It is always frustrating when something that is really convenient and time-saving ends up being really unhealthy… like plastic water bottles or antibacterial hand sanitizer.
One glaring example of this I’ve been researching lately is conventional tampons and pads. I know, I know… everything is toxic these days and it sometimes seems like we have to be afraid of everything, but there are some really compelling reasons to avoid conventional feminine hygiene products.
Luckily, there are some great time- and money-saving alternatives.
The Problem With Pads
Modern sanitary napkins or “pads” and tampons have definitely made feminine hygiene easier and more convenient, but everything comes with a price.
From an environmental perspective, a tremendous amount of these products end up in landfills and water treatment facilities. An average woman will use over 16,000 tampons or pads (up to 300 pounds!) in the course of her lifetime, sometimes more.
Most of these products contain plastics, which are problematic in their own right and take a long time to break down. They also contain special chemicals and ingredients that make them able to absorb 10x their weight in liquid. These chemicals have not been comprehensively studied for their effect on the environment, however.
I’ve written before about the dangers of plastic exposure, and we often don’t think about how things like pads can be a major source of plastic exposure.
The labia and vaginal area is highly vascular, meaning that a lot of small blood vessels run to this area. The skin is also especially thin down there, making it easier for plastic chemicals to enter the body that way. Many pads and some tampons contain plastic chemicals and can even contain BPA and other plastic chemicals. From this article:
For example, plasticizing chemicals like BPA and BPS disrupt embryonic development and are linked to heart disease and cancer. Phthalates — which give paper tampon applicators that smooth feel and finish — are known to dysregulate gene expression, and DEHP may lead to multiple organ damage. Besides crude oil plastics, conventional sanitary pads can also contain a myriad of other potentially hazardous ingredients, such as odor neutralizers and fragrances. Synthetics and plastic also restrict the free flow of air and can trap heat and dampness, potentially promoting the growth of yeast and bacteria in your vaginal area.
Cotton or Not: Both Can Be a Problem
From watching commercials, you’d think that all tampons and pads are made up of entirely soft pillowy cotton from pristine white fields. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case.
Some tampons and pads do contain cotton, but most contain rayon, a synthetic material. There is some evidence that synthetic fibers can pull too much moisture from the vaginal walls and stick to the soft skin there, leaving tiny synthetic fibers that may increase the risk of TSS, Toxic Shock Syndrome.
The tampons and pads that are actually made of cotton are usually bleached with chlorine (problematic on its own) or other chemicals.
Additionally, cotton is one of the world’s dirtiest crops and is often sprayed with a variety of pesticides. The Rodale Institute reports:
- Cotton is considered the world’s dirtiest crop due to its heavy use of pesticides. Aldicarb, cotton’s second best-selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans and wildlife, is still used in 25 countries, including the U.S., where 16 states reported it in their groundwater. Worldwide, cotton covers 2.5% of the cultivated land and cotton growers use 16% of the world’s pesticides.
- Eight of the top 10 pesticides most commonly used on U.S. conventionally produced cotton were classified as moderately to highly hazardous by the World Health Organization. The Environmental Justice Foundation elaborates more on the world wide negative effects of pesticide use in cotton.
- Cotton (83%) is one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world which includes soy (89%), canola (75%) and corn (61%). GMO cotton production ranks ninth in global crop production.
- On an average, 90 percent of U.S. cotton in 2010 was genetically engineered, according to a USDA survey. However 95 to 98% of all cotton is now genetically engineered in nine of the eleven cotton producing states surveyed.
On top of that, a 2015 study found that 85% of tampons were contaminated with glyphosate (an herbicide linked to cancer) and that number was 100% when cotton gauze products were tested!
Not really what you want being absorbed into your bloodstream from one of your body’s most sensitive areas (that also happens to be part of your reproductive system!).
Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)
When I was a teenager, I read the warning labels in my tampon box one time and was scared to use tampons for months. Though rare, Toxic Shock Syndrome (or TSS) is a life-threatening infection that can occur, especially with tampon use.
Current theories suggest that the Staphylococcus aureus (staph) or group A streptococcus (strep) bacteria cause the TSS infection and that wearing a tampon (with its rough surface) in the dark, warm, and moist environment of the vagina can increase the chances of this infection.
Of course, this isn’t a risk with sanitary napkins, but they have their own risks and problems (plastics, chemicals, synthetic fibers, etc).
If you do use tampons of any type, make sure that you are aware of the symptoms of TSS and act quickly if you ever suspect you may have it.
I suspect we will continue to find out more and more about the importance of avoiding chemicals in feminine hygiene products, but there are some great options already available.
