When financial, health, and even environmental issues come about, many women look to find ways to avoid using the disposable sanitary napkins and tampons that many of us know as the “only” way to deal with our period. I’m going to try to give a “quick and dirty” rundown of some alternatives, and what I’ve learned as I’ve made the journey into reusable menstrual tools and alternatives myself. I can only tell you about what I have used, and what I have learned from some more experienced women I have met through this transition. I will give you my opinion of use as I can. There are several very good things that happen as a result of women changing from disposable feminine products to reusable or alternative methods. A more comfortable period, and the time after the period, is the most common one. Cloth pads especially are considered to be very comforting/cosseting during what is often an uncomfortable time for a woman, and since it is made of soft, pretty materials, it can make that time a bit more pleasant (personally, I smile every time I see my dragonfly pads). Also, many women report a shorter, lighter period that is easier to follow after making the switch, as well as feeling psychologically closer to one’s cycle. The understanding that comes with learning why, how, and what products are best for you automatically leads to more understanding of what is happening, and why it isn’t something shameful or “gross”, as it seems to have gotten the reputation of being.
On each product, please do a bit more research and learn your own needs before just jumping in.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I’ll tell about what I know the best.
Reasons for using alternatives:
Health issues: For some women, disposable products are simply not comfortable, or women have an allergy to some ingredient in it, such as the adhesive on pads or the gels used to absorb the flow. There are other reasons (such as the danger of some chemicals present in the products), but these seem to be the most common in my experience. Also, disposable pads tend to trap heat and some moisture which can allow bacteria to build up, causing yeast infections, vaginosis, or UTIs.
Financial issues: In hard economic times, many people look for ways to save money, and many realize that this can require a slightly larger initial investment. This is true for menstrual products as well. Keep in mind when reading this and regarding prices, that in my experience, a package of pads or tampons costs $6-10 apiece, and I often had to buy one of each, per cycle, at least. I have found that I’m saving quite a bit soon after making that initial investment.
Environmental issues: Reusable products reduce waste. It’s that simple. And since products can be homemade in some cases, it can give you a chance to reuse some things that might otherwise be thrown away, such as used flannel receiving blankets.
Cloth pads are possibly one of the easiest ways to begin the transition to reusable products or alternative products. They are generally made of flannel or cotton, some type of filling (generally cotton, hemp, or bamboo batting), and a waterproof layer. I find that Silence cloth is the easiest to find locally. It is a heavy cotton flannel fabric that is often used to line the bottom of tablecloths, so it is available in fabric stores in the home decorating area. It is useful because it breathes well, but doesn’t allow fluid through very easily, therefore helping redistribute the menstrual blood instead of letting it soak through. Another type of waterproof layer is largely available online, and is called polyurethane laminated fabric, or PUL. It is basically a plastic lined cotton fabric (don’t be fooled by PVC vinyl). There are some women with lighter periods that completely leave off the waterproof layer, since on lighter days a leak isn’t as imminent.
There are several types of pads, and as many shapes (and more, as there are creative makers) as there are of disposable pads. They can be easily made at home by even a novice seamstress, and can be a good way to reuse cloth diapers and flannel receiving blankets (a favorite of parents among the cloth pad community). They are also available online through several Etsy shops (a website for people who make and sell many types of crafts, including cloth pads), and through a couple of major companies (a list will be at the end of this essay). These are a bit more standard sizes, but will still take a bit of trial and error to find the optimal pad for your flow, and the shape and style that is best for you. Also, if you plan on making your own, looking at some of these pre-made pads can give you ideas of shape, size, and even different materials to try out and see what works best for you.
Cloth pads have a couple of the same problems as disposable pads. The pad only covers a certain part of the underwear, and so one can miss the pad when moving around a lot or sleeping. If you are making your own, you can downplay this a bit by making pads that cover the areas where you tend to leak, and the commercially available cloth pads are generally made larger as to cover those areas a bit better as well. Also, if you wait too long to change, most pads will bleed through to your clothes. This can be combated by learning your flow as best you can and keeping an eye on how full the pad gets through the day. I find that using a layer of flannel on the top and bottom, plus 3 layers of batting and a layer of the silence cloth I use as a waterproof layer gives me a good, heavy-absorption pad that is no thicker than many disposable pads for the same flow. It isn’t the ultra-thin, but it isn’t a diaper either.
