Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Natural Menstrual Alternatives

Why avoid conventional tampons and pads?

Disposable tampons and pads can contain chemicals, such as dioxins and furans, that may lead to ill health.  According to Katie Singer's fabulous The Garden of Fertility book,
 Most tampons are made from rayon (for absorbency) and cotton; most are bleached.  Dioxin, a chemical produced in the bleaching process, can be toxic to the immune and reproductive systems.  Dioxin is potentially cancer-causing, and it's been linked to endometriosis... there is no acceptable level of exposure to dioxin, given that exposure to it is cumulative, and the chemical disintegrates slowly.  The real danger with dioxin comes from repeated contact.
In a lifetime, a woman may use 8,000 tampons. 
Because it's very absorbent, rayon contributes to the danger of a woman being exposed to dioxin through tampon use; when rayon fibers remain in the vagina after the menstrual period (as they commonly do), so, too, does dioxin.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council,
Dioxins and furans are among the most hazardous chemicals known - extremely tiny doses have been shown to cause negative health effects. These chemicals are listed by several governmental agencies as known causes of cancer in humans. Indeed, studies have linked dioxins and furans to many types of cancer, as well as to reproductive problems, abnormalities in fetal development, immune alterations, and disruption of hormones. Because dioxins and furans are attracted to fat and are resistant to metabolism, they are notorious for accumulating in the animals humans eat, and by that route accumulating in humans. Within the human body, the highest levels of these chemicals are in fat and breast milk.

Pros and Cons of Natural Menstrual Options

In the 9 years since I learned about the dangers in conventional tampons and pads, I've tried out many natural menstrual alternatives.  They all have their advantages and disadvantages. Currently, I use sea sponges.   

Unbleached cotton tampons
My experience
I initially switched to using Natracare unbleached cotton tampons without applicators.  I used these for about 8 months with no problems, then became pregnant with my daughter. I tried using these again after my daughter was born, but didn't like them because I had some scar tissue from an internal tear that made insertion particularly uncomfortable.  I also used them for a few months after my son was born, when I started having problems with the Diva Cup. 

  • Unbleached cotton tampons don't contain dioxins or other undesirable chemicals.
  • They are very convenient to use, just like conventional tampons.
  • They are rather expensive, and since they are disposable, you'll keep paying the high price month after month.
  • There seems to be a little bit more "friction" during insertion with these tampons than conventional tampons.  So they don't insert quite as easily as conventional tampons, but they're still pretty easy to use. 
  • It seems like these tampons are probably more likely to leave some fibers behind.  But, these fibers would just be cotton, so it seems like they wouldn't be harmful anyhow.  I never noticed any fibers left behind, but these just aren't quite as smooth as conventional tampons. 
  • Just like conventional tampons, there is a risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome with cotton tampons.
Menstrual cups
My experience
I switched to the Diva Cup, which is a silicone menstrual cup, after my daughter was born when I was having problems with cotton tampons.  (There is also a natural rubber version of the menstrual cup, called The Keeper.)  I absolutely LOVED the Diva Cup, and used it for a year until I got pregnant with my son. After my son was born, I had problems with the Diva Cup not staying in quite the right place when I wore it. Apparently my son's quick arrival (just over two hours of labor) changed my internal landscape a bit.

  • The Diva Cup is made from health-grade silicone. The Keeper is made from natural rubber.
  • Menstrual cups are convenient to use.  When they get full, just dump the contents, rinse the cup, and re-insert.  (The rinsing can be skipped if necessary, such as in a public restroom.)
  • Menstrual cups can last for years and years, so they are very cost effective.
  • Menstrual cups can be worn for up to twelve hours.
  • There is a little bit of a learning process in learning how to properly insert a menstrual cup. (But, once you get the hang of it, it is really quite simple.) 
Cloth pads
My experience
I started using LunaPanties all-in-one underwear with menstrual protection as backup protection in combination with the Diva Cup.  Then, when I started having problems with the Diva Cup, I bought a kit of LunaPads liners and pads, and used these exclusively for a few months.  But, this mostly just reminded me of why I always preferred internal menstrual methods as I don't really like the messiness of using pads alone.  So now I only use cloth pads for very light days.  

