Zero Waste Menstrual Products: A Review
My experience switching from traditional single-use menstrual products to reusables.
Menstruation: kind of an icky topic that nobody likes discussing. But we need to talk about it. Every year, womyn in America spend upwards of $275 million on menstrual products alone (4). That's the same amount that Mike Bloomberg put into a digital advertising campaign to target Trump, or the amount Louisiana legislators are investing into a stimulus program meant to help small-business owners with COVID-19-related expenses. That's a ridiculous amount of money and it's paid out Every. Single. Year.
Other than sheer cost, there are two very unsavory (and sexist) factors at play here. First, the tampon tax, which has come to represent the tax levied on menstrual products deemed to be luxury items—as opposed to essential items such as food, medication, and even other personal hygiene products, etc.—that are required to sustain health and life. Taxing menstrual products indicates that, like Lamborghinis and 18-karat gold necklaces, tampons serve their user the same purpose—to indicate their position in society. In the world of economics, luxury goods are defined in terms of their elasticity with respect to income, i.e. a person’s demand for luxury goods is highly dependent on how much money they’re making. It is readily accepted by economists then that people can do without luxury goods when they’re short on funds. When they find themselves earning more, they can purchase more luxury goods.
Second, the pink tax, or the extra amount that womyn pay for everyday products, is how the womyn's 12-count Schick Slim Twin ST2 Sensitive Disposable Razor can cost $7.51, but the men's 12-count Schick Slim Twin ST2 Sensitive Disposable Razor only costs $4.99 (7). Exact same razor, exact some quality and function, $2.52 more because it's pink. In general, the pink tax accounts for womyn's products costing 7% more than the male version, including 13% more for personal care products (5). This disparity accounts for womyn paying $108,000 more than men for the same products over their lifetime of an average 81 years. In my lifetime alone, the pink tax has cost me somewhere in the ballpark of $35,000, according to the pink tax calculator I used (6: which can be found by Googling "ax the pink tax," Vocal just won't allow me to link it herein). And it's not just personal hygiene products where womyn are scammed, but haircuts, clothes, toys, school uniforms, canes, and adult diapers too, and that's not even an exhaustive list.
Take into account the gap in wages and the fact that womyn make 79 cents to the male dollar, then factor in the tampon and pink taxes, and you tell me why in the world any wommon would want to purchase menstrual products for nearly 40 years.
That's not to mention the environmental implications of menstrual products. The toll that cleaning up after this natural need takes on the planet is staggering. Over the course of a lifetime, the average menstruator will dispose of 441 lbs (200 kg) of menstrual support gear—90% of it plastic—which will enter the landfill, sewer systems, and waterways (8). That's the equivalent of 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons being trashed each year! I personally know so many womyn who don't think twice about flushing their tampons or pads, not realizing that, unlike toilet paper, pads and tampons cannot biodegrade and your average sewerage system cannot remove them. Yuck! All that junk builds up, and heads downstream, where it will infiltrate groundwater, rivers, and eventually the ocean, being consumed by fish and other animals all along the way.
And that's only once the product becomes waste. In order to get to that point they have to be manufactured first. The absorptive portion of tampons and pads are made out of a combination of cotton, rayon, wood pulp, harmful chemicals (such as "natural" fragrance in scented products or chlorine bleach in some brands of tampons (11), and fine plastics. Cotton, specifically, has a large environmental footprint attributed to its use of harmful agrochemicals (pesticides) in the growing stage, high levels of water consumption throughout the production phase, and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use (9). And don't even get me started on the plastic. Pads are said to be 90% plastic and some estimates place a package of pads as equivalent to four plastic bags (1o). But the solution isn't tampons, because tampons contain 6% plastic, too... even in the string. Why in the world any wommon would want to shove plastic in such a sensitive area is beyond me.
Finally, I decided enough was enough, and started investigating all the reusable menstrual product companies I could find. Of course, the Diva Cup had been out and mainstream for several years at this point, but I happen to prefer using pads/liners only, so the search for reusable liners commenced. I found several iterations of reusable liners, and one brand of period underwear. To avoid being overwhelmed by all my options, I decided to conduct a mini study analyzing two major brands of reusable liners, one off brand of liner, and one brand of period underwear. I purchased the cheapest version of each that was compatible with my period needs with the intention of comparing each brand and then investing in the brand I found to be the best for my personal needs. The following is a review of each brand and the pros and cons I discovered while using them.
Whether this is your first step on your zero waste journey, or you're just tired of being scammed by pink taxes, let this product review be your guide.
