The Problem With Most Pads and Tampons (+ Natural Alternatives)

Katie Wells Avatar

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This post contains affiliate links.

Read my affiliate policy.

The problem with pads and tampons- and natural alternatives
Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » The Problem With Most Pads and Tampons (+ Natural Alternatives)

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.

Environmental Concerns

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.

Plastic Problems

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.

Natural Solutions

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.

Menstrual Cups

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.

Cloth Pads

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!)

Sea Sponges

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!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


285 responses to “The Problem With Most Pads and Tampons (+ Natural Alternatives)”

  1. Chrissy Avatar

    I’m curious if you have to use some sort of liner with the diva cup or the like? And if so, what would one use?

  2. Nikki Avatar

    I highly recommend reading “The 28 Day Lighter Diet”. The title is a bit of a misgiving, as the book focuses on what women can do to embrace our bodies and the changes it goes through, not just maintaining a healthy weight.
    I had always, always used tampons, that is, until I read this book. Since then I’ve switched to pads and my periods are much more subtle, comfortable, and lighter. The cramps, backache, and the stabbing pain in my nether regions has all gone away.
    The authors touch on the value in using cast iron pans, prepping and freezing soups prior to your period, and tracking your period so you can better plan life around your period. I’ve been really amazed how much impact this one little book has made in my quality of life.

  3. Natalie Avatar


    I thank you for helping to re-motivate me to try the Diva cup. I’ve used it a few times in the past, but I’ve always had trouble with leaking on the first day or so of my cycle. Has anyone else had problems with leaking? Suggestions?

  4. christie Avatar

    This is quite interesting. I am 43 have 3 kids and did not know about menstrual cups, menstrual sponges, etc. Also loving the reusable pads link. I think I am going to try the cup thing. Thanks

  5. Noel Avatar

    After owning a Keeper for 14 years – they’re only supposed to last for 10 – I switched to reusable pads and haven’t used anything else. The first pads I made myself from an old t-shirt (the top layers), a towel cut into strips (inner absorbent core), and some fleece (as the back layer). I’ve since purchased a few pads from Precious Stars Pads, a company created by a teen girl in the UK, and love them! They are very well made, easy to wash/care for, and are INCREDIBLY absorbent.

  6. Meg Avatar

    switched to cloth pads two months ago and am loving it! where has this option been all my life 😉 tried the cup too a few times but never got the hang of it and wasn’t comfortable for me at all. but lovin’ clothpad life!!

  7. Rachel Avatar

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve been using the Diva Cup for the past 4 years and I LOVE it. I’ve always suffered from very heavy periods and even if I wanted to use tampons, they simply don’t work for me. In truth, the switch to the Diva cup was the more practical choice because dealing with tampon failures just got old. It was a lifesaver, I could wear it longer without incident. Also, it saves so much money every month. For those of us who use twice as many tampons or pads as the normal woman, stuff starts to get pricey. The Diva cup was a practical, economical and green choice. Win, win, win.

    I have been trying to convince all of my friends and family of the effectiveness since I switched but so many of them are scared to try it out. Women seem put off by the “mess” but I can say that it’s really not that bad. After a little maneuvering you work out a system and it’s easy peezy. I wouldn’t go back to Tampons if someone paid me.

    1. Kelsey Avatar

      What about the gross factor of cleaning it every time? That totally turns me off, as much as if like to get away from tampons. I don’t want to make my periods any more revolting than they already are!

  8. Andrea Avatar

    I’ve used the diva cup for years and love it. I recently had a baby and for postpartum bleeding I couldn’t use anything internally so I ended up ripping up an old cotton flannel sheet and it worked amazing! I could rip and fold it to custom meet my needs, and just washed with the cloth diapers. I’m NEVER buying conventional products again.

