Lets talk about PERIODS. Cycles. The Curse. Aunt Flo. Your Monthly Visitor. You know…that thing. The thing you were most likely taught to hide at all costs and were so afraid to be shamed about, be it from a stain on your pants to an “odor”, to hell…just being a woman.
Now readers – this is going to get personal. You are about to know a lot more about me. In turn, I would like you to keep gagging to a minimum. Okay? Alright. Here we go.
I come from a long line of bad periods. My mother, bless her, had a hysterectomy before she was 40 due in large part to her horrible, heavy monthly blood. I was told I was doomed to the same fate. From day 1 of my first cycle, which came ON my 11th birthday, it was heavy and annoying and painful. For years I had irregular, long, horrible cycles. Clotting. Cramping. Staying home from school and work. Nightmares basically.
I was told birth control was the answer. So I was on it for several years. Yes, the periods were shorter, but they were just as heavy. Just as painful. I still missed school and work for the first couple days so that I could lay on my heating pad and moan. Lets not even mention the many side effects of the artificial hormones on my body (that would be a whole post in itself).
I had my son and hoped that would kick my body into gear and force it to be “normal”. Not so much. I escaped cycles for 18 months total (pregnancy and then breastfeeding exclusively), but when they came back they were just as bad. What is a woman to do?
Then one of my friends online mentioned menstrual cups. What on earth was that? A cup in your underwear? She said it solved her cramps and heavy bleeding and get this – it saved her MONEY. Let me tell you – I am pretty cheap. Money saving gadgets draw me like a moth to flame. So I started my research.
Come to find out, they are not cups in your underwear. Lets liken them to flexible shot glasses in your vagina. Which sounds weird – but stick with me here ladies. Lets first look at the reasons WHY we should look at alternatives to conventional feminine products (disposable pads and tampons).
Dioxins, Toxins, and TSS
Since 1980 there have been concerns about tampons and TSS (toxic shock syndrome). That year, many women died from TSS. My aunt got horribly sick during that scare with TSS but thankfully recovered. Now we hear about Dioxin (a carcinogen) and other toxins in disposable tampons and pads. So what is all this about?
Dioxin, in simple terms, is the byproduct of wood pulp (rayon) or cotton bleaching methods when we are talking about tampons or pads. Supposedly, the new bleaching methods are dioxin free…and yet there are still detectable levels of dioxin in the products. This is due in part to the fact that dioxin is entrenched deeply in our environment due to pollution. Therefore, it is a part of the cotton or wood before the bleaching is even an issue.
The FDA states that very low levels of dioxin in tampons and pads are acceptable, though the FDA and the EPA both admit that dioxin is a powerful carcinogen. They state that the load is only 0.2% of the “acceptable monthly load” of dioxin each month. They do not include the fact that dioxin is long lived in the human body and builds up over time. They also forget to mention this is only one source of dioxin – our environmental load is large through our air, food, and water (in other words, we are adding MORE to our body through a product we don’t have to use, unlike air or water).
The EPA has done a recent study stating that dioxin is much more toxic than they previously realized. You can read the full 344 page report here (you know, light reading). They do point out, right at the start of the study, that the way they test can not take into account the ways we are exposed. They are simply injecting it and recording. They even specifically state that we don’t know how it changes when it targets a specific organ.
The targeting of of a specific organ is of special significance here since the pads and tampons are in contact with a very vulnerable part of our body – our labia, vagina, cervix, and through that – the uterus.
The list of non-cancer “endpoints” (risks) in animal trials include infertility in males and females, thyroid issues, birth defects and loss, diabetes, dental issues in both the receiving adult and in offspring, over-active thyroid, and several others. The human trials (which were done when there was a large exposure in a population in 1976) were all on children, newborns (who were exposed in utero) through the age of 10. Low sperm count/motility and over-active thyroid were both obvious results in those groups.
There is also a casual link to the increased use of disposable products over the last 50 or so years and a sharp increase in endometriosis, but further study is needed. Endometriosis is a common reason for infertility and hysterectomy. This link from the EPA talks about the casual link (pages 7-9).
There was also a survey done by a manufacture of medical-grade tampons (dioxin free) that suggests a link between one main brand of tampons and several female “issues” from genital warts to abnormal pap smears. The link is here as I don’t want to call out the brand. But this particular brand is designed to enlarge lengthwise in most types of their product and this creates more rubbing on the sensitive cervix, which can cause abrasions, which they speculate can cause more open paths for HPV and other viruses to enter.
Another (unproven) additive which may or may not be in these products is asbestos. Now, the FDA states that this is not in our tampons or pads. After all, they tell them it’s not allowed in there. However, the FDA does not have agents in each factory and rarely inspect them, and the manufacturer does not have to state any of the ingredients on the box. Hence why you rarely know if you are using an all cotton product or one which also includes rayon (which has a larger toxic load). *If* asbestos is in tampons and pads, it would create more bleeding and cramping. More bleeding equals more sales of the product. I leave it up to you, dear reader, to form your own conclusions on this particular additive.