My Traditional Routine
For this "study," I wanted to get as accurate of an idea as possible into how much money I could save by using only reusables and by how much I could reduce my personal footprint. Reducing my environmental impact is of utmost importance to me, but I didn't want to go broke in the process of going zero waste. Not wanting to spend a fortune, I looked for the cheapest way to acquire the products I trialed and found many of the sites offer pretty decent first time customer discounts. Whenever I could, I opted for the cheapest option, unless it simply didn't fit my needs. (I've included my monetary breakdown after the product reviews.)
I'm pretty lucky when it comes to menstruation. My period lasts a reliable five to six days, with the second and third days always being the heaviest. Because I'm always on the go and don't always have the ability to take regular bathroom breaks, my go to pad for several years has been Always' maxi size 4 overnight pads with flexi-wings (the orange ones). Yeah, it's basically like wearing a diaper, but I only need to use one every day and one at night for the first three nights. In this way, a typical period cycle for me only uses 7-9 pads. I usually end up using Carefree's original regular liners for 2-4 days both before and after my actual period, so I end up using 6-8 panty liners in total for one period cycle. Worst case scenario, that's $4.23 per period and 275 g (0.61 lbs) of synthetic and plastic waste produced every month.
I'm also very lucky because I've only been menstruating regularly for 70 months (just shy of six years). This means that, in my lifetime as a person with a period, I have spent $296.10 on period products and produced nearly 19,250 g (42.44 lbs) of mostly plastic waste... and I'm only twenty-five! If I continue this period tradition until the age of 51—when menopause usually sets in for womyn in America (1)—I would spend $2,588.76 on period products in my lifetime (not accounting for inflation). That's more than the cost of a regularly-priced, single-adult, round-trip, premium-economy, United Airlines ticket from LAX (Los Angeles, CA, USA) to Sydney, NSW, AUS in January 2020. Not to mention this spending would produce 168,300 g (371.04 lbs) of waste in period products alone—that's nearly the equivalent of three baby giraffes! Add that to the 54,431 g (120 lbs) of other trash humans typically make in a month and it's no wonder trash will outnumber fish in the sea by 2050 (2).
With these three baby giraffes and one trans-pacific flight in mind, let's focus in on four brands of reusable alternatives that could be our saving grace, for our planet and our wallets.
Version: Color Pantyliner Plus
Pantyliners come in Plus vs Regular versions indicating how much coverage the flaps provide. I opted for the color plus version because it was cheaper with greater flap coverage, but the organic version is great for people with skin sensitivities or who want to know where their cotton comes from and what is done to it. I also opted for the Bee Powerful fabric pattern because it was the lightest color and sometimes I bee feeling suicidal and want to wear white pants during my period and I don't want my pad to show through if it's crazy Hawaiian print.
Cost: $13.49 each
I got two pantyliners for $13.49 by using code "NEW2CLOTH" which gives you a free pantyliner when you purchase a pantyliner of any version. I also got free shipping so $13.49 was the total I paid for a shipment of two pantyliners.
Absorbency: Low flow (1/3)
I found the pantyliner to be perfectly sufficient for last day spotting needs or catching beginning bleeds.
Comfort: Made out of nothing but cotton, these liners are soft to the touch, like a non-fleece baby blanket. The snaps are small and unnoticeable, though they can be cold at first because they are metal.
Stability: The liners are held in place by a small, reversible metal snap and because they're lightweight and cotton they don't move around and the snap is perfectly sufficient to secure them in place for an entire day. The most stable of all the liners I've found.
Durability: After washing a bunch they do get a little pilly since they're only made of cotton, but the seams are holding perfectly and I don't notice the pills so I can't say as I'm particularly fussed by the outcome.
Material: The pantyliners come in Color vs Organic. Color pads are made with conventional cotton fabrics, while the organic pads are made with unbleached, undyed GOTS-certified organic cotton. However, I found the color version to be very soft and smooth (much like microfibre) and was not disappointed in the fabric quality.
Packaging: All pads are packaged in what looks like a plastic sleeve to keep products clean and dry, but this is no ordinary plastic sleeve. No! It's actually made out of cellulose, a compostable and eco-friendly material made from plants that you can easily dispose of in your worm bin out back. Shipments do come with a user guide and shipping receipt, both of which are recyclable.
Return Policy: Full refunds are granted to domestic orders of never-washed, never-used items up to 90 days from date of purchase with original packing slip listing your reason for return. Shipping costs are non-refundable.
Thoughts: These have become my go to for pre/post-period needs. Because my period is very irregular it's very hard for me to anticipate my start date, even though I religiously use a tracking app and everything. With the help of my trusty app—My Period Tracker, if anyone's in the market for a period app—I can reliably get within plus or minus three days of my actual start date. These liners are the absolute best for those ambiguous three days where I'm not sure if anything is going on down there or not. They're also very comfortable and I can't even notice I'm wearing them so I'm really not miffed if a whole day goes by and nothing happens because it's not like I spent the whole day uncomfortable in a diaper like would sometimes happen during my disposable days. Currently I only have two, but I've been thinking about going back and getting a few more because I love them that much.
Version: Performa Maxi
I opted for the black version, rather than the cream or blue scalloped design.
I was able to get my Luna Pad for $26.23, including shipping, by purchasing it from Target instead of directly from the Luna Pads website. This saved me roughly $3.00 in international shipping costs (LP is located in Vancouver, BC, CAN).
Absorbency: Listed as three times as absorbent as disposable pads or tampons (i.e. it can absorb what three pads/tampons would absorb before needing to be changed).
Comfort: Kind of like sitting on a soft, fluffy cloud: you know it's there, but you're not mad about it. The cotton layer that is next to your skin is very soft and fine so there's no scratching or catching.
Stability: Held in place by a snap, this pad stays exactly where you put it, though it does have the tendency to flip up, at least in the front. Basically all this means is that you should keep an eye on it when going to the restroom to avoid smearing blood along the front waistband of your underwear.
Durability: I've been machine washing this sucker in medium temperature water and line drying for nearly a year and other than mild discoloration (due to blood, not washing), it looks brand new.
Material: The dry wicking cotton top layer next to your skin is made out of 95% cotton and 5% spandex jersey while the absorbent core is 100% polyester microfibre. The leak proof base is made from 95% polyurethane laminated cotton (to keep things waterproof and low odor) and 5% spandex jersey. The whole thing is secured with a poly-resin snap.
Packaging: My single pad came in a cardboard box with a user guide (both recyclable) inside a plastic ziplock bag (not ideal, but reusable).
Return Policy: Full or partial refunds granted up to 60 days after ordering on all products except for Diva Cups or clearance items.
Thoughts: I'm really pleased with the absorbance and coverage of this pad. The only thing I'd change is going from the ten inch Maxi to the 13 inch Super pad, simply because I like to wear diapers. This switch provides more back of the butt coverage which I find to be better for overnight use. During the day, the Maxi is a great fit, stays in place, and is super comfortable. It's reliable and I haven't had a single spill or leak yet. It's definitely on the chunkier side though as far as layers and material go so that might not be ideal for anyone not keen on revisiting their baby days.
Version: Pantyliner Starter Kit (5-pack)
Cost: $79.99 for 5-pack
I was able to catch these products on a crazy sale and only ended up paying $29.97 for everything. I qualified for free shipping and even received a free wet bag as part of my purchase. Should I decide to make another purchase, returning customers get a 10% off discount code. Essentially, I paid $5.99 per liner and still got a free wet bag. Definitely the cheapest option I explored.
Absorbency: Low flow (3/10)
Comfort: These liners are held in place by a plastic snap, and while the snap isn't very large, it is the bulkiest out of all the options presented here. That being said, I still don't notice it once I start going about my day.
Stability: The PUL baking is very slippery which results in a fair bit of lateral movement of the liner within the underwear.
Durability: Made to be machine wash and dry friendly, these are the lazy launderer's best friend. As always, longevity is enhanced when chlorine bleach and fabric softeners are avoided, as these decrease the performance and absorbency of the liners.
Material: Organic bamboo cotton is used on the inside (next to your skin) and the outer layer is made of waterproof, eco-friendly PUL (polyester urethane laminate) to prevent leaking.
Packaging: Arriving perhaps the least sustainably, my liners did come sealed in the wet bag so there was at least no extra packaging required to keep them sanitary, but that wet bag was shipped in one of those soft plastic mailers, which can't be recycled where I live. Perhaps they've changed their shipping methods since then, I certainly hope so.
Return Policy: Full refund for unused items in original packaging with original receipt returned no later than seven days after confirmed delivery. Partial refunds will be issued if items are returned between seven and thirty days after delivery or if any item is not in its original condition.
Thoughts: At first I was really stoked about the waterproof PUL baking layer because my biggest concern in switching was having major leakage/spillage and I figured this backing would at least ensure nothing soaked through. Alas, I was mistaken. While the PUL layer did just that, it was very slippery and resulted in the liner moving around a substantial amount from the front to the back of my underwear, and vice versa, every time I moved. It wasn't uncomfortable or noticable, until I went to the bathroom and saw where the blood was going. Spoiler alert, it wasn't into the liner because the liner wasn't where I'd left it. After making this discovery these liners were quickly relegated to pre/post-period spotting use only. They're perfectly adequate for that job, but not much else I'm afraid. Though for the price I paid, I'm not displeased.
