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When you’re forced to use a public bathroom during your period, it seems like there’s no louder sound in the universe than the crinkle of the plastic tampon wrapper or pad packet cutting through the silence. Tampax, the UK’s leading tampon brand, even boasts the quietness of their tampon wrappers to make their users more comfortable. However, nothing is being done to reduce their plastic content (the reason the wrappers are so noisy in the first place).
Today’s period products are full of plastic: Natracare, a company campaigning for and selling plastic-free period products, reports that pads take up to 500 years to break down, and that a packet of pads contains the equivalent of five plastic carrier bags. In a 2016 beach clean-up, the Marine Conservation Society found 20 tampons and plastic period products for every 100 metres of shoreline.
As plastic-free period products become more widespread, it’s increasingly easy to make your period more sustainable. You might be wondering: why should I have to change the period habits I am comfortable with to be more sustainable when it should be up to the companies to make the changes? Because it’s not just the tampon packet and applicator that are wreaking havoc on the environment, the plastics and chemicals inside pads and tampons can adversely impact your health too.
A 2020 study conducted by Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF) reported that tampons frequently contain plasticisers (which can disrupt hormone function), synthetic fragrances (which can be carcinogenic, neurotoxic, harmful to reproduction, trigger allergic reactions, and alter pH levels), and flame retardants (which are associated with neurological disorders and adverse effects on immune systems and thyroid hormones).
“Every day we are exposed in different ways to harmful residues and to the chemicals added to plastic”, the report reads. “We already know that many of these additives are very harmful, but we do not yet know exactly what the effects are on our health. Most additives have never been tested.”
If you are looking to make your period a little greener – whether for yourself, the planet, or both – there are many options available. Whether you’re ready to go all out and purchase a menstrual cup or you need more guidance on pads and tampons containing less plastic, here’s how to make your period more eco-friendly one month at a time.
If you prefer to use tampons:
Ditch the applicator
The plastic applicator that comes with the tampon constitutes most of a tampon’s plastic content. However, applicator-free tampons are common – and often cheaper – than tampons with a plastic applicator, both online (OHNE, DAME, TOTM) and in store (Lil-Lets, Flo, own brands).
If you can’t quite get to grips with an applicator-free tampon, you still have options: cardboard applicators are also common (TampaxTampax, TOTM), or you could invest in a reusable applicator (DAME, Lil-Lets, TOTM).
Tampons that are 100% cotton are biodegradable and much better for vaginal health than those containing other materials as well as cotton. They are very common in-store and online, relatively inexpensive, and many can even be composted. Look for ‘organic’ on the label and you’re set for a much healthier period.
This is a small, flexible silicon cup that can be used (and re-used) instead of a tampon. It is inserted into the vagina where it collects blood rather than absorbing it. When the cup is full, you take it out, empty it, give it a quick rinse, and then put it back in again.
It takes some practise to get to grips with, but there are plenty of brands making menstrual cups in different shapes, sizes and firmness to suit all vaginas, so do a bit of research and take the plunge.
Though they’re on the expensive side of period products (typically ranging between £10-20), menstrual cups can last up to 10 years, contain no harsh chemicals, and come with a reduced risk of toxic shock syndrome. If you spend a conservative £2 every month on period products, it will take less than a year to earn your money back.
If you prefer to use pads:
Reusable pads were the original period product, made with cloth or rags throughout history (hence the delightful period euphemism, ‘on the rag’). Though the invention of disposable pads helped to destigmatize periods in the early 20th century – because pads were no longer something made and hidden at home – they also invented and normalised period waste.
With reusable pads, the tide is turning back to cloth – and luckily these aren’t as bulky as they used to be, fitting easily in your normal underwear rather than being held up by a special ‘sanitary belt’ as they were originally.
Simply wear reusable pads as you would disposable ones, give them a wash afterwards, and they’ll be good as new. Though they’re not as common in store, there are plenty of options available online (DAME, Cheeky Wipes, Earth Wise), usually starting at around £20 for three pads.
These are pants with a pad-like section of absorbent material in the gusset. Again, they are quite expensive – starting at around £12 per pair – but they’re designed to last all day, so absorb more than your usual pad or tampon. As with reusable pads, they’re much more common online (ModiBodi, Wuka, Thinx) than in store, though Marks & Spencer launched a line of period pants in 2021, with an evergreen ‘Buy 3 get 4th free’ deal.
If you cannot afford a full set of period pants or reusable pads to last you the length of your period, switching to either reusable pads or period pants for just one day every period benefits the planet.
Plastic free pads
Like organic tampons, organic period pads are better for the planet and vaginal health. They are available in store (Natracare, Always) and online (TOTM, Wearth), and though they are often more expensive than pads containing plastic, they are much cheaper than reusable pads or period pants, making this an accessible first venture into sustainable periods.