  • Cloth pads are much more breathable than conventional pads. Breathability is great for overall vaginal health.
  • Because they are breathable, I found that wearing cloth pads ensures that I never develop those unpleasant odors that can sometimes arise with conventional pads.
  • Cloth pads are quite pricey initially; however, since they will last for years they are really economical in the long run. 
  • Cloth pads are very absorbent, and I've had any problems with them leaking.
  • Because they hold onto fluids so well, it can take quite awhile to fully rinse the blood out of cloth pads.  The best method I found was to put them into the bathtub while I showered and periodically step on them to squish the liquid out.
  • Cloth pads don't stay in place quite as well as conventional pads (this is one reason that I prefer the Lunapanties that have built-in protection).  I have found that the cloth pads often require a bit of adjustment after going to the bathroom, but then they stay in place just fine once they are positioned where you want them.
  • If you need to change your pad while out-and-about, you'll need to have some way of transporting your soiled pads back home.
Sea sponge tampons
As recommended by a friend, I started using Jade and Pearl sea sponge tampons over 3 years ago.  I really like these, and plan to use them for the foreseeable future.  I bought a multipack with three different sizes, and I use only the small and medium sizes.

  • Sea sponge tampons are made of natural materials.
  • It is very easy to wash sea sponge tampons in the sink.  They are much easier to clean than cloth pads.
  • Sea sponge tampons are very absorbent.
  • Sea sponge tampons are easy to insert and can be trimmed to fit if desired (although I haven't had to trim mine at all).
  • Sea sponge tampons can be left in during intercourse.
  • Sea sponge tampons can be sterilized using apple cider vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, sea salt, or tea tree oil.
  • Just like normal tampons, sea sponge tampons can require some re-adjustment after you use the restroom. 
  • I have installed a Biffy bidet attachment on my toilets to spray clean after I use the bathroom.  I find it best to remove my sea sponge tampons each time I use the restroom if I plan to use the Biffy; otherwise, they soak up too much water.
  • Sea sponge tampons should ideally be sanitized once or twice a day (using one of the methods described above).
  •  If I haven't sanitized the sea sponges often enough, they tend to develop a bit of unpleasant ocean-like smell.  This is only noticeable if you actually sniff the sea sponge itself, though, and can be easily remedied by a quick soak in one of the sanitizing solutions.

Have you tried any natural menstrual alternatives? What natural menstrual solutions do you recommend?

Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you use these links, your price remains the same, but I earn a small commission. Thanks for supporting this site!



HealBalanceLive said...

I really appreciate this post, for years I have wondered about the alternative products and wondered if they worked, your post was very informative.

Thanks, Karen

Esther said...

Great post! I use the Diva cup in combination with cloth pads. So much better than disposables!

Unknown said...

What an interesting article. I didn't know any of that information about the toxins in regular tampons. It really gives me a lot to think about. I am not sure about re-using cloth pads though. The cleaning on them sounds terrible. But I will definitely think about it.
Thank you for the information.

rebecca said...

We have used cloth pads that we sewed ourselves (plenty of online patterns), for several years. Just have a covered pan, or crock next to the toilet with some water and washing soda in them to soak until you're ready to wash them. We just rinse them in the tub, then put in a mesh washing bag and into the washer they go. If there is a particularly heavy flow day, my daughter wears a stick-on disposable pad between the cloth pad and her panties. Sure saves a lot of money and keeps that irritating rash away that used to happen with regular pads.

Anonymous said...

I've used the Diva and the Keeper. The Keeper lasts for about 10 years and I replaced it with the Diva. The are small differences between the two, the Keeper seemed to retains odour after a few years, but the Diva was a little slippery when wet.

Linnae said...

Awesome, awesome post! i have been wanting to do a post about this topic for some time now!! I use homemade cloth pads mostly but occasionally will use Natracare tampons. I almost never get menstral cramps anymore!!

