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I stopped using tampons ages ago, when toxic shock syndrome (TSS) became a hot topic. I later learned that TSS is actually pretty rare and there’s nothing wrong with using tampons (as directed), but I just never went back. At first, I’d switched to regular drugstore menstrual pads, because… well, I just didn’t know any better.
It wasn’t until years later, once I had switched to organic foods and started to overhaul the cleaning products under my kitchen sink and the body care products in my bathroom, that I ditched the commercial stuff and made the move to organic cotton menstrual pads.
I never did the research on what was in my old conventional period products at the time. I just made the switch to organic along with everything else, because it felt like a logical step. But I recently did do the research (for this article) and I have to say, the amount of toxins in pads and tampons is more concerning than I’d realized.
Toxin-free period care
And by the way, I also took the time to read the websites for the commercial tampon brands that I used in my teens and twenties. Not all of them list their ingredients, which is a big red flag in my book. But those that do, say there is no proof that organic cotton is safer for our body or that the synthetic materials and chemicals used to manufacture their products are dangerous. Maybe that’s true, but I find it hard to believe.
Frankly, even if they could prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the farming and manufacturing chemicals were totally fine, there’s still no flippin’ way I’d lay that crap against my sensitive bits! The skin in and around the vagina is incredibly thin with tons of small blood vessels, which, in my book, makes it no place for chemicals of any kind. Period. (Pun intended.)
With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at what you’ll find in conventional period care products, so you have the context you need. Then we’ll cover the safer alternatives, so you can see which might be a good fit once you’re ready to make the switch.
Toxins in sanitary products
Conventional pads and tampons (plus the applicator) are often made from polyester, nylon, polyethylene (PET), polypropylene, and/or propylene glycol (PEG). Or in other words: plastic, plastic, plastic, plastic, and more chemical-filled plastic.
Plus, they often contain added chemicals that increase the cotton’s absorbency, neutralize odors, and add synthetic fragrances for that “fresh scent”. (Honestly. For all the products out there that contain “fragrance”, could any be more pointless than a pad or tampon?)
When these companies do use “100% cotton” (as marketed on the front-side label), it is typically not organic cotton. This is a problem, as non-organic cotton is often genetically modified and heavily sprayed/contaminated with glyphosate, which is a widely used herbicide. Conventional cotton, as well as any synthetic fibers from the rayon and polyester, is often bleached and, depending on their bleaching process, could leave behind dioxins.
Plastic, synthetic fragrance, pesticides, herbicides, and dioxins. In your vagina. Agh.
FYI: Dioxins are not an ingredient, so you won’t see them on any label. They are a byproduct of the bleaching process and a known carcinogen. Dioxins can be found in bleached diapers too, by the way. Just letting you know, in case you’re a parent.
Non-toxic period care alternatives
Luckily, as awareness around the dangers of toxins in our feminine hygiene products has grown, so has the number of companies stepping up to do it better. These thoughtful brands are using organic cotton and other non-toxic materials as a healthier feminine care alternative. They have also eliminated toxic chemicals from the manufacturing process.
Let’s review the options.
Natural pads & tampons (disposable)
The more thoughtful brands that offer disposable period care make their pads and tampons from certified organic cotton. Their products are also free from chlorine bleach, dyes, plasticizers, chemical absorbents, fragrances, and other synthetics. While some do offer tampon applicators made with BPA-free plastic, many offer entirely applicator-free options as well.
You can buy their products “as needed”, though several brands also offer a subscription box, which can make life a bit easier.
Consider a monthly subscription if…
You meant to restock your supply of pads and tampons last month, but you forgot. Whoops! Has it been 28-days already? Life’s busy, it happens. But if it happens a lot, consider a subscription. What’s great about a subscription box is that you can customize what goes into it, set how often you’d like it to arrive, then forget about it.
Reusable cloth pads
Switching to a reusable cloth menstrual pad may seem a little daunting at first. But it’s actually quite easy and is a great way to avoid exposure to plastics and adhesives. Here’s how they work.
The pads are designed to be highly absorbent and have inserts to account for flow – use more inserts for heavier days and fewer for lighter days. You can also use the shorter pad during the day and the longer pad at night for extra coverage, just as you would with disposables.
Once you’ve placed the inserts into the holder, your pad is ready to go. Place it in your undies and wrap the wings around the crotch. Again, this is just like a disposable, except instead of using adhesives to hold it in place, you’ll use snaps. Easy peezy.
If you would normally change your disposable pad every 4 to 6 hours, you’ll do the same with the reusable. When you’re out and about, you can just fold up the pad and toss it into a waterproof bag. If you’re at home, you can toss it into a soaking pot.
Cleaning reusable pads
To clean your pads, pre-rinse them with natural soap, using cold water to prevent stains. Then hand wash or machine wash with a natural detergent.
Skip the bleach and fabric softener. Instead, add a few drops of white vinegar to the water, if you hand-rinse. Or if you’re machine washing them, add the white vinegar to the softener tray, so it will release during the rinse cycle. Air-drying is recommended to avoid shrinkage.
Like many safer alternatives, reusable pads can seem pricey at first. But the pads can often last five years or longer and can save you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars over time.
Silicone menstrual cups
A menstrual cup is a reusable silicone cup that sits inside the vagina and collects the menstrual flow. Devotees say that while there is a (very) slight learning curve, once you get the hang of it, you’ll never go back. Menstrual cups are considered leak proof (swimsuit and white dress friendly) and you can use it up to 12 consecutive hours.
They are also highly economical. You might spend a little more at first, but you can use the same cup for at least a year, if not more. How many tampons or pads do you use each day and how long does your period tend to last? You can easily calculate the savings.
Because they are reusable, period cups also eliminate the need to fit pads or tampons into a small purse, which is great for nights out. Plus, using one doesn’t involve any waste. Just dump it out, rinse it with natural soap, and reinsert. (You insert a menstrual cup the same way you would a tampon.)
Silicone can withstand extremely high temperatures, so you can boil your menstrual cup to disinfect it each month. Washing it in a bit of white vinegar will also do the trick.
When buying a period cup, make sure it is made from medical-grade silicone that has been independently tested to ensure it does not contain unwanted additives.
Sea sponge tampons (natural, but NOT recommended)
Yes, sea sponge tampons. I know, I’d never heard of them either until I was doing research for this article.
At first, I thought I was in love with them because, of all the options I’ve written about here, these are the only 100% natural period solution. Unfortunately, the more I dug in, the more I was reminded that all-natural does not always mean safe.
What are sea sponges?
Technically, a sea sponge is a multi-cell animal that looks like (and is often mistaken for) coral. But sea sponges do not have a brain, a digestive tract, or even a circulatory system. So practically speaking, it exists as a plant and is generally considered a natural, even vegan-friendly, resource.
Sea sponges are also a renewable resource when harvested properly. This seems easy enough, as all the diver needs to do is leave behind a small piece of the sponge to allow it to regrow. So far, this is great.
Sea sponge as a tampon?
I’ve never used a period sponge, but from what others say, they are as comfortable and easy to use as a regular tampon and are completely non-irritating… so long as you wash it well before the first use. That’s because they come from the sea and may still have sand on them.
That’s actually what I love about the idea of using a sea sponge as a tampon. Just wash off the sand! I mean, you can’t get more natural than that, right?
Sea sponges are naturally absorbent (of course) and reusable. I found some sites that also claim the natural enzymes in sea sponges discourage odors and bacteria growth. I’d believe that. Plus, instead of toxic additives, sea sponges contain beneficial sea minerals.
During my research, I found plenty of healthy lifestyle sites touting the awesomeness of sea sponge tampons, so I was pretty excited. They sounded amazing and I couldn’t believe I had only just heard of them! But then I found one study reported by the FDA that completely killed my buzz.
In 1980 the University of Iowa Laboratory studied 12 sponges and found “particles of sand, grit, bacteria, yeast, and mold. One sample was confirmed to contain Staphylococcus aureus”.
The sand and grit don’t bother me – just wash it well. But bacteria, yeast, and mold in my vagina? Nope. And if that’s not enough, staphylococcus aureus is the bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome.
Needless to say, while I felt the need to include sea sponges here, in order to cover my bases, I (unfortunately) do not feel comfortable recommending them as a healthy period care alternative.