Scrolling through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago, an interesting Reuter’s Health article popped up. A survey of low-income residents in St. Louis, Missouri found that half of the women surveyed often had to choose between purchasing food or disposable period products. They could not afford to get both. Usually they chose food, for obvious reasons. All I could think of while reading this article was how badly I wanted to share my most recent discovery with these women.
“If you switch to re-usable period products,” I wanted to tell them,” you’ll never have to choose between food and tampons again!” In fact, with re-usable pads, you can cut down on period product costs, reduce the toxins you expose yourself to, and have an environmentally responsible period.
Having recently become a Mustachian (Mister Money Moustache follower wanting to attain early retirement by drastically cutting down my spending) I was reviewing my grocery store bill to see what I could skimp on the following week. That’s when I noticed it. The dang tampons and pads were costing me a ridiculous amount of money. A staggering $8 every month!
Since period products such as menstrual pads and tampons are “disposable,” we purchase them, use them once (for just a few hours), and then throw them away. Not only is this a huge waste, it also means that we constantly have to buy more. This is an excellent business model for business owners and manufacturers, who, due to the disposable nature of their products, and women’s recurring monthly periods, now have customers for life.
However, for us customers, the deal isn’t as good. Actually, it’s quite bad. Over the years, the costs of these products add up. Let’s say you are a female who at age 18 starts purchasing her own period products and continues to menstruate until age 50 (women stop menstruating between 45-55). Between menstrual pads and tampons, you spend $8 a month on your period products. Over 32 years, that’s $3,072 spent on menstrual products (assuming you don’t have a pregnancy during that time, but even if you do, I’m sure menstrual pads come in handy during/post-pregnancy).
Now, $3,000 over a lifetime doesn’t seem like a lot of money. But let’s say that starting at age 18, instead of spending the $8 each month on menstrual products you invest the money. Let’s say you put it into a retirement account that has a 7% annual return. By the time you are 50 years old, that money would have grown to $11,321, a nice chunk of change. This is neatly illustrated by the chart below using Dave Ramsey’s Calculator.
In Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home book, I came upon patterns for making re-usable cloth pads. “This is brilliant!” I thought to myself, “I’ll never have to buy pads again!” I took an old, stretched out cotton t-shirt that I rarely wore and cut it up into pad-like structures. I piled several pad-like structures on top of each other, sewed them together, and admired my first ever DIY reusable pad. Seriously, it took me about five minutes! Best of all, it cost me absolutely nothing and would add up to thousands of dollars in savings over my lifetime. But this was not the only reason I had for switching to reusable pads.
Most disposable period products are toxic to our bodies. In 2018, The Women’s Voices for Earth (WVE) organization did some independent product testing on several different brands of tampons. They found that tampons contain toxins such as carbon disulfide and volatile organic compounds such as toluene, xylene, and methylene chloride. If these sound familiar to you, it’s because toluene, xylene, and methyl chloride are common ingredients in paint thinners. Not to mention, they are carcinogenic and toxic to our reproductive systems.
Pads aren’t much better. According to the WVE research, pads contain pesticide residues, parabens, phthalates, styrene, and chloroform. These are all just fancy words for hormone disruptors and carcinogens. Additionally, a 2019 study found that pads (and children’s diapers) contain higher phthalate contents than other commercial plastic products. Phthalates have been linked with a whole bunch of fun conditions like reduced female fertility, preterm birth and low birthweight, a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms, and altered toddler behavior. That’s a pretty exhausting list, isn’t it?
At this point, you’re either thinking,
“Wow, that $8 for menstrual products sure goes a long way. Look at all of these extras that I get!”
“Holy heck! Why did I have no idea that this stuff was in my pads and tampons, and my kid’s diapers?!”
It’s because these “ingredients” aren’t listed on the box. Since period products are considered medical devices, current laws don’t require manufacturers to disclose the chemicals in them. And what company would willingly tell you that they’re adding carcinogens and reproductive toxins to their products?
Knowingly or unknowingly, we put this stuff in our bodies every month next to some of our most porous membranes, which are happy to absorb these chemicals—because that’s what membranes do. At this point, you’re probably wondering why all menstruating women aren’t dropping dead from the toxins they’re absorbing from their tampons and pads. That’s because it takes a while (sometimes a few decades) to build up a chemical concentration in our bodies that is high enough to cause cancer and mess with our reproductive systems. Just give it a few more years…
However, if you make your own re-usable pads from some well-worn material, you’ll avoid this entire icky toxin situation. That old cotton shirt I used to make my reusable pads had been through a hundred wash cycles. I’m fairly certain it had off-gassed any harmful chemical that may have been on it. (A great reason to buy clothes second hand—let the person before you absorb all the toxins.) There are tons of great DIY You Tube videos that can show you step by step how to make some really fancy re-usable pads. Or, if you’re not into DIY things, you can spend some money once to buy ready made re-usable pads that you’ll have for life (don’t forget to request no plastic or shipping peanuts from your seller).