The last thing that concerns most women about cloth pads is the cleanup and storage through the day. Most of us can’t stay home during that week, so we have to figure out how to deal with the used pad. Simply rinsing the pad until the water runs clear and placing in a plastic bag or a “wet bag” (a plastic lined bag to store used pads). I use warm to hot water, and wash it in hot water as well, but when I asked for opinions from my groups (the livejournal groups are quite amazing), many said they use only cold water to rinse and wash. I can tell you from experience that this does not smell, and is not as gross as you think it may be. Most of the time, people wouldn’t guess that I have a damp, used, cloth pad in my pocket. Keep in mind that if you rinse thoroughly, you are not carrying around something that is bloody, and the smell that is often associated with a menstruating woman is gone along with that. As long as you put it in the laundry or in your soak bucket when you get home (within a reasonable amount of time), mildew smell will not be a problem either.
When at home, there are a couple of ways to deal with the used pad. You can either place it in a bucket of water with baking soda and a little vinegar, or detergent (and you can add a drop or two of tea tree oil to either if you like) until wash day, or you can place the rinsed pads on top of the laundry in the hamper to air out a bit (to keep it from mildewing). If you wash every day, simply rinse and throw in with your laundry. Remember to not use bleach. Again, I use hot water, but many use cold, either exclusively to save money, or to keep from setting stains (I haven’t had this problem with hot water though. Your mileage may vary here.) Once it is washed, you may either machine dry, or use the preferred method, air-drying outside on the line. This is easier on the fabric and can also reduce stains.
There is one extra benefit to using the soak bucket method. If you use baking soda, vinegar, and/or tea tree oil (and even some detergents), you’ll have what they call “grey water” left over, and placing some pads in without rinsing adds many minerals to the water, and it’s great for watering indoor and outdoor plants. Many women who use this method only rinse the pads they’ll have to store for any amount of time, and simply drop in the pads the change while at home.
Cloth pads vary greatly in price depending on where you buy. I made mine, and spent about $30 on the first set of materials, which made enough pads that I was able to go through a complete period without having to wash (about 7 large, heavy-flow pads). To fill in, I will probably only spend about $20 per trip, as I have a lot of leftover materials. I don’t have to replace them; I generally just want new ones because I want new, pretty patterns. They are quick to make…a pad usually takes about half an hour for me from beginning to end, and can be less pre if I cut out several at a time. If you have a serger, it can be even quicker.
There are a couple of types of reusable tampons. I have not used them, but know about them through friends and the aforementioned more experienced ladies I have met. These can be bought on Etsy, and through some commercial sites (although I have only personally seen the Sea Sponge from commercial retailers). They can be knit or crocheted from cotton, hemp, or bamboo yarn, and stuffed with either extra yarn or with batting. Some people also use two or three cotton baby socks stuffed one inside the other and inserted into the vagina. The Sea sponge is a spongy material that one inserts, and then takes out, rinses, and washes before using again, similar to a reusable pad. These are not as popular as the cups in the next section among the women I know, anecdotally due to the relatively quick deterioration and the risk of irritation from usage. The one site I found selling these sells two for $12-14.
Diva cup/Moon Cup/Lunette/Lady Cup/Mia Cup:
There are other brand names for this type of cup (also called a “bell cup” due to its shape), but these are the ones I know about. This type of cup sits just inside the vagina, lower than a tampon for some women. For others, it almost “cups” the cervix. They simply “catch” the flow. They are made of medical grade silicone, except for the Keeper brand cup, which is made of latex. The cup is folded and placed into the vagina, and “pops” open as it is pushed inside. For some women, and depending on the cup used, it can sit just below the cervix, or it can slightly “cup” it. Most cups come in two circumference sizes, and the smaller is for a younger woman (usually the “switch” point is between the age of 25 and 30), or for a woman who has not had a child. Since the vagina stretches slightly as we age, and after vaginal childbirth, the larger size is available for them. There are some younger women who have not had a child that use the larger cup, and some older women who have had children that use the smaller. Again, knowing your own body is key.
Another reason these are popular is that they can be safely worn for 12 hours at a time. The risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome is greatly decreased by correct cleaning and disinfecting of the cup when it is emptied (in reality, we can’t say there is no risk whatsoever, but there have so far been NO REPORTED CASES of TSS due to menstrual cup usage in 80+ years). It can also be placed the night before the period is expected (if you are regular enough to know when to expect it) so there is less likelihood of a leak. Also, measuring the length of your vagina (from the opening to where your cervix sits) during your period over the course of a couple of periods is a good idea, as women are different and our cervix moves a bit during our cycle. There are some brands of cups that are shorter than others, and some that are more flexible.