  9. Maria Avatar

    I have a Moon Cup, and I can’t say enough good things about it. I was ridiculously nervous to try it for the first time (similar to when I tried tampons for the first time, really), but I was a convert after one cycle. I have rather heavy periods, and I used to spend SO MUCH money on disposable supplies because of them. The cup is more pricey up front, but definitely more budget-friendly in the long run. I would also like to recommend to anyone curious about trying menstrual cups. I think the women posting there cover every possible question and then some! Researching all my questions there calmed my nerves before trying them for the first time. (On a side note, I’m intrigued by the sea sponge idea, but I can’t seem to get past the fact that it’s a dead animal. Morbid, I know.)

    1. Tammy Avatar

      Thanks for this great article. I have used a diva cup and had problems with it both times I tried it. Then I found the website listed above and it was great. I tried a different kind of cup called the skoon cup. It is wonderful. It comes in different colors and two different sizes. As with all menstrual cups it does take some getting used to. There also a lot of different ways to fold the cup so that it will “pop” open inside. There are you tube videos. If one doesn’t work try another till you find one that works.
      I have way less cramps than I used to have when I used tampons. I will never go back.
      As for cloth menstrual pads. There are a lot of choices. Check out etsy there are a ton of different options, colors and patterns. I switched to cloth reusable panty liners. Love them!

  10. Sylvia Avatar

    What would you recommend for mild urinary incontinence? I notice some slight rash and itching occasionally from using Poise pads. I like the thought of reusable products. Thank you.

    1. Tink Avatar

      I also get rashes from disposable pads. But there are many cloth alternative options for incontinence look on etsy, amazon or ebay. I like the Charlie banana brand but I not sure if they make incontinence pads.

    2. patricia Avatar

      I know this is old but please look into Icon undies. They’re similar to Thinx period panties (which I use and LOVE) but the Icon undies are specifically used for incontinence.

      SOME OTHER NATURAL, REUSABLE options for periods: Sea Sponges and Period Panties.
      I hardly know I’m on my period anymore, and don’t dread it when I know it’s coming. For heavier days I use Sea Pearls from The Sea Sponge Company and Thinx sport panties as backup. There are absolutely no leaks. Sponges are soft and silky and can be doubled up for heavier days, and the panties are the softest, most comfortable, and most effective of all the period panties I’ve tried. They feel like swim bottoms. They are lined with soft cotton, and have colloidal silver embedded in the absorptive layer to prevent microbial growth. On my lighter days I use the panties by themselves. I’ve made it for the past six months with two pairs of Thinx and a set of three sea sponges. I also highly recommend a handheld bidet. When I’m home I rinse myself off and rinse sponges right into the toilet, then squeeze them out with eco-friendly, chemical-free toilet paper. When I’m away from home, I take my peri-bottle (squeeze bottle for rinsing stitches post-baby) and fill it up at the sink before I use a public toilet, so that I can rinse out the sponges and rinse my hand within the stall. This might be helpful for those who use cups too. I was never able to use a menstrual cup as I’m too sensitive (also wish I hadn’t wasted so much money trying different brands. If you’re small, and sensitive, consider trying sponges first). I used organic cloth pads for a while but found that they kept falling out, or leaking, so I’m thrilled with my current routine and eager to share the information. Thanks!

  11. Hannah Deppner Avatar
    Hannah Deppner

    Switched to The Keeper last year, and I absolutely love it. People say it’s gross and dirty, but that could not be farther from the truth. You feel like you’re not even on your period. You can step out of the shower without hurrying to stop the red drips. It even STOPS my menstrual cramps as soon as I insert it.
    The only thing that sucks is that I can’t use it when I have a yeast infection (which I’m prone to because of PCOS). Then I use the organic cotton pantiliners.

  12. Michelle Avatar

    what do you wash your cup with? It seems like any kind of soap could irritate your lady parts!

    1. Maria Avatar

      I wash mine every night that I use it with unscented Dr. Bronner’s. I have the tiniest bottle and only use a drop or two. It hasn’t bothered me at all. Also, if any stains show up, after my period is over I will soak the cup overnight in 1/2 water, 1/2 hydrogen peroxide. Voila! Stains gone.

    2. Azu Avatar

      Depending on the material it is made of you could use mild soap, sterilize by boiling it a few minutes, ozone sterilizer, sodium bicarbonate.

    3. Sarah Avatar

      When I bought my Diva cup it came with a bottle of Diva wash. It’s pH-balanced and has worked well for me. You only have to use a drop. One 6 oz bottle has lasted me 18 months so far and I think I’ll be able to get 2 more months out of what is left in the bottle. There is no added fragrance but it has a slight citrusy scent that is pleasant. It is concentrated though and I have to make sure that I rinse my cup REALLY well before reinserting.

  13. Ashley Avatar

    You really nailed this story! I recently made the journey to the Diva Cup after 2 babies and I’m super happy with it. I do experience leaking sometimes on my super heavy days where it doesn’t make a tight fit – sometimes removing it and putting it back in helps. I will try turning it inside out as well. I will sometimes where an organic day pad on days I think it COULD leak or over night. Either way I know I’m reducing the waste and protecting my VAGINA! Which – ladies- let’s admit it- our vaginas are kind of important, right?!!!

  14. Lapis Avatar

    I also use the Lunette. It’s amazing and my favorite of all the cup options.

    I started out using the Diva cup seven years ago and always had problems getting it open and sealed once inserted.

    I switched to the Lunette and it’s so much easier to use. It always opens and seals immediately after inserted. Also…it comes in pretty colors. Which shouldn’t matter but i like the pretty colors.

  15. Claire C Avatar

    How do you handle changing the diva cup when you are out of the house? I work full time…can’t imagine having to wash it in the ladies bathroom at work with other people seeing me do it.

    1. Robin Avatar

      There are a few options. You could dampen a paper towel to take into the stall with you and use it to wipe out your cup. Or you could use toilet paper to wipe it (trying not to get little shreds of tp on it). Or you could simply dump and reinsert without wiping the cup, since your own blood on/in the cup will not hurt you in the least.

      Some people with light to regular flow can insert a cup in the morning and then not bother with it all day until they get home. A cup can be worn safely for up to 12 hours.

    2. Maria Avatar

      Whenever I have to empty it in a public bathroom, I just use the toilet paper in the stall to wipe it out. It doesn’t get it perfectly clean, but it’s fine until I get home to to a more private bathroom where I can rinse it. I’ve also heard of women just taking a damp paper towel into the stall with them.

    3. Sarah Avatar

      Claire, I have emptied mine in public restrooms before. You can just use some toilet paper to wipe it out and reinsert it and then when you change it after you are home you can wash it. If your flow is not heavy you will likely be able to go the entire day without emptying it. It will take a few months to get used to everything but you will know your body so much better.

    4. Tink Avatar

      I work full time also I don’t have any problems dumping the contents at work I just wipe the cup clean with tissue re-insert and wash the cup clean with soap at night then at the end of my cycle I just boil my cup to steralize.

      1. Kelsey Avatar

        I am really, genuinely amazed that so many women can do this without being grossed out. I just can’t imagine cleaning something that is used for my period! I’m literally gagging at the thought. Has anyone been able to overcome similar concerns about the gross-ness factor??

        1. Alyssa D Avatar
          Alyssa D

          I wipe mine out with toilet paper getting it pretty clean & then wipe it clean inside & out with an alcohol free wet wipe from a pack that I keep in my purse for just this purpose. No one at works the wiser : ‘ )

        2. Kelly Avatar

          Well, I thought the same, but let’s just say when I used tampons, it was like a crime scene. With the menstrual cup, the blood’s pretty much relegated to the cup and rinsing it out. Plus, if you were comfortable with blood on your hands with tampons or pads, it’s not any worse (I felt it was lessened) with the cup. Just dump and rinse and reinsert. Much cleaner, and for once, I actually forgot I was on my period. But also, reading about how people treat it so naturally here and in the forum that another reader suggested helped, plus there’s daggone teenagers on youtube showing you how to hse them and which ones they liked, I figured if they were so casual about it I shouldnt have trouble with it. And I was right 🙂

    5. Torrie Stratton Avatar
      Torrie Stratton

      I hate to gross anybody out, but in public stalls (if I remember in time) I hold the cup under my stream of urine to rinse and dump. Otherwise I just dump and replace. I don’t like the bits of toilet paper left on the cup.

    6. Victoria Avatar

      I hate to gross anybody out, but in public stalls (if I remember in time), I hold the cup under my stream of urine to rinse and dump. Otherwise, I just dump and replace. I don’t like the bits of toilet paper on the cup.

  16. Teanna Avatar

    I love my diva cup, but the part on the bottom always rubs and can get uncomfortable. Can’t wait to try it inside out! Thanks!

  17. Sarah Avatar

    Thank you for sharing! I am new to using my Lunette cup and I just want to shout from the rooftops, “ladies, there is a better option!!!” Some woman think it sounds gross, but it is actually way cleaner and easier once you have the hang of it. Also, I am one of the women whose cramps disappeared! I also started taking Maca on Katie’s recommendation for balancing hormones. Since my second baby my pms is out of control and my flow was much heavier. I was miserable 2 weeks a month. With maca and a cup my period is now comfortable and easy. So thankful for wonderful blogs like this one!!

  18. Charnis Avatar

    Thank you for this great article.
    I reduced the use of tampons to an absolute minimum and since then the cramps and pain I normally have during the first day of my menses are not that bad any more.

    I wonder if there is a connection between using tampons and getting cramps.

    In a book I once read that the flow of blood is not constant, but comes in waves, So if you find out about that cycle in yourself you do not need any hygiene product at all, but just need to go to the bathroom. Well, not that easy, I can tell (and a mess 🙂 ).

    1. Tink Avatar

      I think there is a definite connection between cramps and tampons. I believe I got really bad cramps because tampons block the blood flow so your body has to work harder to rid itself of the waste. And menstrual cups don’t do that they just collect the flow thus reducing cramps.

    2. Julie Avatar

      I heard about the “natural” (no tools needed) body flow technique, but I’m a bit scared to try it… plus I don’t really want to waste pads during the learning process. Did it work for you?

      1. Tina Avatar

        I have kind of gravitated toward this naturally after having kids. I have an extremely heavy flow so I cannot use cups or tampons. I use pads but only to maintain a little mess. When I feel a rush come on or a cramp I go to the toilet and relax my lower body. Wait a minute I two, wipe up and get back to life. I used to have the worst cramps from dialating clots to pass and being tense. Learning to relax the lower body to let a “wave” pass and then go back again as many times as needed has changed my life! Of course this would have been difficult to practice in high school but then again I used to miss a lot of the first few days of my period anyway.

  19. lisa Avatar

    I’ve been using cloth pads for years and would try the cup but no longer have my period! My challenge is my 13 yr old daughter. She just started menstruating and wants nothing to do with my alternative ways:) i was thinking about sharing your post, Katie, but it’s more than she’ll be willing to take in. I’ve found as teens they realize there are many points of view out there and generally side with the mainstream. This goes for deoderant, shampoo, toothpaste, etc. She’s willing to use what I do for washing her face, so I’ve made some headway, but wish I could find a way for her to come to her own conclusion of replacing toxic products with healthy alternatives. Any suggestions?

    1. Alicia Avatar

      My daughter was against trying an alternative like cloth pads despite me telling her it would help her. She gets very bad cramps. One month she started early and was out of her disposable pads and so used one of my cloth until I could get the store. She is now a huge believer that the cloth ones are better. She also likes how comfortable they are versus the plastic ones and likes that they in lots of colors and styles. So maybe you could be sneaky and forget to stock up for her. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *