunny fall day some many years ago, on a liberal arts college campus in eastern Washington, I happened to see a sinkfull of soaking stuff in the bathroom of a progressive, popular, Carhart-wearing art student who I looked up to as a role model. The stuff? GladRags. As in, reusable menstrual pads.

My reaction? Wow. Gross. Um… great idea, but… yikes. Don’t know if I could do that.

It’s taken years to come around, partly out of laziness, but it’s always made sense. I’ve thought about it a number of times—what did women do before they had disposables? How much waste am I generating each month? What’s the alternative? And what about saving money on all that stuff I just throw away?

I finally got around to the issue again last year, partly because of a conversation with a very pragmatic housemate who also happens to be one of my closest friends. She uses The Keeper, a menstrual cup. She swears by it. It just doesn’t make sense to use anything else. So…

I did it. I took the plunge. I decided to try out reusable pads. I bought one. I … tried it. I … loved it. Why? Well, a number of very good reasons that I’ll get to shortly.

First, though, let’s talk about you.

You’re the environmental type. You’re down with making peace with the planet. You’re all about composting, biking, leaving a smaller footprint and cleaning up after yourself. And taking care of your body.

So what about menstrual products? Not, like, the stuff that comes out, but the stuff we use to contain it? You just haven’t thought about it. Or you just don’t know what your options are. Or you have thought about it and think reusables are a great idea, but just haven’t got around to it. Or maybe, like me so many years ago, you just think it’s kind of, you know…

Gross.

Um, hello, that’s blood. From down there. We don’t touch it, we don’t look at it, we don’t think about it. We throw it away. Because we can. And because it’s dirty. And because it’s just, you know, gross.

Well, let’s step back for a minute. Yes, it is a bodily fluid. Yes, it came from inside us. Yes, it is a waste product, and that is why it’s being expelled.

But here’s a list of other, potentially grosser things you do, inspired by elephant’s own Waylon Lewis:

- Pick up warm, fresh-from-the-body dog poo with a plastic bag.
- Blow your nose.
- Clean out that gunk that collects in the bottom of the sink or in the bottom of the shower.
- Change baby diapers. (That’s human poo!)

Think about other bodily fluids you’re willing to touch, waste or otherwise, our own and those of our children, friends and partners. I’ve mentioned a few above. I’ll politely let you come up with others on your own.

Now, maybe this isn’t you at all. Maybe it’s your friends or your friends’ friends. Regardless, and whether you’re convinced or not, let’s talk options and then address other common concerns about (and benefits of) using something down there more than once.

Choices, Choices.

Pads. Cotton fabric pads to line your undies that can be soaked, washed, and reused. Options include nighttime, regular and panty liners, and, actually, undies with built-in pads. Organic, undyed options are available. Brands include GladRags and Lunapads.

What would you rather have against your cooter, a strip of cotton fabric or a strip of cottony plastic? Yep, straight-up cotton’s pretty nice. Easy to use, too—just snap the wings around back and you’re ready to go. No packaging, no stickiness. As in, no sticker backings to keep track of and, more importantly, as the day goes on, no more wings coming unstuck from the undies and sticking to the pubes instead (ouch). When done, soak, wash and reuse. Seem unsightly? You don’t need to flaunt your pads in the sink where your guests or housemates will see them. Soak your cotton in a basin, tucked away where it’s out of view, and change the water daily if you’re not going to wash right away. I dump mine down the toilet and rinse and dump until the water comes off mostly clear, and then throw the goods in with a regular load of laundry. Scared off by stains? I, personally, can’t be bothered to work to get them out, which is why I tend towards darker colored cloth (magenta is, incidentally, my favorite). But if you’re motivated, follow the directions that come with your new pads to minimize discoloration.

Why do I love them so? The design of the plastic/cotton ones has gotten pretty great, to the point where the pads are super thin and super absorbent and not even very noticeable. But the cotton is just… comfortable. Plus, I like the feeling—despite the extra work of soaking and washing—that I am taking care of my self and my environment. It’s like using a cloth instead of a paper towel or hanging clothes to dry instead of tossing them in the machine. There’s satisfaction that comes with that little bit of extra work.

Cups. Latex or silicone cups to be inserted into the vagina to catch menstrual fluids. Check out the Mooncup site to learn more about cups (and fun words for “vagina”). Another popular option is the Diva Cup.

The vagina is a naturally moist and sensitive environment. Disposable tampons wick this moisture, are not to be used overnight and come with the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Cups, on the other hand, just hold your moisture—without robbing it from your lining—and are associated with no reported cases of TSS. As with a tampon, you can wear them swimming, biking, running, whatever—plus, you can keep them in longer than a tampon, including overnight. As for comfort, for most women the cup is much like a tampon—as in it takes a little getting used to, and then it’s like it’s just not even there.

