Nina Hanefeld has been advising on menstruation and health for 10 years. She says: “The facilitation of supportive knowledge is one of my passions - may it be in personal consultations or through my writing.” She kindly agreed to write this blog post for us on very short notice as a part of “Environmenstrual Week” to give some first-hand information about the different reusable alternatives to traditional single use period products.
For menstruators it is quite a normal action: unwrapping a menstrual product and replacing the used one. The wrapping and the used product go to waste - again and again and again (women menstruate for an average of 35 years of their lives).
It is easy to put blame on menstruators for the waste they create, as it might seem obvious that they are responsible for this fact. The solution? Urge them to take action! In this case the action means switching to environmental friendly menstrual products.
While it is very important to acknowledge that the biggest responsibility for pollution and climate change lies with big corporations and politicians who refuse to take the necessary action to solve our current problems, individual action still remains important. Among the small changes they initiate, they also can have a big impact on your mental health. Switching to reusable options can give you a feeling of doing your part. And very often you will discover that using alternatives is not a chore or a burden but something that offers more than initially meets the eye.
Alternative products have positive aspects that go beyond environmental sustainability I am a big fan of reusable products and have been for many years. But I seldom urge people to “switch to save the environment” - even if I am asked to write an article for the environmenstrual week: Alternative menstrual products are a true revolution for menstruators and the environmental aspect is just one among many other positive aspects. In fact, they might solve problems you did not realise you had! We are so used to traditional products, that a lot of the discomfort they bring is just considered normal. Reusable menstrual products (that are made of high quality material) bring a feeling of comfort that is not usually associated with menstruation. In some cases they even have a positive impact on your health, especially the health of your vulvina (= combination of vulva and vagina). Often, less irritation, itching and maybe even less infections will occur. Most alternatives also reduce odour or even eliminate it completely. Sometimes they reduce menstrual pain. And: Reusable products are incredibly practical as you never run out of them and don’t have to rush out at unreasonable hours to get new pads or tampons.
What are the alternatives? Maybe alternative menstrual products are not that mysterious to you: at least menstrual cups have gotten a lot of attention in the past few years. Sadly, it is not entirely a positive development that they have gone more “mainstream”, as many of the new versions do not have the high quality that is necessary to enjoy the product without frustration. Please be aware that it is highly recommendable to research the actual brand you want to buy - regardless of what kind of alternative you want to use. It is important to research the materials used, the production and the ethics behind the brand. Do not just believe the commercials. Ask yourself if this is truly a brand you feel comfortable with and don’t let yourself be baited with cheap options. Higher quality often comes at a higher price - but in almost all instances you are being rewarded for paying the higher price by being able to use your product for a long time. My personal story starts with a mooncup I am a writer, counsellor (https://natuerlich-informiert.de/) and teacher. For several years I have also been working for Kulmine (https://kulmine.de/), a company dedicated to lifting the taboo surrounding menstruation. They also produce and sell cloth pads and several other environmental friendly products. And I have recently released a book for young girls that is also among their product range. At the moment the book "Lin und das Geheimnis des Zyklus" (Lin and the secret of the cycle, https://kulmine.de/allerlei/lin-und-das-geheimnis-des-zyklus.html?c=12) is only available in German, but a translation into English is already in the works. By now it is 16 years ago that I searched the internet and first found out about menstrual cups. In this long forgotten time of the archaic internet, it was not as easy to buy a menstrual cup as it is today and there were only four brands to choose from. After a few years of using the Mooncup I bought some cloth pantyliners for the days with a very light flow. But I could not imagine ever using cloth pads for the days of heavier flow. My very first encounter with single use pads had not been very good. So I thought the experience with cloth pads must be the same... but it very much is not! When I met Petra Sood, who is the owner of Kulmine, I was sure that meeting her would not change my stance on cloth pads... but it did! First, I only wore cloth pads now and then and suddenly I realised that I only took out the Mooncup when I was on long days out and about and when travelling. Now, menstruating without cloth pads seems impossible. They belong to my everyday life and when I use them my thoughts do not center around the benefits for the environment - although it makes me very happy to know how much waste I did not produce! I use cloth pads because they make me feel truly comfortable and cosy during bleeding. Sometimes I even forget that I am bleeding. They give a feeling of wellbeing that for some people seems unbelievable. And while I have become a big fan of cloth pads, menstrual cups are also an absolute game changer and they too can give a positive feeling - but personally I feel like cloth pads offer just a different level of comfort. As to sponges: I found them very handy for having sex while bleeding and they are also a very comfortable experience - more on them further down! Out of curiosity I also tested menstrual underwear. If they are your very first try in using alternative products, they might seem revolutionary. But they also bring something that the other alternatives don’t: Because they all (at the moment) have a layer of plastic to prevent blood from coming through, they encourage odour. This is a bit disappointing as many users specifically state how glad they are that cloth pads, cups and sponge come without menstrual odour. That odour is actually not there because of the blood but because of the reaction of blood and plastic and not enough air circulation! The two kinds of alternative menstrual products The first kind are products worn externally: menstrual underwear and cloth pads. Menstrual underwear comes in the shape of normal underwear but has an added layer of absorbent cloth and a layer that is supposed to keep blood from going through the underwear. Cloth Pads come in different shapes and sizes. They are put into your normal underwear and absorb the menstrual blood. Some brands also sell them with a “protective” layer of plastic. In both cases the plastic layer does not prevent blood from overflowing - the best way to prevent overflowing is using a product that fits your needs and is switched often enough. The plastic does make it difficult for air to flow and also makes it difficult to discard them in an environmentally friendly way.
