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How to Choose Human and Environmentally-Friendly Period Solutions

Period Panties | Menstrual Cups | Tampons | Pads + Panty Liners | Reusable Pads + Panty Liners | Recommendations

By Sydney Cook

Healthy period graphic

Every woman I’ve ever met remembers her first period, and usually has a story to boot. For me, I’ll never forget seeking the counsel of the school nurse on that day way-back-when. She handed over a pad essentially the size of a diaper. Oh, how times have changed! These days, pads have gotten thinner, tampons are now much more common, and new solutions like menstrual cups and period panties are taking the femcare market by storm. It’s a good time to be alive with a period!

WHERE TO BEGIN?

All that said, with new options comes confusion: How do you choose a menstrual cup? Does the color matter? Are all period panties the same? Is there going to be a mess in the laundry? Can that thin little pad really do the trick? How about digital vs. applicator tampons? How are we to know when there are literally hundreds of choices… You might be thinking, where do I even begin?

The answer? Here! We’ll take you through the most popular types of period products, providing pros and cons, the environmental and human health concerns, and some tips for choosing the safest possible version of that product. Want the sweet and condensed version? Skip to our cheat sheet, MADE SAFE’s Guide to a Nontoxic Period: Tips for a Healthier Period and Planet.

Let’s start with the new kids on the block:


Period Panties

The basics: Period panties are exactly what they sound like, a pair of panties that is designed to absorb blood. They come in various absorbencies – some designed to be used on heavy days and others designed for light days or to be used in conjunction with another period solution.

Pros: Environmentally-friendly; comfort; money savings (one-time investment vs. purchasing supplies each month); can wear long-term without worry of toxic shock syndrome. Some people even claim to have less cramping with panties.

Cons: Start-up cost is higher; must invest in multiple pairs or prepare to do daily laundry on your cycle; some people say they can feel more wetness than with a tampon; changing in public can be awkward; water sports are off-limits.

THE CONCERNS

Primary concern: Period panties can contain nanoparticle silver, which are microscopic particles that can be 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Silver nanoparticles are added to period panties because of their antibacterial power, which means that if they can be released from the panties and enter the vagina, they may negatively impact the good bacteria that is found within the vagina, but more study is needed.

It’s also important to note that the ability of nanosilver to leach from period panties into the vagina has never been studied; however, the ability of silver to migrate from silver-impregnated clothing has been studied, and researchers have consistently found silver’s ability to migrate.

Despite the increased use of nanoparticles across industries (including period panties), they have not been properly assessed for human or environmental health effects, nor are they adequately regulated. As a result, we think it’s prudent to exercise precaution when it comes to nanoparticle exposure and avoid them.

Other concerns: Some period panties use synthetic fabrics, many of which are essentially forms of plastic and do not break down in the environment, contributing to plastic pollution. Many synthetic fabrics also shed microfibers, microscopic fibers that come off during the wash, which pollute the environment and may be harmful to aquatic animals, and to humans who eat seafood.

It’s also critical for the vagina to “breathe” as to not trap in moisture (which increases a chance of bacterial infection), so breathable fabrics like cotton or hemp are superior for down there.

Look for:

  • Full disclosure of all materials including fabric and treatments.
  • Organic cotton as the primary material.
  • Panties without nanomaterial silver. Some panties contain silver marketed as unable to leach or migrate; avoid these too.
  • Panties without antibacterials or antimicrobials. Sometimes these treatments aren’t disclosed in a materials list but can be spotted with marketing terms like “antimicrobial.”

Menstrual Cups

The basics: Menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina and collect blood into the cup, which can then be emptied, washed/wiped/rinsed (depending on the scenario), and re-inserted. Menstrual cups are often made of silicone, but can also be made of rubber or thermoplastics. Depending on the size of the cup, they can hold one to two ounces, the equivalent of three to six tampons.

