3.3
July 30, 2010

Get Back on the Rag. ~ Beth Bartel

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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