If you’re what researchers call an “average woman”, you’ll menstruate around five hundred times and use nearly seventeen thousand sanitary protection products in your lifetime. With a wider range of such products available than ever before, how do you know where to begin in choosing which to use when?
Before Kotex introduced disposable pads in 1921 and then tampons in the 1930s, women had no alternative but to use cotton rags or knitted, washable sanitary towels. Today, studies show that most of us use only pads when we first start our periods, and then again after menopause. In between, we tend to use a combination of pads and tampons according to personal preference and lifestyle.
Modern sanitary pads, like tampons, are easy to use and discreet and comfortable to wear, and both types of protection are appropriate at any stage of our menstruating lives. Pads are often the preferred choice for light-flow days or for when we’re “spotting” between periods, while tampons allow greater freedom of movement for exercising, playing sport, or swimming. Both pads and tampons come in varying sizes and absorbencies to accommodate lighter and heavier periods.
So what’s the downside? From an environmental perspective, conventional tampons take six months to biodegrade and sanitary pads anything up to five hundred years. Most commercially-available pads contain crude oil and processed plastics, the manufacture of which contributes significantly to global warming and ozone depletion while also emitting dangerous sulphur and nitrogen oxides. On a more direct personal level, the plastic content in pads can cause allergic reactions and some researchers warn of the potential long-term dangers of the chemicals in pads being absorbed into our bloodstreams through the delicate permeable skin of the vaginal area.
Even the cotton used in the manufacture of conventional sanitary protection products has generally been heavily sprayed with pesticides. Then, to give pads and tampons their pristine white appearance, the fibres are commonly bleached with chlorine which is a source of the chemical dioxin, known to contribute to cancer development and interfere with hormone balance. Also, the artificial fragrances used to deodorise products can cause severe adverse reactions in some women’s bodies.
Use of tampons can potentially change vaginal microflora, promoting bacterial infection which could in turn lead to the notorious Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Although extremely rare, and generally associated specifically with prolonged wear of super-absorbent tampons, TSS can be life-threatening. Another possible risk of tampon use is the shedding of rayon fibres: the tiny strands of plastic can cause lacerations to the vaginal walls during insertion and removal of the tampon, resulting in infection.
So how can you minimise the risks? If you’re using tampons, make sure you choose the lowest possible but still effective absorbency level, and never leave a tampon in for more than four or five hours at the most. Overnight, if necessary, use pads instead. To help prevent infection, always wash your hands thoroughly before and after replacing a pad or tampon. When you’re inserting a tampon, avoid plastic applicators (cardboard ones are safer) and take care not to scratch your vaginal lining. Where practical, alternate between tampons and pads and don’t use a tampon between periods; if you’re worried about spotting, wear a slim-line pad. Don’t use tampons if you have a vaginal infection.
These days, there are also many organic and environmentally-friendly alternatives available online from local and international manufacturers. Organic, biodegradable tampons and disposable sanitary pads are made from natural materials, are not chlorine-bleached, and are free of plastic content. For more information or to source products, go to www.flushaway.co.za or www.faithful-to-nature.co.za. Washable cloth sanitary pads, particularly those made from unbleached organic materials, are softer and kinder to the skin than conventional disposable ones; they are also more permeable and reduce your exposure to chemical additives. They come in a wide range of designs, fabrics, colours, and sizes; have a look at www.mothernatureproducts.co.za . You could even consider making your own!
An increasingly-popular choice is the reusable menstrual cup. Made out of biocompatible medical-grade silicone rubber; it’s economical, comfortable, convenient, and easy to use. Inserted into the vagina, it collects rather than absorbs fluid and can safely be worn for up to twelve hours. To find out more, visit www.miacup.co.za or www.lunette.co.za.
You may find that one sanitary-protection product meets all your needs, or you may prefer to use several different ones, either in combination or alternately, depending on menstrual flow and lifestyle. Being well-informed about all our options is the key to managing our periods, rather than having them manage us.