Pros: Environmentally-friendly; comfort; money savings (one-time investment vs. purchasing supplies each month); can be left in longer than a tampon (about 12 hours); water sports are a go.

Cons: It can take time to find the right fit and you might need to go through a couple cups to find your match (but most companies have size guides to help you out); it takes a few tries to get used to insertion and removal; can be messy. You should talk to your doctor before using a cup if you have an IUD.

THE CONCERNS

Primary concern: 100% medical grade silicone is the only suitable material for menstrual cups. Thermoplastics can contain toxic chemicals like BPA and phthalates that are known to leach, so plastics should never be inserted into the vagina.

Other concerns: Dyed silicones and toxic cleaning methods. First, choose undyed silicone. Dyes and pigments in other industries like textiles are notoriously toxic to the environment, and not enough research exists on the toxicity of colors used in silicone. Additionally, very little research is available on the ability of pigments or dyes to leach from color silicone.

Second, look for a nontoxic way of cleaning your cup to make sure you’re not exposed to any toxic chemicals. We recommend boiling your cup in an open, deep pot of water for 5-10 minutes before using each month; many cup makers recommend this as well. During use, most cup makers also recommend to wash the cup with nontoxic soap and water each time you empty it. Look for soaps free of harmful ingredients, especially dyes, parabens, fragrances, antimicrobials like triclosan, harsh cleaners like quats, and more. Remember that your vagina has a specific pH, so avoid anything basic or way too acidic.

Look for:

  • 100% medical-grade silicone only (skip all other materials).
  • Undyed silicone.
  • Nontoxic cleaning methods for your cup.

Tampons

The basics: Chances are you know what a tampon is, but just to cover our bases: A tampon is composed of soft, absorbent material, which is inserted into the vagina to soak up blood. While tampons feel soft, like a natural material, most conventional tampons are actually composed of synthetic materials like rayon and use plastic applicators. Most natural tampons are made of cotton or organic cotton and use bioplastic or cardboard applicators.

Pros: Convenient (discreet in public bathrooms, small to carry around); typically no feeling of wetness; comfortable; swimming is a-ok.

Cons: Risk of toxic shock syndrome (tampons are usually so comfortable, it’s easy to forget about them, putting you at risk for TSS); insertion can take a few tries to get used to for newbies; high cost because supplies need to be purchased each month. Some people say tampons increase their cramps.

THE CONCERNS

Primary concern: Fragrance ingredients. Many conventional tampons contain “fragrance,” which are scented formulations containing ingredients that don’t have to be disclosed, due to trade secret laws. And while it’s impossible to know what chemicals you might be exposed to without ingredient visibility, numerous fragrance ingredients have been linked to health issues like endocrine disruption, cancer, allergies, and irritation.

Other concerns: Conventional bleaching methods (see “Pads” below for more info) and pesticide residue in conventionally grown cotton. With conventional tampons, there can be huge environmental impacts (materials like rayon and plastic applicators do not break down in the environment). While nontoxic tampons are definitely better for humans, they do still contribute to some environmental impacts (some use plastic packaging and applicators; water use on cotton crops; contribution to landfill waste). Still, they are markedly better than conventional tampons!

Look for:

  • 100% organic cotton.
  • Unscented and fragrance-free.
  • Unbleached or chlorine-free bleach.
  • Plastic-free applicator or tampons sans applicator.
  • Plastic-free packaging.

Pads + Panty Liners

The basics: Yeah, we know you’re totally familiar with pads and panty liners, but there is more to them than you may think. Pads may seem like they’re made of cotton, but like tampons, they’re usually made of rayon, as well as Super Absorbent Polymers (SAPs), which are typically partially made of acrylic, a plastic.

Pros: No insertion required; can be worn for long periods of time (like overnight) without worry of toxic shock syndrome; no upkeep or cleaning required; typically provide reliable protection.

Cons: Some pads make noise when you walk; feeling of wetness is possible; high cost because supplies must be purchased each month; can be restrictive for certain activities like exercise; pads can be visible through clothing with the wrong clothing/pad combo. Swimming is definitely not an option!

THE CONCERNS

Primary concern: Conventional bleaching methods used in conventional pads and liners. Dioxins and furans are common byproducts of the bleaching process. They are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity.

Other concerns: Environmental impacts. Because pads are typically made of synthetic fibers and partially plastic SAPs, pads do not readily break down in the environment, contributing to plastic pollution. Conventional pads can contain fragrances (see “Tampons” above for more info) and pesticide residue when made with conventional cotton. As with any one-time-use product, organic tampons do have some environmental impacts due to plastic packaging used by some companies and contributions to landfill waste. However, it should be noted that organic tampons are leaps and bounds ahead of conventional pads!

Look for:

  • 100% organic cotton.
  • Unscented and fragrance-free.
  • Unbleached or chlorine-free bleach.
  • Plastic-free packaging.

Reusable Pads + Panty Liners

The basics: Reusable pads are usually snapped into place within the underwear, and can be made of numerous materials include polyester, cotton, organic cotton, polyurethane laminate, thermoplastics, and more. Like disposable pads, reusable pads come in varying absorbencies and sizes.

Pros: More environmentally-conscious than conventional period solutions; cost-effective as supplies do not need to be purchased each month; never run out of supplies and have to make a trip to the store; they fold up into small balls that are easy to store. Some women report less irritation using reusables made of natural products, in comparison to conventional pads.

Cons: Start-up cost is higher; must invest in multiple pads or prepare to do daily laundry on your cycle; some people say they can feel more wetness than with a tampon; changing in public can be awkward; some reusable pads have the tendency to shift around in underwear.

THE CONCERNS

Primary concern: Dyed and conventional cotton. Many processes used to dye and pigment fabrics are known to be harmful to the environment. The growth of conventional cotton requires lots of pesticides, which can be residual in fabrics, as well as copious amounts of water. This is taxing on ecosystems.

Other concerns: Synthetic materials like polyester and thermoplastics. Because these materials do not readily break down, they contribute to plastic pollution. However, because these products are not disposable, they are at least being used over and over – sometimes for many years – before they head to a landfill.

Look for:

  • Organic cotton as the primary material.
  • Panties without antibacterials or antimicrobials. Sometimes these treatments aren’t disclosed in a materials list but can be spotted with marketing terms like “antimicrobial.”

The best period solution for you?

At MADE SAFE, we recommend period products that are safe for you and planet: pads, tampons and panty liners made from 100% organic cotton; menstrual cups made from 100% silicone; and period panties made primarily with 100% organic cotton. Which of those works best for you is… well, up to you! Experimentation is key to finding the best fit.

After trying out different eco and vagina-friendly options, many women find a combination of methods works best. Think: tampons in public and period panties at home; reusable pads overnight and a menstrual cup during the day; organic tampons during activities and organic pads the rest of the time… you get the idea. And remember to look for packaging (and applicators) without plastic!

To help you get started, we’ve put together a cheat sheet, MADE SAFE’s Guide to a Nontoxic Period: Tips for a Healthier Period and Planet, with the top things to look for in period solutions. We’ve kept it short and sweet in this ultimate shopping guide. And make sure to check out the product recommendations below too.


MADE SAFE® Certified Solutions + Staff Favorites

Period Product Recommendations Natracare: Pads + Tampons
Organyc: Tampons* + Pads
Sustain Natural: Menstrual Cups* + Period Panties*
Cora: Menstrual Cups*
DivaCup: Menstrual Cups*

*These products are staff favorites and not MADE SAFE certified.

Menstrual Cup Cleaning Recommendations Branch Basics: The Concentrate
Good Clean Love: Balance Moisturizing Personal Wash
Kosmatology: Body Wash – Free & Clear

(Note: Ensure that no soap residue is leftover with any products used to wash period cups, as many products are not designed for internal use. Check with your health care provider before using any products internally.)

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