Version: Air Bikini
I opted for the black design rather than the ocean blue design, but quickly learned that the same thing that makes black great for periods also makes it hard to judge how full your period panties are.
I paid $22.88 including shipping by lucking out on a promotional sale.
Absorbency: Moderate (2/4; up to 3.5 tsp or 18 mL)
Comfort: Felt like any other lightweight, airy, athletic underwear made to breathe and ventilate.
Stability: Made of a very smooth material that I didn't feel stayed in place very well. This coupled with the poor, not-particularly-stretchy elastic in the waistband made it feel like they were constantly slipping down my backside.
Durability: Even though the recommendation online is to wash in a mesh laundry bag to keep them delicate, I washed these underwear with my regular laundry sans delicates bag and didn't notice any issues. I imagine this kind of non-delicate washing over time will just add to their general wear and tear, but as I don't own a delicates bag and am not motivated to go out and purchase one for a single pair of underwear, this will just have to do. I did line dry these underwear before my first use, but I imagine I wouldn't keep that trend up very long. Because the body is made of a smooth almost slippery material I was able to fold these underwear in thirds for storage and had no issues with creasing or wrinkling when I pulled them out to use.
Material: 78% polyamide, 22% elastane (body); 95% cotton, 5% elastane (moisture-wicking layer; gusset); 96% cotton, 4% elastane (absorbent layer; gusset); 100% polyester laminated with a polyurethane-based film (PUL) (moisture-impermeable layer; gusset). All of their products are third-party tested and independently certified through STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX for ecological safety.
Packaging: Arrived in your typical shipping envelope with a three-part cardboard tag safety-pinned to the side and a user guide. Both the user guide and tags are recyclable, though a tad excessive.
Return Policy: Full refunds, including shipping costs, will be issued up to 60 days from date of purchase on products in their original condition, excluding merchandise, tampons, and gift cards. However, Thinx warranty will replace any and all defective products within one year of date of purchase.
Thoughts: I chose poorly and grossly misjudged this product online. I spent a good 30 minutes reviewing each style online (the awkward poses of the models didn't help any) trying to find a style that provided the kind of butt coverage I prefer without an excessive waistband and settled on the bikini style. It was not what I was looking for. Wedgies were unavoidable, even while sleeping, and because the actual underwear is made of a smooth mesh material I felt like the underwear were always slipping and twisting on my body, which they were to a mild extent. The biggest disappointment was finding out (the hard way, of course) that the seam of the gusset isn't made out of the the same absorptive material as the rest of the crotch. This lead to leaking out both sides during the night, a design flaw in underwear that are meant to catch your period if you ask me. Because I'm used to wearing a pad the size of a diaper, I was disappointed in the lack of butt coverage of the absorptive material. I tend to get more blood pooling in the back of my pads overnight than the front and was displeased by how short the actual pad part was. I also found it very difficult to determine how full the panties were, and thus how imminent an overflow could be, due to the color. This could be easily remedied by ordering the blue instead of the black, but again I chose poorly. Overall, I felt very anxious while wearing these underwear, constantly worrying if I was leaking out the sides from overflow or because the underwear moved around on my body and scrunched up too much. BUT, when I voiced my issues to the Thinx team they provided me with a full refund (minus shipping) and even allowed me to keep the product. Super amazing of them, though I haven't used it since.
While I didn't trial any menstrual cup options over the course of this "study," I thought it would be a good idea to include a review of them anyways based on findings of other menstruators I've spoken to.
There are several brands of menstrual cup out there: a few of the more ubiquitous brands being Diva Cup, Flex Cup, and Lily Cup. They all work exactly the same way in that they are compact, BPA-free, medical grade silicone cups that you insert into the vagina to catch blood before it exits the body. Every brand has a comprehensive how to guide on inserting, removing, and cleaning, and while it is admittedly awkward at first—or so I've been told—it doesn't take long to get the hang of and figure out what works best for you.
I have been cautioned that these are not the option you want to be changing out in public as you have to wash them out in the sink and that is not something you want to be doing in a public restroom. That said, most cups can last for up to 12 hours before needing a change so they should get you through just about any average work day.
Each brand produces various shapes and sizes based on your age/bleeding rate—Flex and Lily even have versions that you can wear during sex—and while all removal relies on breaking the seal, Flex Cup comes with the added bonus of a pull string that will break the seal for you so it's much easier to remove. It does require a bit of disassembly though when cleaning due to this added advantage, but no Flex Cup users I've found have minded this extra step. The Diva Cup brand produces a plant-based cleanser designed to protect the silicone material of your cup and maintain the pH balance of your vagina, which, if you're curious, is supposed to be moderately acidic and range between 3.8 to 4.5 (3).