Note: There are less toxic disposable tampons and pads available such as those made by LOLA. LOLA tampons and pads are made from organic cotton (no pesticides) and they don’t have dyes, toxins, or synthetic fibers. Yay! (A box of 18 LOLA tampons will cost you $10, as compared to a box of 36 Playtex Tampons at $7, so they are substantially more expensive.) The pads do come with a plastic wrapper and some of the tampons have plastic applicators, both of which are not ideal for point three described below. On the other hand, LOLA has a Period Equity campaign fighting to end the taxation of menstrual products in 35 states, which I can totally get behind.
3. Environmental Responsibility
Of course, being an aspiring zero waster, I started to consider all the trash that came along with having a period. I know, no one likes to think about trash, especially gross menstrual trash. But, since according to Organicup the average user goes through an astonishing 125 to 150 kg of tampons, pads, and applicators in her lifetime, we need to discuss what happens to them at the end of their “usable” life. (BTW, worldwide, that’s 200,000 tons of period products being thrown away annually.)
While some of these used products end up buried in a landfill (for future generations to deal with), others, through various routes, end up as environmental pollutants. In 2010, a UK beach clean up found an average of 23 pads and 9 tampon applicators per kilometer of British coastline. Exactly what you want to step on when you’re taking a nice walk on the beach… Not to mention, if these used products are on our beaches, they’re also in the water. I have a feeling the marine life isn’t pleased with this, especially when they mistake our pads and tampon applicators for food, eat it, and die of undernourishment. (Despite looking all billowy and soft, most pads are 90% plastic. Even though they might disappear from our bathroom, flushed down a toilet or banished to the trash, they won’t degrade for hundreds of years, especially in a fish’s stomach.)
Re-usable pads really shine when it comes to decreasing waste—they produces no plastic or any other type of waste. After my period, rather than throwing them in the landfill, I simply throw them in the laundry. Then I line dry them and they’re fresh, clean, and ready to use for my next menstrual cycle. No trip to the store required.
If you are easily grossed out, don’t read this paragraph but….
The reusable pads can actually benefit the environment further. I’ve come across more and more articles of women who use their menstrual blood to fertilize plants. (I know, I know, so gross…. But also, so brilliant?! Free, organic fertilizer for plants?!) To do this with a reusable pad, soak it in a small dish with water to release the blood. Then use this concoction to water your plants.
Other re-usable options
While I’ve focused on re-usable pads, there are some other re-usable options I’d like to mention- period underwear and the menstrual cups.
Period underwear are underwear with a built in pad that absorbs your period. I purchased two pairs of Thinx period underwear. After using them, I simply launder them, dry them, and use them again. The built in pad does have a limited lifetime (200 washes or so). However, the built in pads on my Thinx are starting to get a bit porous and I’m a ways away from 200 washes. I combine them with a light reusable pad, and that works perfectly for lighter days. My main concern with period underwear is the toxicity. Do the built in pads have the same types of chemicals that the disposable pads have? The Thinx website didn’t have much information as to what these undies are made of, so this is still TBD.
Another popular option is the menstrual cup. I purchased a Diva Cup quite a while back and used it several times. This is exactly what it sounds like-a tiny cup (Diva Cup is made from silicone) you collect your menstrual blood in and empty twice a day. I found it a bit challenging to insert and remove, but besides that, it worked quite well. It is especially useful when I travel and don’t have access to a laundry machine for my reusable pads. However, as with the period underwear, I started to get a bit worried about exposing my porous membranes to silicone. The Diva Cup website promises “there is no possibility for anything to leak into the body (no leaching)” but Monsanto also promised that RoundUp isn’t dangerous, and look at where we are today…. But everyone has their own risk tolerance and things that work best for them, so the Diva Cup may be the perfect reusable option for your situation.
Why do we hate on reusable pads?
Initially, after discovering this revolutionary idea of reusable pads, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. “Look at how much money you can save while avoiding toxins and avoiding creating waste!” My mom lived through Communism in Europe, a time when food and everything else was limited, so I figured she would appreciate the idea of the reusable pad the most.
“Guess what, Mom. I made my own reusable period pads!” I bragged to Mom.
“Joanna, that’s gross.” Mom answered.
Apparently, even in Communist Europe, they used disposable pads. I was shocked at how far back the throw away mentality goes. Also, I wondered, why is laundering my used sanitary pads in the privacy of my own laundry machine gross, but having the sanitation engineers handling them and throwing them in a landfill where someone else might find them 100 years from now isn’t?
The Reuters article I mentioned at the beginning of this blog had a similar bad attitude towards reusable options. The article states that after choosing to buy food rather than disposable period products, these women were “making do” with cloth and rags. Why is using something reusable for your period, like cloth and rags, considered “making do?” Why isn’t something that can be used repeatedly for years at a time considered more valuable than something that is useless after a few hours? Are we really that brainwashed by manufacturers and corporations into thinking that disposables are better, despite the financial, health, and environmental costs?
I have a feeling that even if we are, people are slowly starting to wake up. While none of my friends have yet admitted to using reusable pads, I do know a few parents who are using reusable diapers on their kids. That gives me hope. I also hope that now that you’ve read this post, you’ll at least give reusable menstrual products a try or help spread the word about them.
Happy Zero Wasting!