I would also like to mention cloth panty liners as they often are combined with other alternative products and (depending on the brand) are much more absorbent then the single use panty liners. They can be used for light flow and/or for spotting. The second kind are products worn internally: the natural sponge and menstrual cups. The sponge is moistened before use and then folded and inserted into the vagina. There it absorbs the blood without also absorbing the natural moisture that any vagina has and that is very important. The menstrual cup works almost the same: It is folded and inserted in the vagina. But it does not absorb the blood, it collects it. Inserting a menstrual cup takes some practice and maybe you don't find the one that suits your needs right away. Please only practice using the menstrual cup while actually menstruating. This is important because the blood will help to lubricate the cup.
How do alternative products work? The idea is always the same: Instead of discarding the used product they are re-used. In case of internally worn products that happens immediately: You take the sponge or cup out of the vagina, remove the menstrual blood and re-insert it. In both cases you need water for that. If there is no washbasin nearby, a water bottle is also sufficient. Cloth Pads are not reused immediately. They are switched out and the used pads can be put in a little bag. The side with blood on it is simply folded to the inside. As to menstrual underwear: I have to confess that I do not understand how you are supposed to switch them comfortably during the day. They can offer an interesting second layer for menstruators with a very heavy flow and can be combined with other alternative products.
How do they work when you're not at home? The answer to this most commonly asked question is not as complicated as you may think! Put the used cloth pad into a bag with the used side folded inside. At home, just let them dry and put them in the laundry when ready. Some people like to soak them before they put them into the washing machine. As for menstrual cups they often don't even have to be changed during the day. But if you have a heavy flow and want to change them when out of your home you can take a water bottle with you on the toilet and rinse them above the seat. Or just take the cup to the next sink nearby, wash it out and insert it back. The same applies to sponges. A short summary of the four alternatives Cloth pads that are made of 100% cotton are durable - depending on the quality they can last many years (Kulmine sometimes even hears from customers who have used them up to 20 years - saving approx. 4,320 single use pads). They are placed in your underwear. Their absorbency is comparable to that of disposable pads, and depending on the amount of bleeding, they can be worn a few hours and up to a day. With a healthy vulvina flora there is no smell. The disposal is unproblematic if it’s a product without a plastic layer and the costs are around 10-20 Euros. Menstrual pants are worn as underwear, and (for now) always have a blood-impermeable layer of various synthetic materials. The pants themselves are also usually mixed with a plastic fibre component. They last 2-3 years depending on the care (still saving around 648 single use pads). The absorbency is characterised by a rather slow absorption of blood and, depending on the version, is rather low. Theoretically they can be worn all day, but this is not realistic depending on the situation. They are susceptible to odour, especially at higher temperatures. Disposal shows the problems common for plastic materials. The costs are between 20-40 euros.
Menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina and collect the blood without absorbing it. Depending on the material, the durability varies greatly: silicone lasts up to 10 years (that would be approx. 2,160 single use pads), and even longer with good care. It is not clear how long rubber lasts and plastic cups are susceptible to deformation and cracking. The durability is therefore very different. The absorption capacity is large to very large and is indicated in millilitres. They can be worn for up to 12 hours. In a healthy vulvina flora there is usually no odour, but very rarely this can occur. Plastic cups show the disposal problems common to plastic materials, while rubber decomposes naturally, silicone can be burned without any problems, but does not decompose naturally. The costs vary between 10-25 Euros.
Levantine sponges are inserted into the vagina and absorb the blood without drying out the walls of the vagina. They are 100% a natural product (but not vegan) and are plastic-free. With good care, they last for about a year (still saving approx. 216 single use pads). The absorption capacity and wearing time is comparable to that of tampons. With a healthy vulvina flora there is no odour. Sponges are unproblematic to dispose of and the costs are about 4-5 Euros. All these products can be combined with each other in any way you like, thus strengthening the absorption capacity. All four products could even be worn at the same time - but in most cases this is not necessary.
How to start If you want to start with cloth pads I highly recommend to start with a small selection. Then you can test them and buy only the versions that you truly liked. The same can not be done with cups - I would recommend one of the more established brands like Lunette or Mooncup. Good brands always offer in depth information about their product and how to use them. It is important to use the information the internet offers you - but also: Don’t overthink it! At some point it is better to just try them out instead of reading one more article about them. :)