Laurie S said...

Thanks so much for this post. Like the first commenter, I've been wondering about more natural, sustainable products but didn't know where to look or who to ask. Glad you also included photos.

Laurie S said...

Are the sea sponges soft? The only sea sponges I've ever handled have been quite rough and scratchy, for cleaning. I would hope these are softer and smoother . . . have you found that to be true?

Sarah Smith said...

I was worried about the same thing, Laurie. But the menstrual sea sponges are nice and soft once you get them wet ( which you do before insertion, then squeeze out excess water).

Anonymous said...

I've been using a Keeper for ten years (this month in fact, and I am probably due for a new one). The initial purchase may seem a little expensive, but considering that you use them for years, it's much cheaper than anything disposable. I also swear my cramping eased when I stopped using tampons.


Evi said...

Thank you for this post Sarah!
I've been wondering about the sea sponge tampons for a while now but I was hesitant to buy them; I bought a menstrual cup once (Mooncup, it is popular in Britain) but I had a hard time using it, so I've been using Natracare tampons and panty liners for years now. I'm very happy with them but you're right, they are pricey.

JuliPickle said...

I have been meaning to try the diva cup for a while now and I finally just ordered one last night. If it doesn't work for me I am totally going to try the sea foam tampons!

JuliPickle said...

*sea sponge tampons :)

Jo said...

Yep, I've been using a Mooncup for around 10 years and I love it! Definitely took a bit of practice at the beginning but wouldn't change it for the world now. I also do my best to get other women on it. My 13yr old has just started her periods so I will get her one in a couple of years.

The only thing I would check with sea sponges is that they have been properly boiled before you use them - they can apparently still have wee things in them!!

Sarah Smith said...

Actually, the sea sponges I have say specifically NOT to oil them, as they will shrink and get harder.

Anonymous said...

There are so many brands of cups, apart from Divacup, Mooncup and Keeper. Just because one brand doesn't work for someone, that doesn't mean that one of the others won't. After all, the Diva is the longest cup out there!
I could never wear a Diva I'm sure, but my Fleurcup is as comfortable as a very comfortable thing and never leaks. Great capacity, too.
So if anyone finds that her Diva stops working for her, I'd suggest doing some research on the other brands. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I have used the Divacup for over 5 years now, and cant imagine ever switching to anything else. We went to Disney Land last year, and our trip happened to be on the first days of my cycle, which are my heaviest days, which means I have to dump my cup every couple hours. I cant stand the idea of not washing off my cup before reinserting it, so I carried a plastic water bottle with me into the restrooms. I would just feel it up with tap water at the sink and then use it in the privacy of the bathroom stall to wash my cup before reinsertion. Hope this tip helps anyone else who might get stuck in a not so pleasant situation.

One last note, in the past when I used tampons they would make me cramp up after putting them in. With the cup its the opposite effect. If I am having cramps and I insert the cup it actually makes them go almost completely away.

Sabrina M Bowen said...

If your cloth pads aren't staying in place, you should try a different design. I have found the some designs slip and slide and others don't. Find one that fits your body.

As for cleaning them, you don't have to soak them that long. Run them under cold water and squeeze them out. Spray them down with Peroxide - make sure to cover them well - and when the fizz stops, rinse again with cold water. Place in a "wet pail" (I use a large Ziplock box under the sink) filled with cool water. Then just squeeze them out before you toss them in with the regular laundry. I've never had stain issues.

Primigenia said...

I tried the Diva cup, but I could never get it to work. I'm thinking it is because I'm a larger woman and can't get the angle I need around my belly to make it work i.e. get a grip on it and twist so it popped open. I wouldn't recommend it to a woman over 190 lbs. at 5' 5". I'm 245 at 5'5" and there's just no way.

I do like the suggestion of trying other brands. I had no idea the Diva was the bigger one on the market. Part of my problem was that it came out a little and was really uncomfortable. When I have more money sometime in the next few years and want to experiement, I may give fleurcup(?) a try. For now I'm using WeMoon reusable pads and I like them more than LunaPada because of the unique clasping design on the wings.

