The topic of feminine hygiene products is rarely discussed, but it’s a vitally important issue for about half of the world’s population. Every tampon and sanitary pad has a major environmental impact—from the resources and chemicals that go into making them, to the waste created, to the less visible costs of packaging and transportation.
Indeed, any product that is mostly plastic and put in the landfill after a single usage is, by definition, unsustainable.
Here is why you might want to consider more environmentally sustainable options for managing your period, and how to find non-toxic, eco-friendly feminine hygiene products.
- Why Choose Sustainable Period Products
- How to Find Sustainable Period Products
Why Choose Sustainable Period Products
The Landfill and Litter Issue
The average person menstruating five days a month for 38 years will use approximately 11,400 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime.
It’s estimated that nearly 49 billion pads, tampons and applicators are discarded each year in North America alone. Approximately 85% of these single-use products ends up in landfills, where it potentially releases toxic chemicals and microplastics into the environment for the hundreds of years it takes to degrade.
Unfortunately, about 15% of this waste is intentionally flushed down the toilet, where it ends up in our rivers and streams, because most sewer treatment systems cannot properly handle it. As a result, single-use menstrual products are the fifth-most frequently collected items in beach clean-ups, making up about 6% of all litter.
Independent tests have found microplastics not only from wrappers and tampon applicators, but also in some tampon strings and in the tampons and pads themselves. These microplastics get ingested by marine life like sea turtles, seals and whales, causing digestion blockage and death.
Please don’t flush tampons, tampon applicators or other period products! They contain microplastics that escape the sewer system and pollute our rivers and oceans!
The Pollution Issue
In life cycle assessment (LCA) comparisons and studies of the environmental impact of menstruation products, they have found that from cradle to grave, including everything from the raw material extraction, to the manufacture, transportation, use, and waste management, conventional feminine hygiene products are very costly to the planet.
Conventional sanitary pads, panty liners and tampon applicators are made with crude oil plastic. Sanitary pads are often as much as 90% plastic! Tampons are typically made from bleached wood and soy pulp (cellulose), plastic fibers, and a small amount of GMO cotton.
The main environmental impact of conventional period products comes from processing raw materials for tampons and pads, particularly the plastic fiber and cellulose (wood pulp) production. However, this doesn’t discount the vast amount of oil, water, trees, soil and gasoline that are depleted or destroyed in the packaging, delivery and disposal of these single-use products, too.
The Toxins in Conventional Tampons and Pads
“Feminine hygiene products are an important source of chemical exposure in women.”
—Dr. Chong-Jin Gao, New York State Department of Health
Anything that comes in constant contact with your skin will enter your bloodstream and be carried throughout your body. This is why nicotine, birth control and other medicated patches work so well. This is also why it’s best not to put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t eat.
Unfortunately, according to multiple studies and scientific reports, conventional tampons, sanitary pads, panty liners, feminine wipes, incontinence products, and disposable diapers can contain as many as two dozen toxic chemicals, including:
- Dioxins, a byproduct of bleaching wood and soy pulp to make rayon, are some of the most toxic substances known. Even elemental chlorine-free bleaching (ECF) leaves minute traces of dioxin behind, which is concerning because exposure is cumulative and toxic in the tiniest quantities.
- Glyphosate. According the USDA, 94 percent of all U.S. cotton is genetically engineered to withstand spraying with glyphosate or Round-Up, a pesticide linked with cancer and endocrine disruption. Glyphosate (Round-Up) has been repeatedly found in tampons and pads worldwide, which has caused outcry and product recalls in France, Canada, and Argentina.
- Bisphenol A (BPA), found in most sanitary pads, which has been found to disrupt the function of hormones and endocrine glands, particularly in fetuses and babies. BPA has also been linked to cancer and heart disease.
- Phthalates, which give tampon applicators and pads a smooth finish, are known to disrupt hormones and disregulate gene expression. Elevated exposure to phthalates has been associated with precocious puberty, endometriosis, female genital tumors, and ovulation disorders.
- Polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester are plastics which can release microplastics into the body as well as to the environment after use and disposal. A recent study found that a single conventional tampon has the potential to release billions of nanoplastics during use.
- Propylene glycol (PEG) makes period products softer to the skin and more absorbent, but it may be contaminated with ethylene oxide and/or 1,4 dioxane, which are both linked to cancer.
- Volatile Organic Chemicals like Styrene, Chloromethane, Chloroethane, Chloroform, and Acetone, which are linked to cancer.
These period product chemicals have been linked with several conditions, including endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, premature ovarian failure, uterine fibroids, fertility problems, breast cancer, and obesity.
Given the average menstruator will come into direct contact with the chemicals in tampons and pads for roughly 2,200 days of their life, it makes sense to choose the safest, most eco-friendly period products possible.
How to Find Sustainable Period Products
In much of the world, regulations on the chemicals and byproducts in feminine hygiene products are too weak to adequately protect public health and the environment. The only thing you can do to avoid these potential hazards is to read labels and choose alternatives you can be sure do not contain toxins or harm the earth.