And lastly – TSS. This is something you most likely know about. TSS symptoms are varied and the risks include death. The CDC states that rates are well down from the scare in the 1980’s – but admit that the rates are most likely under reported. Over a thousand cases are reported each year, half from tampon use, and about 5% die. The reason TSS and tampons are so linked is that the absorbent environment creates a breeding ground for the bacteria responsible for TSS. Tampons containing rayon are more likely to create this toxin overload and breed more bacteria.
Please take note that while much of this research has to do with tampons, your pads are created using the same cotton and rayon, and therefore carry much of the same risks (especially in regards to dioxin).
So now you know the truth about what is in your pads and tampons…so what do you do?
Now for the fun part! Your alternatives to those conventional products.
The main product I am going to talk about is menstrual cups since they hold the most mystery. You know, the flexible shot glass I mentioned back at the beginning.
Menstrual cups are pretty common place all over the world except in America. One brand, The Keeper Cup is approved by the FDA here, and one other brand, the DivaCup is now available in some Wal-Marts. A few brands (including DivaCup) are available in places like Whole Foods. But still, to the majority of the United States, these little cups are unknown.
There are many, many brands. Some are more popular than others, some are only available in a few countries. To name a few: DivaCup, Keeper, Keeper Moon Cup, Moon Cup UK (different from the Keeper Moon Cup), Ladycup, Lunette….I could go on and on. Really, there is a whole smorgasbord of cups out there. Which means you have to choose one that is best for you.
Each vagina is a bit different. That is the fun part about the human body – we are not all alike. Therefore, cups come in different shapes and sizes and with different features. The cup that fits me like a glove may not work for you. A cup for a teenager is going to be smaller than a cup for a mother who has had a vaginal birth (this is why cups come in two sizes – before and after birth). I will post LOTS of links to help you figure this out at the end of the article. Don’t worry. The opinions vary but you can piece together which will be right for you with a little thought.
- Have you had a baby? Think about this one…did another person emerge from your vagina lately? Ever? Keep in mind that for some women a Cesarian birth also changes the size of the vagina. Don’t ask me why…no idea. After childbirth = the larger size cup. No children = the smaller cup of your chosen brand. You may also need the larger size if you are over the age of 30/35 even if you have never had a child.
- How long is your vagina? (I told you we would get to know each other well). Squat down on your ankles and figure this out. When you reach in with a couple fingers, do you hit cervix easily (it feels like the end of your nose if you are not fertile right now, or more like a squishy bump if you are)? Congratulations, you have a “shorter” vagina. If you reach back and feel nothing…and more nothing…you most likely have a longer vaginal canal or a very posterior cervix. Please check this a few times over the course of your cycle since your cervix does move around depending on if you are in your fertile phase or not. Short vagina = shorter cup (not cup and stem, just cup).
- How sensitive do you feel your vagina is? Also think about the connection between your bowels and your vaginal canal. If you push on the canal from the inside back towards your bum, does it get rather uncomfortable? (Please, do not do this too hard – just gentle nudges). If it bothers you a good bit, you may want to consider a cup with a softer rim.
- Do you have a very heavy flow? Now this is tricky. I would have told you before the cup that my flow was very heavy. I would not give that answer now. But just think on it. If you use pads, or if you did, how often would you change them? If you use tampons, are you needing to change them all the time due to leaks? You may want to avoid the few cups who have smaller capacity unless you want to empty it more.
There are a few common questions that I always get when I talk about cups. If yours is not here, please feel free to comment below and I will try to answer them for you or find information.
- Does it hurt? Let me be honest. The first clumsy attempts are a bit uncomfortable. Not horribly painful, and I did not injure myself. Once you get the hang of it, it is no more uncomfortable than a tampon going in.
- Do you get leaks? Honestly I never had a leak. Not even the first time wearing it during my period. However, I practicing inserting it before my bleeding began (use a tiny bit of lube as the vagina is more dry most of the time than it is during menstruation). I also researched as much as I could to get the cup I thought would fit me best. If you are worried about leaks the first few times you use it, wear a cloth pad as well.
- How do you put it in there? This boggles the mind when you first see one. It is round…like a cup. So how do you put it in? You fold it and once it is inside you let go and it opens up. A firmer cup is better at the “popping open” then softer cups. My cup (the Keeper Moon Cup) is considered to be a cup with a firmer rim. The DivaCup is considered by many to be a softer rimmed cup. (Just as an example)
- Isn’t it gross? Not really. Once you know how to take it out, you don’t even have to look. You just take it out, tip it into the toilet and walk to the sink and rinse. No matter what, we see blood during our cycle at some point. And let me tell you, the blood in a cup looks way better than the brown weird blood that was always on my tampons.
- How often do you empty the cup? Most people empty twice a day and that is with a regular to heavy flow. I empty morning (when I wake up) and night time before bed. I have never needed to empty it while out and about. However, if you did do that, you can simply wipe it out with a tiny bit of toilet paper or use the handicap stall which usually has a sink. Or you can carry some of the wipes that are made to clean cups!
- Is it sanitary? Yes. If you follow directions and you know, clean it, then of course it is! Most (except the original Keeper Cup which is latex) are made of medical grade silicone and very easy to keep clean. You simply rinse it out with warm water. At the end of your cycle you can give it a quick dip in boiling water to really be sure – but be aware with some cups that can discolor them a little. Harmless, but worth knowing. The original (brown) latex Keeper cup is even approved by the FDA for safety. Also – there has never been a case of TSS from cup use.
Now, there are other things to think about too. The fun stuff. Some cups come in COLORS! Yes, I know – exciting! Your vagina and cervix can be treated to a pretty color during this process. For some people the reason for a color is practical – you don’t see the blood as much as you would in a totally clear cup. It also hides the slight discoloration that can happen over time (which is harmless). The Lunette is a popular brand that comes in several colors.
Some cups come with goodies. The new DivaCup package comes with a swag pin for your purse…or shirt…or to never see the light of day. Your choice. Some come with very pretty storage bags or with wet wipes or specially made washes for your cup. As a side note – never store your cup in an air tight container. Please store it in the fabric bag it comes with. If you cut off the air, the product can degrade.
Some simple “trouble shooting” tips include cutting the stem (shortening it or cutting it off totally), turning your cup inside out (helps with some brands – cut off the stem first), learning to bare down for easy removal, adding a small “twist” after insertion to seal your cup, and learning new folding techniques if you have a hard time inserting the cup.
Cups normally last about 10 years. So for your $20-$40 investment, you get 10 years of not paying for disposable products.
So…enough about cups right? I will include lots of links at the end – I promise!
Alright Lady…what are my OTHER Alternatives?
Cloth Pads are a great option. I think they are pretty easy to understand. Most are designed with the same shape and style of disposable pads, but you wash them. For those who cloth diaper, this is not a foreign idea. A popular company is Gladrags, but there are many brands – just do a search on Etsy and you will be amazed.
These are really fun. You get the basics of absorbancy levels and lengths/widths. But you also get to look at all types of fabrics, pretty colors, organic or conventional fabrics, things that sound exotic like sherpa or minky. The options are endless. And if you are crafty you can make them yourself. These are reusable for several years with proper care and they save money and the environment.
The range of prices with these is pretty large but affordable – especially considering you use them many, many times. You will need 4-6 heavy pads (for overnight and heavy days), 10 or so regular pads, and 6 or so light pads/liners. Or – just keep track of how many disposable pads you are using right now.
Expect to do laundry with these every other day (much like cloth diapers). You can wash them with your cloth diapers by the way, but I would suggest keeping the wet bags seperate so you do not stain your diapers before you wash. Many women just hang a wet bag in their bathroom for “disposing” of cloth pads until wash day. Some women prefer to get enough for their whole cycle and wash one load at the end.
You can pre-rinse the pads to help keep away staining (keep in mind some fabrics stain more than others), or simply buy a color or pattern dark enough to cover stains if you think it will bother you.
Organic Disposable Pads and Tampons are available. Seventh Generation, Organyc and Natracare are three popular brands. These are all cotton and organic. They give you a bit more piece of mind about toxins and fragrances and all that. However, you still have the cost, the pollution aspect, and the chance of TSS (with the tampons).
Another option is Sea Sponges – I will not pretend to be an expert on these. But basically, it is a natural sea sponge that is trimmed to fit inside the vagina (think, smoosh and push up there). You then rinse them and reuse them. You can use them for about 3-6 cycles. They contain no toxins and should be sustainably harvested. This is actually an ancient method of both menstrual bleeding control and contraception. Make sure you get yours for a reputable source of sponges for menstrual use and not Bath and Body Works.
You know all about my horrible pre-cup periods. But how are they now? Since my switch to the Keeper Moon Cup my periods went from 6 or more heavy days to about 4 regular/light days. They no longer cause me to double over in pain or run to my heating pad. I have maybe a small back ache the first day. That’s it. Truly, it has been life changing for me. I no longer spend a crazy amount of money on disposable products every year. I spent $20 and I am done buying for about 10 years. I don’t have to keep up with tampons in my purse or send out my husband in the middle of the night.
I cannot stress enough how much I want women to try something different. Apart from the fact that tampon and pad manufacturers have taught us that our periods are weird, smelly, to be hidden, or shameful (or the opposite spectrum of fit athletes running around with no bloating and sexy ladies in lab coats), I really do feel that this can improve our health.
The FDA and EPA seem to think that there is an acceptable level of toxins we should snuggle up by our cervix every month. But really – do we want to risk that? Knowing that we already have a toxic load just from the air we breath and the food we eat, do we want to add to that? I hope that this has given you some insight into a different way of embracing your cycle and protecting your health. Again, comment below with questions!
Now….all those links I promised! Please note that the brands/shops linked are not endorsed by BWF, but are simply helpful tools. Feel free to buy from where you wish.
Brand Comparison Photos (this also has many helpful links to the right of the page)
Helpful WikiHow Article
Cup Comparisons (also with lots of links to more posts on the right)
Videos on YouTube (comparisons)
Videos on YouTube (folding your cup)
The photo of the cups if from this lovely website which has more comparison information as well.