Drawbacks? There’s no applicator. This means that, yes, you have to insert using your fingers. You’re already used to this if you use non-applicator tampons like OB. So, clean hands are a must, which can be a bit difficult when traveling. The upshot for traveling with the cup—and this is a big one—is that you don’t have to carry a stash of tampons around or get quick to a store. And, you don’t have any trash, which is especially nice for camping. Just make sure you have a bottle of potable water on hand when you go to the potty so you can rinse your cup before reinsertion, and you’re good. Worried about some overflow? Use a reusable panty liner. Another drawback: Like pads, cups will stain over time. That’s just what happens. My advice: Don’t store it on your mantle.

Sea sponges and reusable tampons. Natural sponges that serve as a tampon replacement, to be inserted into the vagina to absorb fluids. Check out e.g. Sea Pearls. : Cotton fabric tampons that work much like disposable tampons but are, well, reusable.

I haven’t used either of these projects, so I can’t really effectively soapbox on them. But I know people who have used sea sponges, and like them. The bonus of sea sponges is that they are natural. (Yep, they really are sea sponges.) The drawback is that they don’t last as long as a cup. Still, they last much longer than a single-use, disposable cotton tampon.

A Few Closing Thoughts.

Thought 1: Are reusables unclean? Menstrual product (aka uterine lining-catchers) are often referred to as “sanitary products,” implying of course that our blood and tissue is, indeed, unsanitary. And yes, it is certainly appropriate to take care with this region—to maintain a certain level of cleanliness, including proper and timely disposal of such products. But it turns out that we don’t need to use something that has just come out of a super-sealed wrapper to be healthy. And when it comes to reusing something soiled—you still wear undies that have gotten hit, after you wash them, right? I mean, rather than throw them away because they’re spoiled, right?  Um…right?

Thought 2: Contact! It’s okay to touch your body. It doesn’t mean you’re weird. It’s actually a good way to learn about your reproductive system, which is pretty amazing. I lived in vagina denial for a long, long time (I was a bit of a tomboy) and I find now that it’s much easier and more satisfying to embrace womanhood. To understand your cycle, check out Part Two, Rediscovering Your Cycle and Your Body, in “Taking Charge of Your Fertility,” by Toni Weschler, whether or not you’re interested in charting your cycle for fertility purposes. There’s a great, concise explanation of how we work. Or, check out my new favorite book on women’s health, “The Natural Health Bible for Women,” by Marilyn Glenville.

Thought 3: Save money, save the environment. The reusables are, not surprisingly, more expensive up front. But, like most reusable things, they pay for themselves and then some in the long run. Plus, you don’t have to hand over $$ every month. As for the environmental bonus–for all reusable menstrual products, your flow is the only thing that is disposed of, thus adding less waste to the landfills. Also, cotton is a high-needs crop, requiring lots of water and chemicals, so minimizing its use (and disposal) leaves more resources for the rest of us.

Thought 4: Um…Why Wouldn’t You?

Don’t take my word for it. For more information, check out this great Reusable Menstrual Products page or, especially if you’re a young woman or would like to pass this info on to one, the Center for Young Women’s Health page on Alternative and Environmentally Friendly Menstrual Products.

Try one, or several, and weight in with elephant to let us know what you think!

Beth Bartel lives in Boulder, interns at elephant journal and KGNU, and likes swinging on big swings.

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36 Responses to “Get Back on the Rag. ~ Beth Bartel”

  1. liz says:

    have both sea sponge tampons, the keeper and now the diva cup. will never go back to disposables. i LOVE my diva cup…love love love! you have to learn to get cozy with your pussy, but assuming you can handle that, the transition to reusables is TOTALLY worth it. better for the environment, your wallet AND your pussy…what's not to love?

  2. Laura says:

    Wow! I wish I had known about these products before menopause. I will let my 20 year old daughter know about these options. I also have a 10 year old who will need this information in a couple of years. :D

  3. Lasara Allen LasaraAllen says:

    I just take old shirts, worn-out flannel pajamas, discolored was clothes, and use them! You can cut them to size, fold them neatly, and make your own (free) "pads", or, more accurately, rags. You can make them different sizes for lighter and heavier flow days.

    I also own the Diva Cup, and have used diaphragms, too. Diaphragms are especially good for keeping period sex (yep, I just said that!) less bloody. (Yep, just said that, too!)

    I prefer rags tho, for general use. My cervix is sensitive, and any pressure against it over a period of hours in uncomfortable.

    Thanks for the great topic!

    I wrote about this topic a lot in my book, Sexy Witch. (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2005.)

    • Melanie Klein Melanie says:

      Agreed. This is an awesome and important topic. Like you, Lasara, I use old rags. LOL! Anyone read Houppert's. The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Mensuration? http://www.amazon.com/Curse-Confronting-Unmention… Good stuff!

