It’s time to talk about sustainable menstruation! Here’s why a menstrual cup is the best option… and reasons why it may not work for you. I’ll also go over environmental impacts of regular tampons, 100% organic cotton tampons, and a list of other eco-friendly period products at the very end. I won’t go into detail about any cups that I’ve tried out because I’d like to dedicate smaller pieces for reviewing them specifically.
Menstrual cups are not only a more affordable alternative to plastic tampons, but they’re also much friendlier to our planet. While it’s nice saving money from not buying tampons regularly, my main reason for using a menstrual cup is so I may live more sustainably. I started using a cup in August 2018… and noticed plenty of other perks besides environmental ones, and I don’t plan on using tampons again unless it’s an emergency situation. Before we get into menstrual cups, let’s talk about why the average tampon is so harmful.
Tampons are disposable. Most readily available tampons are made of synthetic material with plastic wrapping and applicators; after one-time use the tampon wrapper, applicator, and tampon are all destined to end up landfills. For the ongoing project DesignLife-Cycle, UC Davis undergraduates collect information on embedded energy within products: the material they’re made from, and the process of making and breaking them down. You’d think this information is easily accessible to the public, but oftentimes it isn’t. In 2016, students specifically researched the average tampon’s life cycle:
[Synthetically made tampons] have amounts of plastic which means they’re not biodegradable. In other words, their speed of decomposition is extremely slow and can take up to 450 years to completely decompose.
The rate at which a plastic applicator decomposes can be “centuries longer than the lifespan of the woman who used it” (The Guardian).
A single woman can use [an average of 11,000 tampons] within her lifetime.
Seeing roughly half of the human population experiences menstruation, you don’t need to think hard about how many tampons are thrown away each year. Hint: the number is in the billions. Additionally, tampons and other products end up in our waters and beaches when they are flushed down the toilet because they can slip through filtration at wastewater treatment facilities (that is, if they don’t clog your plumbing first). With a menstrual cup, you don’t have to flush anything down the drain beside your menstrual fluid.
Bad, Better Best? Conventional Cotton < 100% Organic Cotton ≲ Silicone
In terms of embedded energy, we should acknowledge that cotton is one thirsty crop—to put it in perspective, it takes up to 700 gallons of water to create just one t-shirt. But that isn’t the only reason why it’s so unsustainable.
Other than the high gross use of water conventionally grown cotton also “uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture. Each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides — more than 10% of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25% of the world’s insecticides” (Pesticide Action Network). Not to mention that the conventional cotton industry reportedly perpetrates human rights abuses and forced child labor to maintain its low costs. So, the only way we can sustainably and ethically use cotton tampons is by choosing 100% organic cotton: say no to slave labor, say no to pesticides, say no to insecticides. Buying ethically grown and organically produced products will always factor into pricepoint, which is why ‘100% organic cotton’ tampons are priced a little higher than traditional ones.
Menstrual cups are also arguably the best period product option, even over 100% organic cotton tampons, because it eliminates tampon and applicator waste completely (Organic tampons still end up in landfills since tampons are considered biohazardous waste, and are therefore unfit for compost… however, organic tampons break down in as little as 6 months, hundreds of years fasters than synthetic tampons).
While silicone cannot decompose, we can recycle menstrual cups when it’s time for a replacement. And if your silicone cup does end up in the ocean, it poses less of a hazard to marine life since silicone doesn’t break down into smaller pieces as plastic does. Consumer advocate Debra Lynn Dadd researched and found that silicone “is not toxic to aquatic or soil organisms, it is not hazardous waste and, while it is not biodegradable, it can be recycled after a lifetime of use.”
BUT IS SILICONE REALLY LESS HARMFUL THAN COTTON?
It should be mentioned that silicone production isn’t without faults. Silicone is not a naturally occurring material like cotton, but a manmade polymer whose main component is silicon that comes from silica (commonly found in sand). This polymer is so versatile, it can be found as a water-soluble ingredient in hair products, as food-safe reusable kitchenware, a featured ingredient in car polish, as biocompatible and sterile medical equipment, sex toys, and so much more.
Silica has been mined for years without much ecological impact; however, in recent decades silica became very valued for its use in oil fracking and this increased demand for silica sand mining in the US and abroad. With several new mining sites (both legal and illegal practices) environmentalists and those living nearby question the environmental and health safety of silica sand mining. It is not only a threat to wildlife habitat but a pollution and health concern for workers and communities living near mining grounds.