The Diva Cup website touts that there are no leaks if placed properly. I know several women who do not have leaks, and some that occasionally do. I am still new to it, so leaks sometimes happen. They aren’t very bad leaks, and are generally barely enough to stain my underwear, but I do wear a cloth panty liner (thin pad) with it. There is a bit of a learning curve, as there are with all types of inner menstrual products, so work with it and keep trying. The Diva is $30-35 depending on the size (remember…that’s probably only 3 cycles at the cheapest of pads and tampons). Different cups are different prices, but most I have seen are also in this price range. A quick Internet search for menstrual cups will yield several brand names. I would suggest reading unbiased communities or message boards where women discuss menstrual cups before buying, to learn what might be best for you. If you have a problem, there is little doubt that someone else has been there and can help you.
One thing to consider is if you have Nuvaring (birth control that is inserted weekly into the vagina) or any type of IUD, including coils or any other removable device, you must be very careful when using a Menstrual cup. There is a small string attached to most IUDs and it can pull out during retrieval of the cup. There are many women who use both successfully, with a bit of tweaking on how they insert and remove the cup.
It is important to note that there are two cups called the Moon cup. One is the UK Mooncup (one word), and the Keeper Moon Cup, which is the silicone version of the Keeper cup, the only latex cup available. The UK cup is shorter than the other, and they are different brands, even from different countries, but with “confusingly similar names” (I quote because this was pointed out by a friend on one of the communities I’ll recommend at the end of this essay).
If you really want to look at a cup physically before buying, you can go to Whole Foods here in Memphis and they have the Diva Cup and the Keeper Moon Cup available for sale. There really wasn’t a price difference between buying there and online.
Instead is not reusable, but it is the brand I tried of this shape of cup. It is generally a bowl shape, and sits over the cervix, behind the pubic bone. I have not found a reusable cup that fits this description, but Instead is sold as an alternative for women who are very active. It can also be worn up to 12 hours before being changed, and there are those who say that they will only use one cup per cycle, simply taking it out and rinsing it every twelve hours the way you would a reusable cup. It is listed as disposable, and the instructions say to only use it once, though. It can also be used by many women during sexual intercourse, and I know some women who use reusable cups, but keep a few of these around if they are planning to have intercourse. It is generally expensive (at my store, it was about $10 for a box of 12 cups, but I have heard different prices and counts as well). However, it might be the option best for you.
The cup is a rubbery band with a thin plastic cup coming off the bottom. There are many women who swear by Instead. I did not like it, but I think that that is because I am smaller than some women. The cup didn’t sit over my cervix and there was no way there was enough room for it to sit behind the pubic bone. I include it because it is an alternative, and because I know people who do like it a lot. Some say that because of it’s small package, it’s great to keep stashed in a desk drawer or glove box in case of an emergency, of course, this is only good if you can actually use them. Again, knowing where your cervix sits during your period is a good idea when trying this.
www.etsy.com crafter/seller site. You’ll have to search, as there are many women who sell handmade pads and tampons here.
www.divacup.com to buy the Diva or Moon cup. They will link you to drugstore.com to actually buy, but it is a wealth of information on the use of this type of cup.
www.livejournal.com There are communities for cloth pads, menstrual cups, and other alternatives. The ones I recommend are menstrual_cups (http://community.livejournal.com/menstrual_cups/) and cloth_pads (http://community.livejournal.com/cloth_pads/). I am a member of both, and many of the members overlap. In order to post (and in order to read some posts, since each person can list her post as “friends only”), you will need a livejournal account, and to become a member of the community. The account is free and easy to set up, so it is a good place to ask questions you are having trouble finding answers to. Also, there are several Etsy sellers that advertise their specials and sales, and buyers who find good shops, who will link to Etsy sites.
http://community.livejournal.com/menstrual_cups/1285963.html A specific entry on the menstrual_cup Livejournal community outlining several types and brands of cups, and how they compare by length, width, and rank.
http://www.lunette.fi/en/ for the Lunette cup. Also a lot of information on the use of the cup, as well as ordering information.
www.google.com Simply searching menstrual cups, or by a brand name will usually take you to several sites. If you search just “menstrual cups”, it’s interesting to note that several of the first entries are livejournal posts to the above communities. The brand name of the cup will usually take you directly to the site for it, so it is a very good resource. You can also find tutorials on how to make cloth pads, but I’ll warn you…some of the materials are only available online (such as PUL) and your mileage may vary on each of them. I like Hillbilly Housewife, but there are several that I came across that inspired what became my own final design.
I am also including samples of the materials I use to make my pads, and a finished home made pad.