Lara Owen (author of Her Blood Is Gold) said...

Great article. It is wonderful to see how many products there are on the market now, and how relatively normalised the idea of using healthy products has become. When I first wrote about using cloth menstrual pads in the early 1990's there was just one place in Texas where I could buy them, no cups or sponges anywhere. My concern with cups and sponges is that you are still keeping blood in the vagina and I think there may be a correlation between healthy vaginal and cervical tissue and allowing the blood to run out freely. For this reason I always preferred to use cloth pads.

Sarah Smith said...

Thank you, moem. I had no idea there were soma different ones on the market! I'll look into some of the other brands now that I know, as I really liked the Diva Cup when it worked for me before my second baby.

Tina said...

Awesome post, thank you Sarah! I had no idea about tampons having dioxin in them. It kind of creeps me out now to know that fibers can be left behind and they might be harmful to me. Here I thought tampons were the best option!

I have tried the 'instead cup', which is a disposable menstrual cup. I didn't see that brand name listed yet. But in the future I'd like to try the re-usable ones.

After reading your post I researched sea sponge tampons and promptly ordered some for myself. I can't wait to try them!

Kathryn said...

I'd love to hear what you have to say about family planning/birth control. Given the nature of your blog, I'd image you are a natural birth control (or Fertility Awareness Method) proponent. Talk about being able to use spreadsheets to track your fertility! :)

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Kathryn,
Yes, I have used fertility awareness on-and-off for a long while, beginning in 2006. After both of my pregnancies, I had delayed menstruation until my kids were 18 months old because of frequent nursing and co-sleeping. (I'm planning to blog about this and how women can make sure to establish delayed menstruation after pregnancy by doing certain things in the first few months after birth.) So during those times, I didn't feel quite comfortable relying completely on fertility awareness since there were no signs of ovulation to track and I worried that I'd miss the first ovulation cycle and end up pregnant without ever having a period.

And ever since I started having strong adrenal problems about 16 months ago, my periods have been more irregular, which has once again made me feel that using just fertility awareness is not enough. Neither my husband or I like condoms much, so we avoid pregnancy by focusing on other activities instead of actual intercourse.

Kathryn said...

I don't think you'd agree with all of its nutritional advice, but I wonder if the book Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition (new 4th Edition) may be of help with the adrenal issues and irregular periods.

Sarah Smith said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Kathryn! Right now I'm consulting with a Classical Homeopath on all of these issues, but I'll keep that in the back of my mind in case I need it afterwards.

Natalie said...

Great post! I use a Diva Cup and really love it when it works, but it leaks some days of my cycle that I put it in - the exact same way as other days when it works! I think something's moving around inside of me. I am curious about the sea sponges. You say they are soft after washing - are they comfortable when in, or do you feel them the whole time? Do they feel about like a tampon that is in correctly?

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Natalie,
If I use a small sea sponge, I cannot feel it. When I have used a larger one, such as the medium sized one, I could feel it and could tell it was too big (or maybe I was just bothered by that feeling). I ended up just trimming that one a bit and now can't feel it either. I do tend to have only moderate flow, though, so I can get away with only using a small one the vast majority of the time.

Natalie said...

Thank you!!

Lisa B. said...

I have been using cloth pads for at least 10 years now. I have tried many brands, but Luna Pads are my favorite. Its hard to make that initial monetary investment, but I bought a pad each pay day until I accumulated enough to stop using disposables. Its so nice to not ever run out and have to make a last minute trip to the drugstore. I never liked using tampons. They were uncomfortable and I just felt like they were unhealthy. And disposable pads don't feel good against my skin and are not breathable. And I hated the thought of adding to the landfills. The cloth pads are soft, breathable and comfortable. They can feel a little bulky with pants/jeans. So I always try to wear maxi skirts when I'm on my period.

Unknown said...

Nice post!