Comparing cotton farming and sand mining, they can both be destructive and devastating to the environment when production levels are increased exorbitantly. As consumers, while we make use of household cotton and silicone products, we must also be aware of corporate malpractices that go against our ethical and moral values: environmental pollution and labor exploitation from the conventional cotton industry and excessive silica (frac) sand mining that is led by big oil.
There are eco-friendly but disposable 100% organic tampons, and there are menstrual cups that last for years and are recyclable at the end of its lifetime. They are not perfect products, and each come with their own personal or environmental perks and drawbacks. It’s ultimately up to your individual needs!
Besides sustainability, there are many other perks to using a menstrual cup… however, it also comes with downsides. The menstrual cup may or may not work for your period situation. See below for pros and cons to menstrual cup use that can help you decide if it’s right for you!
PROS TO MENSTRUAL CUPS
- IT FEELS LESS IRRITATING than a tampon or thick pad (subjective to my own opinion). Pads are large, cumbersome and make me feel sweaty down there; tampons can feel drying, and their strings get in the way of using the restroom. Menstrual cup material is firm yet flexible enough to conform to the body. Once the cup is in place, I don’t feel it: nothing hangs out from my hoo-hah, it doesn’t add bulkiness in my underwear, and it leaves my natural moisture alone.
- SAVE MONEY with just one menstrual cup, which can replace between two to ten years worth of tampons (this is the speculated lifespan of a menstrual cup). While their cost is more expensive upfront, you don’t have to buy menstrual cups continuously like disposable period products—for example, a menstrual cup that costs ~$25 USD pays for itself within just a few period cycles. After that, you’re saving money that would have otherwise been spent on tampons or pads.
A few dollars per tampon package saved each month adds up over time! (Image via Tenor)
- WEAR IT FOR LONGER than tampons or pads. One can safely leave a menstrual cup in for up to 12 hours, but this is highly variable depending on each person’s flow and cup capacity. These can be left in for so long because the safest cups are made with medical-grade silicone, which is non-porous so bacteria cannot be absorbed into the cup itself. Alternatively, if tampons aren’t removed within 8 hours of insertion, it risks higher chances of Toxic Shock Syndrome or aggravating an already-present vaginal infection.
- MANY OPTIONS TO CHOOSE FROM. Your Goldilocks “Juuust Right,” Holy Grail menstrual cup is out there, somewhere, in the period product market. Cups vary not just by size, but by material (for those with allergies or sensitivities), firmness, general shape, and the design of the stem/ring for removal. Besides the standard menstrual cup, there are also menstrual discs with larger capacities than a menstrual cup and (apparently) the allowance of mess-free period sex. How they remain in place, insertion, and removal is reportedly very different than the menstrual cup.
- BECOME FAMILIARIZED & UNASHAMED with your body, and feel more comfortable about menstruation. There is still so much stigma about this biological function! People who aren’t educated about it are more likely to believe that periods are unclean or that a person on their period is impure or dirty. This stigma isn’t just emotionally harmful, but has led to oppressive practices around the world from being unallowed to discuss menstruation to being physically ostracized from school, places of worship, and even the entire community in the duration of a person’s period; this causes shame and a lack of knowledge within the menstruating population. Using a cup forces you to be more self-aware of your body through touch, so you have a higher chance of noticing changes in your vaginal health. It also normalizes your period because you are seeing and handling your period blood each time you empty your cup. You’ll realize that your body’s process of shedding the uterine lining every month is super fascinating and completely natural.
CONS TO MENSTRUAL CUPS
- THERE WILL BE BLOOD… and mucous, in all its liquidy, clumpy state. (since it’s collected in the cup instead of being absorbed into a tampon’s material). Blood gets on your fingers and under your fingernails. If you’re not careful, it may accidentally drip onto the toilet or floor and make the bathroom look like a fresh murder scene! Personally, I think it’s cool watching this mixture of bodily fluids splash into the toilet, but others may not want to deal with the mess.
- LESS CONVENIENT THAN REGULAR TAMPONS. Anything reusable requires more maintenance over disposable items that you don’t think twice about throwing away; menstrual cups must be sanitized by boiling it before each cycle, and you have to at least wipe the cup down between removal and insertion. Another reason why cups are less inconvenient is the public restroom: just wiping your cup off with TP is fine in this case, but walking out of the stall with blood on your hands is not the business. Additionally, if you’re getting used to a menstrual cup and/or have a heavier flow, you might find yourself leaking because of incorrect insertion or the cup you’re using isn’t quite right for you.