Prices range from $13 to $40 dollars (not accounting for shipping), but since menstrual cups can last for several years that works out to $100 to $300 worth of savings each year. You can buy a whole lot of chocolate for $300. One Flex Cup user I know has been using the same cup for the past year and a half and notices no signs of wear and tear whatsoever, though some discoloration is normal and to be expected.
My New Routine
In total, I spent $92.57 on seven liners, one pad, one pair of underwear, and a waterproof carry bag. However, these products are said to last anywhere from three to five years, even more if you take good care of them. At my current rate of disposable consumption, it will only take me 22 periods to earn back what I spent on these products. Even on the low end of that estimation, I could be saving $59.71 out of the $152.28 that I would otherwise have to spend on period products in three years. That's the equivalent of 27 Hershey's giant (6.8 oz) chocolate bars! Needless to say, I'm stoked about these savings.
While I still use disposable pads for the heavier flow days of my period (2-3 days), I now only use reusable liners before and after my period to catch any light spotting. This means I save ~200 g (0.44 lbs) from going into landfill each month. Over the course of that three-year estimation, I will be preventing nearly 9,900 g (21.96 lbs) of waste from entering landfills. That's the equivalent of a small child! In the future, I plan to purchase a few Luna Pad Super Pads to eliminate that two to three day dependance on disposable products and completely close the loop on my menstrual needs.
Know Before You Switch
Throughout this process, I discovered a few things that would've been handy to know, or at least be aware of, before I started out. I'm including them for you here so you're fully prepared for this part of your zero waste journey.
Across all brands, the cleaning instructions are the same. Rinse used products in cold water and soak overnight in cold water in a clean container to prevent staining. All products should be machine washed cold using natural detergents and no fabric softeners or bleach. Delicate bags can be used to keep items separate from the rest of your laundry, but they aren't necessary. And yes, your pads can go in with the rest of your clothes. Tumble dry low or line dry and store flat in a clean, dry place until next use.
What none of these brands tell you is that it is highly likely you will get blood everywhere when changing pads or underwear, especially when just starting out. If you are prone to queasiness at the sight of blood, I would not recommend the pads. When swapping out used pads you have to fold the pad up on itself and re-snap it, with the hopes of keeping all the blood on the inside. This isn't always the case, depending on how saturated your pad is.
You should also be prepared for a lot of blood when it comes to rinsing your pads or underwear. I thought I was pretty in touch with how much I bled during my period, but having to actually hand rinse all my pads made me realize how much more I actually bleed, and I don't even have the heaviest of flows.
Transportation and Storage:
Then there is the question of transporting your used pads. Thankfully, most of these brands also sell bags with a lined, waterproof inner pocket for used pads and a smaller, cloth outer pocket for clean pads. This does mean that you will be carrying around a soiled pad with you all day until you can get home to clean it up and throw it in the laundry pile, but provided no catastrophic spills occur, this shouldn't be a problem.
When storing your pads, it actually is essential to store them flat. Unless you have an iron handy to give them a quick press before use. I found that I was more prone to leaks if my pads were wrinkly because they would get bunched up in areas and overflow instead of absorb.
For the pad and liner inserts, all styles I've found are secured with a reversible snap (so it snaps no matter which way you fold it). The type and quality of the snaps varies with brand, but for the most part I found no issues with the snaps. I was very glad that I couldn't feel them poking me when sitting or wearing tight pants. That being said, the ones that are made out of metal (as opposed to poly-resin) were more instantly noticeable, mostly because they were very cold against my thighs until they heated up to match my external body temperature. Once they warmed up, however, I could no longer tell they were there. It was just an instant shock I came to expect, but that surprised the hell out of me the very first time. I might also be just a tad jumpy.
I've included links in the headings to product pages where I could. Be advised that you can often find these products at Target, Walmart, or the like for cheaper (and you don't have to pay shipping and handling). Many of the brands list their retailers online so have a look on the product pages you want to try in order to find the cheapest option available. If cost is prohibitive for you, I'd start out small, maybe a few liners for the beginning/end of your period. It's hard to start small and build up when it comes to cups so that's more of an all in investment from the get go. That being said, I'm happy with the monetary investment I made and have found the same goes for everyone I talk to that's made the switch. Just remember, it's a learning process, but in the end, making the switch is better for your health, the planet, and your pocketbook. Best of luck on your zero waste menstrual product journey. May it be full of sunshine and chocolate bars.
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