Sustainable sanitary products
Ruth Walton from The Green Shopper website guides us through the eco-friendly options.
In France, you might hear talk of ‘Strawberry Season’. In Italy ‘The Marquis’ may visit, and in Denmark, there are ‘painters in the stairway’.
Around the world, it’s common to use euphemisms when referring to menstruation. The UK has dozens, from the astrologically inspired ‘Moontime’ through to the simple ‘Time of the Month’.
More formal euphemisms can be found in pharmacies. Feminine Care, Feminine Hygiene and Sanitary/Menstrual Products are common terms, but are all slightly indirect. Women need to be able to discuss period-related needs in plain language.
Being able to refer directly to sanitary products is key to feeling comfortable about the process.
So, without any more fannying about, here is a guide to ethical and sustainable sanitary products.
Washable sanitary pads
With proper care, cloth pads can last many years, saving a huge amount of money as well as reducing waste. With a wide choice of brands and materials available, here are some tips to consider:
What are they made from?
Washable pads are made from layers of fabric with an absorbent inner core and often have a waterproof membrane made from polyurethane laminated polyester (PUL).
The core and outer can be made from cotton, organic cotton, bamboo viscose, polyester microfibre, fleece, wool, organic wool. Some companies use fabric remnants to manufacture pads, helping reduce textile waste. Plastic or metal poppers are usually used to hold the pads in place.
How many will I need?
This really depends on your cycle length and flow, and how often you do the laundry! Most companies offer bundles or starter kits. It’s worth buying and trying out a single pad before investing in a whole kit, as there are so many sizes and styles available.
These absorbent knickers are a recent innovation. Several companies now make leakproof period underwear, meaning no pads or tampons are necessary! Most brands recommend rinsing and machine washing at a low temperature without fabric conditioner.
Useful Accessories for Washables
- It’s useful to have a waterproof bag to transport used pads home for washing while you’re out and about. ImseVimse make these.
- Keep a small lidded bucket in your bathroom to soak rinsed pads before they go in the laundry.
- Adding a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda helps stop smells. If your washable sanitary items are made with synthetic fibres, use a Guppyfriend wash bag to stop microplastic pollution from your laundry entering the waterways.
A menstrual cup is a soft container which is worn internally and sits below the cervix collecting menstrual blood before it leaves the vagina. There are many designs and colours to choose from. Materials include medical-grade silicone, Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) and Fairtrade rubber.
Cups need to be sterilised monthly, but can then be emptied, rinsed or wiped and reinserted for the rest of your cycle. They are a relatively inexpensive option, as you only need one, and with proper care it will last many years.
Menstrual cups were probably invented around the same time as tampons in the 1930s, but the production, which started around the beginning of World War II, stalled due to shortages of rubber and sales never took off.
By the 1980s, according to the women who own the Keeper business, “Changing culture meant women had new power and ownership of their bodies."
In those days, ideas were spread by word of mouth rather than social media, and it was a cyclist hearing about the rubber cups at a Critical Mass demonstration in 1999, that led to the development of the silicone Mooncup.
Mooncup name 2015 as “the year the taboo was broken”, quoting the Daily Mail’s headline “Would YOU use a menstrual cup? One mother did and says they might not just be for hippies, after all ...”
Menstrual cups have shot from a product only available by mail order or from independent wholefood shops (and promoted by dedicated environmentalists secretly slapping stickers on the inside of the doors in public toilets) to being available on the shelves of Asda, Superdrug and Sainsbury’s.
On our table we have:
- The Keeper, made in the US from brown rubber or medical grade silicone since 1987.
- Mooncup, made in the UK from medical grade silicone since 2002.
- Lily cup and Ziggy cup, medical grade silicone from Sweden.
- Organicup, medical grade silicone from Denmark.
- Diva Cup, medical grade silicone from Canada.
- Hey Girls, a Scottish company whose medical grade silicone cups are made in China/EU.
- Fair Squared cup, a German company using fair trade rubber from Sri Lanka.
- TOTM and Kind Organic, TPE from the UK.
- Lunette, a Finnish company using medical grade silicone.
There are many other brands on the market, but some of them may be very cheap but not necessarily safe.
The great thing about menstrual cups is not only do they save you money, as they should last at least 10 years, they also save loads of waste.
Mooncup stated that by their 15th birthday, in 2017, their users had ensured that 1.7 billion fewer tampons and pads had ended up on beaches or in a landfill.
It isn’t always possible to use washable sanitary products, but there are lots of great plastic-free disposable sanitary products. Look for pads and tampons made from unbleached organic cotton, with plastic-free packaging.
If you use applicator tampons, check that the tube is cardboard. Or better still, THINX makes a reusable tampon applicator and Waitrose also sells one, although made by Dame, a brand not rated in this guide