      • elephant journal elephantjournal says:

        Ah, yes, a home-grown and sustainable solution I failed to mention! Thank you, ladies, for bringing it up. I don't know anyone personally (well, that I know of) that makes their own, and I was wondering how that would go. Do you do anything to secure your 'rag' in place? As in, the pre-fabricated pads have wings and snaps. And I still have problems with them shifting back too far, although I've read that tighter undies might help with that. ~ Beth

        • landwight says:

          old socks are good too, you know, after you've worn them out as socks/got some holes in the toes or heels. I use smaller sock on the inside of the glad rag – fold over and put inside the glad rags; I keep the smaller glad rag pad for the lighter days.

    • candicegarrett says:

      Lasara you are AWESOME

  4. EtonaLife says:

    "Contact! It’s okay to touch your body."

    !! my goodness, i cant imagine anything more holy to touch. this is our vessel for our journey through life. imagine a ship captain who wouldn't run his fingers along the wood planks of his hull… ashes to ashes. your body is a treasure and a tool. know it, take care of it.

  5. landwight says:

    "change the water daily if you’re not going to wash right away. I dump mine down the toilet "

    Okay one major suggestion here: did you know that blood is an excellent fertilizer for plants? Dumping down the toilet is a waste – mine goes outside and waters my garden, trees, bushes; the used blood water can be offered to any plants outside.

    Our waste is someone else's food. Now the next thing we need to all do is start using composting toilets. It's crazy that we use tons of clean water to flush away potentially awesome fertilizer.

    • Beth says:

      Ah, thanks so much for calling me out on this. Yes, another way to minimize waste, and water usage. Question about the fertilizing: I have only a smallish flower box out back, no garden/yard. Do you ever have a smell issue? I love this! ~ Beth

      • Afrika says:

        Hi, I am interested in the Lunapads, but how would you change them during the day in public? This may be a stupid question, oh well.

  6. Arwyn says:

    If you have a bit of sewing skill, you can make your own cotton pads with all the convenience of wings and snaps and so on. (With the bonus, for me, that I could make ones my size — the only larger pads I could find when I was looking for cloth pads all assumed I wanted more absorbency, too. So I made my own stuffables, in my size, so I can always have the thickness I want.) And for that, old flannel sheets and shirts and so on work great. Or you can buy new kick-ass prints, and it'll still be cheaper than buying pre-made pads.

    And for those interested, I wrote a (rather thorough) review on Sea Sponges recently.

  7. Jenny says:

    Several years ago there was a cup-like product, called… Instead? I tried those, but I could never get them positioned in a way that was comfortable.

    • tracy says:

      Instead is actually meant to be a disposable product, although I've heard of women using one for a full cycle. I've never used them, but have seen them — they are waaaaaaay bigger than most silicone/rubber menstrual cups, and a lot less sturdy.

  8. via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    #
    Eva Marie Campos Diva cup and cloth pads baby!

    #
    Lisa T. Bennett Ditto.

    #
    Sarah Richelle Starnes Sea Sponges Rock!

    #
    Lori Malone Glad to be past it! ;)

    #
    Trisha Durham the thought of bleached cotton inside me gives me the creeps!

    #
    Nicole Cavalier Thanks for addressing this issue! I haven't quite gotten to where I can use a washable maxi pad. It honestly skeeves me out a bit. I'm thinking about trying the Diva Cup, but I'm a bit squeamish about that too. Until I get up the courage to try either one, I'll use OB tampons — at least there's less waste.

    #
    Kelina Nelson such an insightful post. thanks!

    #
    Robin Sandhoff Agreed Nicole.

    #
    Jess A Wind over 5 years with a diva cup I have saved at least 975 tampons from the landfill, not to mention the money saved and not having nasty chemical laden cotton inside me

    #
    Carrie Reed Love my cloth pads! I have to admit that sometimes my work schedule is hectic around that time, and I do a combination of cloth and organic disposable pads, but most times I go all cloth!

    #
    Tara Petty Powers there are organic cotton tampons out there… that's what I use… I'll be adding cloth to my arsenal after my pregnancy! ( I cloth diaper my little ones too!)

    #
    Eva Marie Campos Nicole, I don't want to skeeve you out more but I water my garden with the water I soak my pads in and use what is in the diva cup too. My garden is beautiful and I like contributing to the growth of the plants with my own body.

    #
    Tanna Riggs I'm glad they posted this. I'm going to order that cup, honestly on a heavy day even a super plus tampon with pad doesn't last long enough for me to be away from a bathroom for very long

  9. Beth says:

    FYI, for those of you looking to buy: You can get these products online or at stores like Whole Foods, REI and (for Boulder locals) Rebecca's Herbal Apothecary.

