Sustainability should not start in your pants. Periods, pregnancy, menopause, anything and everything in between – there’s enough going on down there without having to feel like the workings of our undercarriage are responsible for the melting ice caps.
But it’s also undeniably true that for those of us who menstruate, we’ll experience a lot of periods throughout our lifetime, and a lot of periods means a lot of one-use period products. Whether that’s tampons and their applicators or sanitary towels and the little piece of plastic that swaddles them before use, the products which are essential to our body’s natural order create a considerable amount of waste as the years stack up.
Truthfully, it’s frustrating enough trying to get through the cycle every month in a comfortable and calm way, let alone streamlining menstruation to be the most sustainable process it can be. I’m bleeding out of my vagina, man, give me a break! As much as the mood swings, nausea and fatigue irritate me, I am, however, appreciative of what my body does, and so with many more periods ahead of me, I resolved to make sustainable switches when it came to the products I use. It was an ‘I can, so why not?’ type of situation, as well as a ‘if I start my period again without any products in the house, I’m going to scream’ type of situation.
Over the past few years, the sustainable period sector has bloomed with alternative options, ranging from new takes on the old classics to mysterious little contraptions I’d never seen before. I’ve rounded up some of the best below to help you decide which route is best for you.
And to reiterate one more time: there are plenty of other areas in life which you can focus on to make conscious, relevant change. Travel, food, energy, clothing, slowing down consumption of everything and anything; switching period products can have a really positive impact, but please don’t feel pressured to make choices which you aren’t comfortable with. Our cycles are extremely sensitive and intimate, and though we share the responsibility to affect the climate crisis, the onus is not on people who menstruate to change the world with their periods. Like I said, there’s enough going on down there and inside without adding a fresh layer of guilt on top.
Period pants are my favourite choice when it comes to sustainable period products. I was extremely skeptical of them when they first came onto the scene – wouldn’t they smell and feel wet all day? I don’t have a particularly heavy cycle, but the first two days are inevitably punctuated by little clots and the endlessly unwelcome sensation of wetting myself whenever I stand up. If I was going to wear period pants, I didn’t want to know that I was wearing period pants, you know? I wanted them to feel as seamless as possible, and I wasn’t sure how that’d be possible without anything visible to absorb the blood.
Boy, was my mind changed. After trialling them for the first day, I never looked back, reaching for a pair whenever my period rolled around (which could be once a month or once every three months – I never really know with mine, which is why it’s handy having the same pants on standby rather than having to nip to the shop to stock up).
I’ve written a full review here with the pros and cons – everything from ‘do they leak?’ to ‘how sustainable are they?’ – but the main gist is that various layers absorb the blood and then lock it in place, fighting bacteria, preventing odours and keeping you dry and fresh. To wash, you simply rinse out the blood and then pop them in a cool wash with no detergent or softener (these affect the absorbency of the pants, diminishing their effectiveness). Because you wash and re-use the pants time and time again, you needn’t purchase new period protection every month, and there is no second-hand waste like plastic or paper from using them. Plus they’re comfortable as hell, way more comfortable than the nappy-like maxi pads I used to buy when I was short on cash.
If you fancy trying a pair for yourself, check out:
Towels & Liners
I like to think of towels and liners as more sophisticated cousins of the ole’ wrap-and-pray, the makeshift tissue solution you rely on when you’re caught out and about without any products to rely on. I used them religiously for years, from my very first period at 11 all the way through to my mid 20s when I made the switch to period pants.
And they served me well – as somebody who has tried a handful of times to unsuccessfully insert a tampon with my leg cocked up on the toilet, the fact of the matter is they were my only choice – there weren’t other options at the time.
With that being said I’m glad to see newer, more planet-friendly iterations of the classic sanitary towel now coming to the market for those who aren’t keen on period pants, tampons of cups. Whereas the big-name brands typically make their pads and liners with a mixture of synthetic plastics and materials (like polyethylene and viscose), these alternatives utilise organic cotton and are individually wrapped in biodegradable sleeves, making use and disposal that little bit kinder. Take a look at:
Tampons felt like the cool girl period option when I was growing up. Using a tampon was a signal of maturity, and maturity is something all tweens and teens long for until they have it and wish they could go back (I wouldn’t repeat my school days but I would take the eons of free, unfettered time). Unfortunately tampons never worked for me; any time I tried, my vagina closed up quicker than a shopping centre at 5pm on Christmas Eve. It just wasn’t happening. But I know for so many people who menstruate, they are a convenient and comfortable option.
Much like liners and pads, ‘traditional’ tampons you’d buy from the big name brands are made primarily of cotton, rayon (a synthetic fiber) and plastic. While cotton is a natural fiber, it is energy intensive to produce and non-organic cotton is responsible for a considerable percentage of the world’s insecticide and pesticide usage. These are harmful to both people and the planet, affecting local eco-systems and the individuals who produce the cotton, so switching to organic cotton is preferable. Try:
Period Cups & Menstrual Discs
Period cups tend to be quite divisive: for those who love them, they’re life-changing, but for those who are skeptical, they can be seen as a symbol of social intrusion, external forces dictating what we should or shouldn’t be doing with our own periods.
Considering tampons have never been comfortable for me, I’ve favoured pants over cups simply due to their ease of use.
Largely, however, cups are the most sustainable option. Reusable for years and years and producing no waste, they offer both a cost-effective and planet friendly solution to period protection. Made with medical-grade silicone which can be cut up and scattered across a garden or burned without releasing toxic fumes, they’re pretty easy to dispose of too.
Menstrual cups come in various shapes and sizes to suit people of all ages and experiences, whether you’re now starting your period journey or you’re a seasoned pro with a gaggle of bubbas.
And if you thought cups were fairly new-age, wait until I tell you about menstrual discs. Yep, a disc! Sitting just past the vaginal canal, the disc catches blood instead of absorbing it, and should be completely undetectable when placed correctly. While the discs create 60% less plastic waste than traditional tampons, it’s worth mentioning that they are a one-use, disposable product.
If you want to try one of the new kids on the block, have a look at: