Throughout her lifetime, a woman can use between 8,000 and 15,000 disposable pads, tampons and liners. The impact of all that on the earth is not limited to landfill concerns: The manufacturing processes for the cotton and plastic used in some products also take a toll on the environment.
Before the modern convenience of disposables, women used strips of folded cloth to absorb menstrual flow during their period. Now those old-fashioned reusables are making a comeback, but with a modern spin.
Take Vancouver-based company Lunapads, for example, which makes washable pads and liners, as well as underwear with built-in padding. Based on the number of women using her products, co-founder Madeleine Shaw estimates that a million disposable pads and tampons are diverted from landfills every month. ‘The pads are definitely our most popular product,’ she says. ‘On average, one reusable Lunapad replaces 120 disposable pads throughout its five-year lifespan, so our customers are saving money as well as feeling better about dealing with their menstrual cycle in a way that is more positive for themselves and the environment.’ It’s an idea that is catching on: Lunapad sales have increased 30 percent in the last two years.
Victoria-based Many Moons also makes reusable organic-cotton pads. (A package of six pads with 12 liners sells for $60; a non-organic version costs $50 at manymoonsalternatives.com.)
As well, Lunapads sells Lunapanties with sewn-in pad holders. All Lunapad products can be machine washed and dried, or handwashed and hung to dry. They range in price from $12 for a pad and liner to $30 for panties, and are available in various natural food stores and eco-focused retailers throughout Canada.
For some women with skin sensitivities, these products are a great option. ‘While disposable pads and tampons are safe to use for the majority, reusable cotton pads and liners can be a good alternative for those who are sensitive or allergic to synthetic tissue,’ explains Dr. Corinne Leclercq, a gynecologist in Victoriaville, Que., and president of the Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Quebec. ‘If washed and dried thoroughly to avoid bacteria buildup, they are very safe and reliable.’
For the 70 percent of menstruating women who use tampons, eco-alternatives are also available. The DivaCup, for example, is a small, flexible funnel-like gadget that is placed inside the vagina, and sits at the lower base of the vaginal canal. Made of silicone, it comes in two sizes. You choose the correct one based on age and whether or not you’ve given birth. Rather than absorbing flow, as a tampon does, the DivaCup collects menstrual flow. It has a small tab at its base that you grasp to remove it.
Another advantage of such a device: Conventional tampons soak up not only menstrual flow but also the vagina’s natural lubricant. With this silicone alternative, the natural lubricants remain, so vaginal dryness isn’t an issue.
‘For some women, it takes a bit of time to learn how to position the cup so it’s comfortable,’ says Leclercq. ‘But these products are safe, and are a good alternative to tampons.’
The DivaCup can be boiled or microwaved in water each month, and should be replaced annually. It’s available in health food stores, eco-retailers and some pharmacies, and online at grassrootsstore.com ($40).
Eco-friendly menstrual products: Put to the test
I tried the Lunapads reusable pads and found them a snap to use, literally. A base wraps around the bottom part of panties and snaps together on the underside for a snug hold. Then, a reusable pad is placed inside the base, and is kept in place via two small straps at the front and back. On the comfort scale, they were comparable to disposable pads.
I also tried the DivaCup, and it was pretty straightforward, and comfortable to use. But I wouldn’t recommend it when you don’t have access to a private bathroom with its own sink to rinse out the cup. Depending on menstrual flow, the DivaCup can be left in place for up to 12 hours.