Do you have any idea what a pain it was trying to pick an image for this post? The other posts where I use a human in the picture happened to be Caucasian and for the life of me couldn’t find a satisfactory image with someone who wasn’t also Caucasian…Never mind, that isn’t actually relevant to the article.
If you were born with a functioning uterus you will get to enjoy the process otherwise known as menstruation…. Yaaaaaay (pretend you can hear my sarcasm). Lets start with a little anatomy in this video.

Now that you know how the menstrual cycle works most people are aware that there are needed hygiene products. Disposable pads and tampons being the most common. Disposable products have a distinct convenience to them, however they are a continuing cost for the wallet, the environment, and our bodies. Tampons are a compressed mass of absorptive material that is typically inserted into a vagina to absorb menstrual fluids. They can come with or without a plastic insertion aid, also known as an applicator. Additionally they also come in different sizes for differing absorption needs and/or comfort. The word tampon originates from a French medieval word “tampion” which meant a piece of cloth used to plug a hole. Classy. There is historical evidence that different versions of tampons have been used by women globally for thousands of years. Hawaiian women used part of a fern (called hapu’u), in Asia different grasses and/or mosses were used, in Egypt they were made from papyrus, Japanese women made them out of paper and changed them 10 – 12 times per day, and Roman women used wool.

The modern tampon with an applicator was officially patented in 1931 by Dr. Earle Haas, it was branded and sold under the name Tampax. Tampax as a company was renowned for having a mostly female workforce for a long time. Later, Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag developed the “digital tampon”, digital referring to fingers (digits), which means no applicator. This tampon design came about from her extensive studies of female anatomy and a desire for a more comfortable fit since she was an avid swimmer. Her design came about in 1936 and would come to be distributed in the 1940’s under the brand name O.B. The brand still maintains a board certified gynaecologist and research team to pursue her vision for meeting women’s needs. Some of the issues surrounding tampons is that despite the essential nature of them they are taxed on every purchase, and some places actually apply a luxury tax above a basic sales tax.

Because tampons sit inside the vagina, absorbing fluids, there is a risk of unfriendly bacteria growing and producing a reaction called “Toxic Shock Syndrome” (TSS). TSS can and does kill people. Most cases of TSS are caused by the MRSA bacteria which is an anaerobic bacteria, that means it hates oxygen. Higher absorbency tampons are packed more tightly, meaning less oxygen inside the tampon. Tampons can be made from a few different materials; cotton, rayon, polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, and mixes of fibres. Basic biology shows us that mucus membranes like the vagina, absorb chemicals at much higher rates compared to regular skin. Synthetic fibres can leach portions of there chemical structure and be adsorbed into the body. Cotton tampons may have trace amounts of pesticides and herbicides that were sprayed on the plant prior to harvest. Glyphosate (focused post coming) in particular is sprayed on many crops prior to harvesting. From an environmental perspective the synthetic fibres do not biodegrade, given that the average female will use over 11,000 tampons in her life it adds up in our landfills. For those who flush their tampons (don’t do this) this adds to the difficulty in maintaining a good municipal water system and the microfibers from synthetic materials may end up in the ocean at some point. The largest environmental impact point however, is actually making them (same for pads).

Sanitary napkins, the more technical name for pads, come in different absorbency levels and lengths to accommodate different physical builds. They are worn externally, placed inside the underwear. Sanitary napkins (here after “pads”) are not the same as incontinence pads which are more absorbent to collect leaked urine. Much like tampons, pads have been used for thousands of years. In the 4th century AD, Hypatia was said to have thrown a used menstrual rag at an admirer to discourage his advances. The use of rags is where the term “on the rag” came from. The first disposable pads became available in 1888 and where originally developed by Ben Franklin to deal with bleeding wounds on soldiers. These first disposable pads were filled with wood pulp and used by nurses so they could work even during that time of the month. To use these disposable products the ends of the pads were slipped through loops of a girdle (type of belt), because they didn’t stay in place very well, manufactures added an adhesive strip to the bottom later. The belted pad was still available all the way into the 1980’s! The adhesive became much more popular which phased the belted options out of production. The 80’s saw the disposable pad change considerably; wings, quilting, more effective filling to make them thinner. Before these changes the pads leaked regularly and could be up to 2cm thick. Modern disposables are now bleached wood pulp, cotton, or rayon with polyacrylate gels, with the exception of the wood pulp/cotton/rayon, the materials are all petroleum products. Some products also have fragrance and/or antibacterial agents added as well. With the exception of TSS the problems with pads are the same as tampons. With the amount of plastic in disposable pads there can also be hormone disrupting chemicals that get absorbed into the body which can seriously effect the health and fertility of the user.
There are safer, renewable options readily available to female’s today. Cloth pads come in multiple styles and are the easiest to learn how to use because it is so similar to disposables. Simply wash them after every cycle and put them away. Special note: do not use any fabric softeners because it will waterproof them, which makes them useless. Click on the image below to see an affordable option.

Next is the menstrual cup. This one tends to intimidate people because many are not sure how it fits, never mind leaking. I promise I felt the same way, now it’s all I use. Most menstrual cups are made of medical grade silicone and come in 2 primary sizes, literally named size 1 or 2. There are some brands that offer a bigger range of sizes, however the majority of us fall into the two main sizes. Size one most commonly fits females under 25 and/or pre-birth, size 2 is typically used after 25 and/or having children. It should be noted that even if there wasn’t a vaginal birth the effects of pregnancy still mean a size 2 is more likely to fit properly. With that said those are merely guidelines to start your search. Here is a video by my favourite youtuber on this topic:

Now when she made the video, knockoff cups were of much poorer quality. I have been using a knockoff diva cup without any issues, and most of the knockoffs are actually made out of medical grade silicone. I encourage you to watch more of her videos to see different cups and questions answered.

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