These options are a win-win. They are made with natural materials so they are safer for use, and they reduce or eliminate waste and environmental chemicals as well.
Organic/Natural Pads and Tampons
If you want to stick with the convenience of traditional tampons and pads, at least opt for natural and/or organic ones. These have become much more widely available lately and are about the same price as regular options in many cases. My favorite is Rael brand, which are made with 100% organic cotton cover.
I’ll admit, it took me a long time to work up to this option and now I feel silly for taking so long to make the switch. To be fair, I was so busy having babies that I didn’t have many opportunities to try them, but now that I have… I’m a convert!
A menstrual cup is exactly what it sounds like — a reusable soft-sided cup that fits inside the vagina to collect menstrual flow. It is reusable, leak-proof (in my experience), and much more comfortable than regular tampons. They don’t carry the risk of TSS that tampons do and can be safely worn for up to 24 hours.
Yes, it takes some experimenting to get used to using a menstrual cup, but once you get used to it, it is so much easier. I get into all the details (yes, all of them) in this post.
Where to get them:
I used the Diva Cup for years. It comes with two options: Size 1 for pre-childbirth and Size 2 for post-childbirth (vaginal or c-section) or for women over 30. Last year, I had to buy another menstrual cup when I forgot to bring the Diva cup while traveling and ended up with the Luna Cup, which I actually prefer to the Diva Cup now. Both of these options are medical-grade silicone and considered completely safe.
If you’re unsure about the menstrual cup idea, reusable pads are another great option. They are more comfortable than plastic-based pads and have a waterproof liner so they don’t leak through onto clothing.
Many work even better than disposable options. The only downside is that you do have to wash them, but I’ve found that this is a minimal inconvenience to avoid chemicals and keep plastics out of the landfill.
Where to get them:
My favorites are these handmade cloth menstrual pads from a local family-owned business (they can ship them worldwide!)
I usually just use the Diva cup, but another great option is a sea sponge. I don’t think I’ve totally gotten the hang of them, but they do work well and are easy to use like the Diva Cup. If the menstrual cup is uncomfortable for you, they might be worth a shot. I got mine from here.
Do They Work?
I knew I felt better and loved the convenience of the natural options (especially the Luna cup and cloth pads) but I was amazed by some of the things people said on Facebook when I posted this:
- “I have polycystic ovarian syndrome and my periods have always been unpredictable. I decided to make the switch to cloth pads and I’m so happy that I did. Within just a few months I began to have regular cycles. I used to have heavy bleeding and severe cramps/horrible stabbing pains. I’ve been pain-free and regular for 8 months now. I’ll never go back to chemical-ridden disposable products again.”
- “I switched to natural care products and also use glad rags as liners. Made the switch 2 yrs ago when I was diagnosed with reproductive issues and have never looked back. I feel better too. Firm believer that this affects women more than we realize.”
- “I use the Diva cup, and I suffer from ovarian cysts that rupture every month. Before switching to Diva, I could be using the worlds largest diaper pad and STILL feel the “gush” while sitting in the middle of the restaurant and have to figure out how to save my dignity. The Diva cup has been a lifesaver!! I can go out in public without worry, AND I can sleep through the night without worry.”
- “I don’t have an extremely heavy flow like it sounds you do but my first starting day is my worst day. I’ve been using the diva cup going on two years and I will never go back to pads or tampons. I do have a history or extremely bad cramps (puking, cold sweats, pass out from exhaustion) and ovarian cysts but since using the diva cup my period has cut down from 7-8 days to 3-5 days and my cramps are half of what they used to be. I still get the cramps but I use a heating pad and I can at least function that day…. It took me about 3-4 times using it to feel 100% confident that when I put it in it wasn’t going to leak. I’m sure I’m not the only one that was constantly running to the bathroom to check!”
- “Love, love, love my diva cup! Switched about 3 years ago & only wish I’d known sooner. Went from bleeding through a super plus tampon in 20 mins on my heavy day to just having to empty my diva cup morning and night and only once a day the rest of my cycle.”
- “Flow went from heavy down to probably less than normal? Cycle went from a full 7 days to 3 or 4 days with only 2 being at all heavy. And all but stopped at night. (don’t even need the cup at night) Much less cramps and discomfort in general. I had done a LOT of hormone work the year or so prior to starting to use it, so I’m sure that was part of things, but deff saw some big changes after using it for several months. It takes some getting used to and some trial and error.”
- “Menstrual cups have changed my period! My horrible cramps are a thing of the past!!”
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What do you think? Do you use natural alternatives to tampons and pads? What has worked best for you? Please share with a friend to help spread this important info!