Choosing a more eco-friendly menstrual product for one’s monthly cycle can make a big difference for your wallet, your health, and the health of the planet. Here are the most sustainable period care choices, in order of environmental value and cost.
Good Choice: Organic Cotton Tampons and Pads
All natural, organic tampons, panty liners, and pads are made from non-GMO, certified organic cotton, or sometimes organic hemp or bamboo. These tampons and pads work exactly the same as conventional products, and come in a variety of absorbencies.
They are free of irritating dyes, fragrances, plasticizers and all the risks that come with those ingredients. Choosing certified organic cotton, chlorine-free tampons, liners and pads reduces the amount of dangerous toxins and pesticide pollution in our environment, and in your body.
On the downside, even though they contain safer, more sustainable ingredients, there is a lot of oil, waste, resource and water usage associated with the manufacture, delivery and disposal of any single-use, disposable feminine hygiene products. Single-use anything is just not sustainable.
Some organic tampon and sanitary pad brands to look for include Natracare, Organyc, Cora, and Seventh Generation. If you are uncomfortable inserting tampons without an applicator, you can buy a reusable tampon applicator, and reduce your waste even further!
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Better Choice: Washable Sanitary Pads
Washable sanitary pads are absorbent cloth pads that function just like disposable sanitary pads. They usually snap or velcro around your panties (like wings), and are made from soft 100% organic cottons and flannels that can be washed by hand or in the washing machine.
Washing pads every month does take some water and energy, but it takes far less than the water and energy required to manufacture, transport and dispose of disposable pads.
Look for organic cotton or bamboo top fabric, and avoid microfiber and fleece fabrics near your skin, which are made of plastic.
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Better Choice: Period Underwear
The latest product available for eco-friendly period care is the “period panty” or “period underwear”—which is basically underwear with an absorbent, cloth sanitary pad sewn in. But unlike washable sanitary pads, these panties use high-tech fabrics that absorb a lot of liquid and odors without being bulky or uncomfortable. Some period underwear can absorb 4–6 tampons or pads worth of fluid while keeping you dry and clean!
Period panties come in lots of colors, shapes and sizes for every body, and a variety of absorbencies as well. Some will even handle bladder leaks and post-partum discharge. All you need to do is rinse period underwear out in cold water in the sink, and then wash them in the laundry machine with the rest of your clothes.
On the upside, for the average user, period panties make having your period about as comfortable and leak-proof as it can be.
On the downside, a recent study uncovered that the high-tech synthetic fabric liners used in 65% of period underwear tested positive for PFAS, a cancer-causing, endocrine disrupting, “forever chemical” you definitely don’t want near your delicate skin or out in the environment.
These advanced liners are what allow period panties to absorb so much liquid while still remaining dry, comfortable and form-fitting, so affected companies are working hard to remove PFAS from their products before they are hit with more fines and lawsuits.
Look for period panties that are made with an organic cotton or bamboo top fabric in the crotch, and are specifically labeled “PFAS-free.” Make sure to get a pair where the liner has both front and back coverage to prevent leakage. These work better for overnight, too.
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Best Choice: Menstrual Cups and Discs
The menstrual cup, first invented in the 1930’s, has gained a lot of popularity due to recent Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) scares and increasing awareness about the presence of toxic chemicals in conventional period products.
Reusable menstrual cups and discs are usually made of non-toxic, medical-grade silicone, and have a life expectancy of ten or more years. This cuts the cost of period care enormously.
Menstrual cups and discs are inserted into the vagina like tampons or diaphragms, but they generally hold three to five times more liquid than tampons. Since there is no risk of TSS, menstrual cups and discs can be left in twice as long. Most people only need to empty and clean them twice a day, in the morning and evening.
As an added bonus, the menstrual disc (not the cup) offers mess-free period sex! And because they have no harmful chemicals or residues, they can even be inserted when you’re expecting your period to avoid any accidents. Many people also say that they experience fewer menstrual cramps when using menstrual cups.
Cups and discs come in varying sizes, and each brand is a little different in size and shape, so you might need to try a few to get the right fit. Menstrual cups and discs clean up with soap and water, and can be sterilized in the dishwasher, though you can buy special, non-toxic cleaners just for the job.
Menstrual cups will put you into closer contact with your body and your monthly blood, and they have a bit of a learning curve to initially using them. But if the menstrual cup works for you, it is the most non-toxic, low maintenance, environmentally-friendly and cost-effective choice for period care.
You can find a wide selection of menstrual cups online here. Trusted brands of menstrual cups and discs include Diva Cup, Pixie, Saalt, and Cora, though more brands are entering the market as menstrual cups and discs become more popular.
Look for 100% pure medical-grade silicone menstrual cups and discs. Your cup should have no smell when you receive it, as silicone doesn’t offgas. Some cups and discs come with carrying cases, washing supplies, applicators, and other accessories, if you like!