THE LEARNING CURVES(S) & THE SEARCH for your Holy Grail menstrual cup. There’s no one-size-fits-all cup! Size matters, and your cervix height dictates which cup fits comfortably. Then once you’ve bought it, you must learn how to get the dang thing up there! There’s many folds to try; it must be inserted deep enough; how to pop it open once inside; ensuring it’s properly aligned to the cervix—otherwise, there’s a high chance of leakage. Some may experience difficulty removing the cup when it’s time to empty it (I do, because of my short fingers). If the cup you bought isn’t working well, you’ll have to purchase another or several others until you find one that’s works. Each cup on the market is made with different materials and shaped differently, so they each have their own learning curves—they also cost more upfront than tampons, with quality cups ranging between $20-$50 USD. This may mean you’ll be spending more money than you previously thought if you don’t buy the right cup firsthand.
(via Medium) The best cup for you may not be the first cup you purchase.
- POSSIBLE PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS may hinder those with joint, reproductive or other physically-related conditions from comfortably, safely, conveniently using a menstrual cup. A menstrual cup is not for everyone! And that’s okay. Please see below for other types of period products that are eco-friendly with small descriptions included.
If you think a menstrual cup is not for you but still want to use more sustainable period products, fear not: you have options! Many brands have been launched offering environmentally-friendly period products for conscious consumers. Each type listed below has their own pros and cons, but overall are more sustainable than plastic applicator synthetic tampons.
- Organic tampons, no applicator: In best conditions, 100% cotton tampons can break down within 6 months—a much shorter timeframe than synthetic tampons! And without an applicator, you’re cutting that source of waste out entirely. Like the menstrual cup, your fingers will be reaching in for insertion. (Brands: Cora, Honest, LOLA)
- Organic tampons with cardboard applicators: With all the perks of a one-use tampon, they generate the same amount of waste as regular tampons but cardboard applicators can technically be recycled, and they biodegrade much faster than plastic applicators. They are subjectively less comfortable to use than plastic applicators. (Brands: Rael, Maxim, Brandless, kali)
- Organic tampons with reusable applicators: Currently unavailable, but various companies will launch tampons with reusable applicators very soon. These applicators may last for years before needing replacement, although it’s questionable whether they can be recycled after use. The applicators likely need to be boiled or washed with soap & water to disinfect. Still producing waste via tampons each month. (Brands: THINX, Dame)
- Menstrual cup with special pull-stems: Currently unavailable; in an effort to create menstrual cups accessible, some companies will soon release newly designed cups meant for those who cannot use traditional-style cups. These stems are used to break the seal that keeps the cup in place when inserted. All the perks of a menstrual cup, however, it still may not be the best design for your specific needs. (Brands: Keela, flexcup)
- Washable cloth pads & pantyliners: No tampon OR applicator waste but may add bulkiness or sweatiness in your underwear; you should also purchase a generous package of them so you never run out between washing. Requires laundering—higher maintenance needs compared to other products. (Brands: Small businesses on Etsy, Lunapads, Charlie Banana)
- Period underwear: No tampon OR applicator waste, but this alone may not be enough to collect your menses and may need to be paired with a different period product anyhow. You should probably purchase more than one to switch out for if/when it absorbs full capacity. Also requires laundering. (Brands: Modibodi, Harebrained, THINX, Lunapads)
Menstrual sponges: Made of natural sea sponge, these can be reused up to 6 months with proper care. I would not recommend a menstrual sponge to most people, due to a combination of risk factors and strict upkeep to maintain sterilization. They are a natural material, but it may concern you that they aren’t actually plants—sea sponges are considered animals despite immobility and a lack of organs. Their filter-feeding means sand or other small particles may be present in the sponge which may make you apprehensive of inserting it into your body. And, because it works through absorption, the sponge must be thoroughly sanitized by soaking in a safe solution for 1-2 hours between periods OR risk it harboring bacteria or fungi which can lead to imbalanced pH, infections, or even TSS. Like tampons, a menstrual sponge should only be left inserted no more than 8 hours. It is still a viable option if one has the time to maintain proper sterilization of the sponge. However, if you want a period product which absorbs menstruation from within the body, my recommendation is 100% cotton tampons because, despite downsides of the tampon waste, cotton tampons are made from plant material which biodegrades and its disposability poses much less health risk than a reusable menstrual sponge.
For menstruating folk, if we collectively begin using sustainable period products like the Menstrual Cup it would significantly cut back on tampon and plastic applicator waste going into landfills and our waters. I think the personal benefits of using menstrual cups outweigh its downsides—however, the cup doesn’t suit every person’s needs and you may still wish to reduce your period product waste. I recommend researching on your own as much as you can, to choose an eco-friendly period product that’s best for you. I hope my extensive guide has helped you consider purchasing any eco-friendly product for your menstruation needs. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for menstrual cup reviews! ♥