It’s estimated that women spend an average of £18,000 on menstrual health products in their lifetime and an average woman will use over 16,000 tampons or pads over the course of her life. Considering that half of the population deals with their period on a monthly basis the subject has often been ignored for women to deal with it on their own, maybe speaking about it with their friends every now and again or in passing comment, and often regarded as a taboo subject until now. We are having much more open and authentic conversations about our monthly cycle, discussing everything from ‘is that normal?’ to ‘what’s the best option for me?’ These conversations are allowing other women to have the confidence to open up about their own experiences thus bringing more women together and helping other women in the process. Recently it has been brought to the wider public’s knowledge that the sanitary towels or tampons that we are using are having a bigger impact on the environment than we could’ve ever thought, and also as concerning, it is having an impact on our health.
We are all trying to reduce our plastic consumption, but did you know that plastic is 90% of the material in pads themselves, and it has been calculated that the environmental impact of one pad is the same as four plastic bags. The big issue is not just to do with pads and tampons themselves but also the material that comes with them such as the glue adhesive and packaging. It’s estimated that every year over 45 billion products related to periods – that includes tampons, pads and related packaging – are thrown away. In one single day in 2015, The Ocean Conservancy collected 27,938 used tampons on beaches around the world. Even though we are told not to flush these down the toilet, many still do so, causing them to end up in the sewer systems and waterways. Still, putting them in the bin doesn’t necessarily solve the problem as they go to landfill; even those that are biodegradable still take years to break down.
Just what is in that tampon or pad you are using?
The toxic make up of a tampon or pad makes it shocking to think that it is actually legal to sell these products in the first place, not only to adult women but also to teenage girls. The most commonly found chemicals are:
- BPA – BPA is a hormone disrupting chemical that comes from producing plastic and has been linked to cancer
- Chlorine – Have you ever noticed how white your tampon or pad is? Chlorine is used in the bleaching process and also produces trace amounts of dioxins in the process
- Dioxin – Dioxin occurs in the bleaching process when using Chlorine and has been linked to hormone disruption and compromised immunity
- Fragrance – Fragrance is often used as an umbrella term so that brands don’t have to list what chemicals they are using. And yes, this is legal.
- Non-Organic Cotton – Pesticides used in the growing of Cotton means that residues can often still be found in the end product and therefore present in our tampons and pads.
- Phthalates – These are plasticising chemicals and can mimic the estrogen production impacting your metabolism and your reproductive system
Incredibly, all of these chemicals have been found to cause major reproductive issues like Endometriosis in some people, which is crazy when you think where we are then putting these products. In earlier years, we may have thought that these issues are just part and parcel of life, but as more information comes to light and we are becoming more aware as conscious consumers, it all starts to add up. As we know now, anything that you put on your skin can be absorbed into your bloodstream affecting our hormones and increasing the risk of health issues, both minor and life threatening.
We have put together a guide to help you make the switch to a better alternative that is right for you during your period. So what are the alternatives?
Organic Tampons & Pads
If you are just starting out with finding alternatives to normal pads and tampons, and you are a little apprehensive, switching to organic tampons or pads, like Kind Organic, can be a great place to start. They are grown without any pesticides so contain no toxic chemicals and they don’t have any added perfumes so they are good for those with sensitive skin. They usually tend to be biodegradable too.
Pros: easy to use, good for those with sensitive skin, no nasties hidden that could harm your health and can be found in major shops like Boots; so easily accessible
Cons: not as environmentally friendly as other alternatives and repurchasing can add up to a high cost
Tampons – £2.50-£3.50*
Pads – £2.50-£4.00*
*Average price for a box of 10
Reusable pads are becoming more and more popular as we look towards a zero-waste lifestyle. While the hygienic aspect may put some people off, rest assured they are very hygienic and are a great alternative for those who don’t want to use tampon-like products.
Pros: easy to use, free from any irritating chemicals, will last a long time
Cons: need to buy a lot when you first switch so can be costly, can be bulky depending on the fabric, mainly only available online
Price Point: £3.49-£8.00 per reusable pad on average
*You can buy bundles from some online retailers that can work out cheaper
Menstrual Cups are the thing of the moment and everyone is raving about how amazing they are. Menstrual cups, such as Mooncup, are usually made from medical grade silicone and are a safer alternative to tampons during your period, as there are no associated risks with Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). It’s also a much friendlier option when it comes to the environment as it is reusable and can last for years and it can hold up to 4 tampons worth of liquid.