    Thanks so much to folks who have added their input–I'm excited to hear so many women out there make their own pads (I was wondering if there was something special about the material used in the commercial ones) and stoked to hear about other practices and resources. ~ Beth

  10. I've been using Lunapads for about 6 years now and they're great. I wash them in the regular laundry and they last a long time. My periods are shorter with less cramping, too. Thanks so much for a great article.

  11. Soy Sauce says:

    Funny enough, the mantle is EXACTLY where I keep my Diva Cup. I don’t have guests often.

  12. Mary says:

    Diva Cup user for just 10 months now…my only regret is not knowing about it 20 yrs ago! And reading the FAQ page I realize how this is another way we are blessed with potable water in this part of the world. http://www.divacup.com/en/home/faqs/

  13. Jill says:

    today is my first day of using the lunapads (organic cotton in magenta :D) and so far I love love love them! At first I felt guilty about spending so much $ but then I realized of course that I spent about one years worth of money, on something that will last me years. So yay for saving $, saving the planet and saving my body :D

  14. wendy says:

    In the past sea sponges were associated with very virulent bacterial vaginal infections because they are actually inserted into the vagina, cleaned and reused. Can they be sterilized before being re-used? I don't know if there is any recent studies of how they can be used safely.

  15. Great article! I use the luna pads and own a diva cup, but have been nervous about it getting lost (LOL). You've inspired me to try it out. Thanks :)

  16. AMO says:

    I had a diva cup once years ago when they first came out. Having had an almost 11 pound child it didn't work for me, never once did it not leak. Also, if you are out, how do you "change" it in public? Do you carry two? Do you then take the one you're removing out to the sink in the public washroom and wash it in front of every one getting your menstrual discharge in the sink others will use? With reusable rags do you put the used ones in a ziplock bag while out? How do you deal with smell or with needing to open your bag while out? Gross. I am 47, I have very years of reproductive process left. I am not a heavy discharger and I will NOT stop using disposable tampons and pantiliners. They are clean, can be flushed (I use OBs which are biodegradable and don't have applicators) and I don't have to stay home while menstruating. As a hot yoga teacher I spend my entire day doing VERY physical things in very little clothing in front of a lot of people. I am careful with water, garbage, food, I don't own a car, I ride my bike or take public transportation, when I open my studio it will be ALL solar, I don't drink bottled water. I chose my neighborhood because I can live here without ever using a vehicle. I traveled over 10,000 miles recently over a months time and never had a single drop of bottled water, all tap, all the way. I ran a daycare center for 12 small children once using ALL cloth diapers but I encouraged my families to do what worked for them in terms of coming and going. They weren't required to bring the kids to me in cloth. I am doing my part, and then some. I advocate for environmental awareness walking VERY close to the line of of driving my friends nuts with it. Leave my vagina alone you militant Nazi environmentalists.

    • First of all, I'd like to think no one here is forcing you to change your habits. This is all about choice. You're the one who read the article. No one made you.

      Second–right, I'm sure the cups are not for everyone. They do come in various sizes, with a larger size recommended for women over I think 30 or so and women who have given birth vaginally. (So weird that we have to specify that.) (Not that I'm knocking women that have had c-sections–there are tons of reasons for them–but it just seems weird to specify a 'vaginal birth.') Still, maybe your geometry is such that the cup just won't work effectively. In that case, you could wear a pad for leakage, but this might just not be your thing.

      As for logistics–if you carry a water bottle, you should be fine in public places. You can rinse the cup with your water in the stall, not disturbing anyone else in the facility. Pads are, I'm sure, problematic for some people. Yes, storing the used one(s) in a sealed container (which usually means plastic) to manage odor is appropriate. I am lucky enough to have a light enough flow that I don't have to change during the day. Anyone out there have some advice for storing used pads? (What did our grandmothers do?)

      Environmental benefits are only one of the reasons I use reusables. Comfort, health, and convenience are others. ~ Beth

  17. Alyson says:

    If anyone is interested in trying out reusable pads "Party in my Pants" will send you a free one. You just pay for shipping (~$4).
    http://partypantspads.com/sale/cloth-pad-curious-

  18. cherryblossommj says:

    Great review of one of my favorite companies! Lovely thoughts and so true. :)

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  21. sandra says:

    so glad I am in menopause! problem solved…

  22. Melanie Klein Melanie says:

    Period underwear…hahaha I have them, too!

  23. Yes! This is true! Thank you! Getting them into the cervix would be a little difficult. And probably painful. I'm going to change that right now. ~ Beth

  24. Lasara Allen LasaraAllen says:

    Indeed! All of those things. :-)

  25. Lasara Allen LasaraAllen says:

    :-)

    And yes, socks do work well, too.

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