Pros: one off cost that saves you money, better for your health, good for the planet, you don’t have to worry about running out of tampons/pads or trying to find some while you are travelling, readily available
Cons: can be tricky to use for the first time, takes time to get used to
Price Point: £15-20
Period-proof underwear, such as THINX, are worn in place of tampons or pads and is becoming more popular with more brands offering this alternative. Using absorbent fabric with an anti-microbial lining means that you can wear the underwear when you are on your period and be completely protected for the day.
Pros: you don’t have to worry about changing throughout the day, easy to use, good for the environment as they are reusable
Cons: you will need to buy enough to last you through the 4-6 days so will be costly at the beginning, needs to be rinsed as soon as they are taken off, if you have a heavy flow they may not be suitable
Price Point: £25-£30
Reusable Tampon Applicators
As we become more aware of how damaging normal pads and tampons can be to the environment and our health, new and innovative products are being created to solve a solution to this problem. If you prefer to use an applicator with your tampon, then Dame will be perfect for you. The first of its kind, Dame is a reusable tampon applicator which is BPA free, leak proof and safe for your body, posing no risks to your health, and is guaranteed to last a lifetime meaning no environmental waste.
Pros: saves you money in the long run, easy to use, a good alternative to a plastic tampon applicator
Cons: only available online, limited to one brand
Price Point: £19
In the future we hope that no woman has to worry about the safety of her sanitary products and the big brands listen to the growing concerns of consumers. Campaigners are calling on companies like Proctor and Gamble, who own major brands including Always and Tampax, to make changes to stop using plastic and go biodegradable. They are also bringing more awareness to the issues and allowing more women to become aware of how the use of their sanitary products could be affecting their health and the health of the environment.
Ella Daish, one of those campaigners, started a petition at the beginning of 2018 urging all big brands to go plastic free, and so far has received an incredible 103,913 signatures. She agreed to give us five minutes of her time to talk about her experiences and what motivated her to first get involved.
1. How did you get into campaigning for plastic-free periods?
I got into campaigning for plastic-free periods after I noticed the rubbish during my postal round was getting worse, the thought of this occurring on a national scale horrified me and made me question what waste I could reduce. When my period started it dawned on me just how much plastic-waste I was creating during one menstrual cycle. I was then shocked to learn that disposable plastic period products take over 500 years to break down, meaning if women had used them during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I they would still be decomposing today. This concerned me especially considering the volume at which they are being produced and disposed of and more worryingly the people I was discussing this issue with were unaware of the plastic content of these products. It became clear to me that I needed to raise awareness of this issue and take action to get manufacturers to go plastic-free in order to stop the avoidable harm these essentials are inflicting on the planet and wildlife.
2. What changes have you seen, from when you first started campaigning to now, and do you think the major brands for menstrual products are changing?
Since the campaign began in February I have been contacting all major brands and supermarkets to show them just how many of us (over 100K!) are calling for them to take responsibility and end period plastic. There have been more and more conversations happening, therefore I am optimistic for future change. In the meantime the more people that sign and share the petition, start conversations about this issue and choose plastic-free period products the more pressure that will be put on these companies to make change happen sooner.
3. What do you think has shifted in terms of women being quite vocal about their periods whereas before it was almost taboo to talk about?
There are numerous issues surrounding periods that have been brilliantly spoken about and shown in the media recently such as poverty, tax and plastic. I believe that this has created a positive difference and a much-needed platform to help women openly discuss periods and initiate conversations without fear of shame. We still have some way to go but this is a fantastic start and one that should be embraced.
4. Do you think the campaign for plastic-free periods will have an impact globally, particularly around the impact on other issues such as period poverty?
Many of the brands that have been added to this campaign are also global, and therefore if they make a change to their products in the UK there could be a real chance of them doing this worldwide. There are also a range of nationalities signing this campaign which goes to show how relevant this issue is globally. Period poverty is an important issue and even though it stems from the same source as the plastic problem, that being periods, they both require very different answers. If all mainstream brands were to go plastic-free then these products would be given to period poverty charities just as they are today.
5. We would love to know what an average day of campaigning looks like for you?
When I am not posting letters, an average day of campaigning includes contacting companies, raising awareness of this issue and of the change we can all make by opting for plastic-free alternatives through social media, keeping up to date with relevant articles, travelling to various locations to participate in events, and checking my inbox for any exciting news – which there has been a lot of recently!
Ella’s campaign is still running and if you would like to support her, in urging the major brands and supermarkets to ditch the plastic in our tampons and pads, you can sign here.