They are more sustainable than tampons or sanitary towels and less arduous than a moon cup. But are period pants the solution for the environmentally-conscious menstruator?
I have a confession to make. I use mainstream disposable period products. I am an almost 40-year-old middle-class woman, I have read and written extensively about women’s health and periods, and yet I’m still using pads and tampons that are bad for the environment and, arguably, bad for me. The intention to change has been there since before I first became a mother almost nine years ago. I bought a menstrual cup when they first came out but never quite managed to get along with it.
When my period returned heavier than ever, after I stopped breastfeeding my youngest son, I tried but failed to find organic, disposable tampons able for a very heavy day-one flow and which wouldn’t break the bank. When I Googled reusable pads I just couldn’t get past the girly, floral or aggressively patterned fabrics.
If that makes me sound shallow, so be it. I just couldn’t stand the look of the designs on a computer screen on a good day, let alone the thought of them between my legs after a week of intense PMS. I eventually decided that period pants would be my route to environmentally-friendly menstruation, but somewhere between navigating the sizing of a pricey enough garment online and gasping at the prohibitive cost of US customs and complications of Brexit, I gave up.
In the past few months, my search for the right period knickers has intensified as more and more brands have entered the market this side of the Atlantic Ocean. With impressive eco credentials and considered cost-effective in the long term, period pants have become increasingly popular, including among celebrities such as Busy Philipps and Vicky Pattison, both of whom have sung the praises of their favourite brands.
In addition to established leak-proof underwear brands such as Knix, Thinx, Wuka and Modibodi, Marks & Spencer now has its own range of period underwear, and earlier this year, Ireland got itself a period pants brand born and based in Galway.
“It was just an idea in my head that wouldn’t go away,” says Ellie Loftus, a registered nurse, Tusla barrister, mother of two girls and former Irish Olympic bobsled team member, explaining that the pandemic gave her the space to work on her idea of an Irish brand of period pants. In March this year, she soft-launched her new baby, Nixx — a period and bladder leak underwear brand. The cost of a pair of Nixx period pants ranges from €24.95 to €27.95, which is right in the middle of the typical price range of other brands available in Europe, such as Modibodi and Wuka, while the M&S period knickers come in slightly cheaper, at €17.
“I do master sprinting and compete for Ireland, and when I was getting back to it after having the girls, I went for a run one day and realised I was wetting myself. I was fit as a fiddle, but I still wasn’t able to go without a pad,” she says about one of the many epiphanies that inspired the venture.
“One in three women suffer from it. And even if physiotherapy helps, you want the security to go out dancing and not have to worry about wetting yourself. Most women don’t want to have to wear pads, they want to wear nice underwear.”
Ellie says shame is also a big part of it. “I realised when doing the market research that I’d almost forgotten about the psychological impact of the fear of leaking blood through your clothes. I’ve heard so many stories of girls getting up in class and feeling that gush, or visiting friends and leaking onto the sofa, and the absolute fear of that.”
With help from the local women of Barna who stepped up to test the Nixx prototypes, as well as agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, Ellie developed what she describes as a 4x4 technology with layers of specialised fabrics that can hold up to four tampons’ worth of liquid. The bladder leak version can hold up to six teaspoons of liquid, and at the time of writing, a super absorbent version of the period pants is going through the testing process.
Most heart-warming, since the launch of her products, are the messages of gratitude from some mothers, says Ellie. “One mother called and said her daughter had just had her first period and asked how quickly I could get the pants out, so I ran to the Post Office and sent them out. Her daughter has autism and won’t leave the house with pads because of sensory issues. These are things most people don’t think about,” she explains.
“Another mother contacted me about her 10-year-old daughter who has giggle incontinence. Imagine wearing pads at 10! And girls are getting their periods younger and younger. We think of periods as straight-forward things, but eight-year-old girls can’t be managing pads in school.”
Among the products is the Nixx First Period Box, which Ellie hopes will act as both a stigma-buster and a reassurance for tweens, who will see that their parents are prepared and that there’s no shame in talking to them about periods. But the range is expanding all the time, taking into consideration issues such as heavy bleeding in the post-partum period, designs that go well above a C-section line, and additional styles and patterns.
My own Nixx period pants arrived in three simple styles, as requested, along with some chocolates, a silk sleep mask, care instructions, and encouragement from Ellie to really mind myself. I’ll know when it’s time to change, she reassures, explaining that the feeling will be similar to a pad that’s filling up. “Go easy on yourself,” she says. “You’ll become more aware of just how much blood you lose and there might be a very slight metallic smell.”
She’s right. I’ve always considered myself to be very in touch with my body, never queasy or uncomfortable when it comes to menstruation management, but when I rinse off my Nixx period pants after my first attempt at using them and watch the blood-stained water go down the sink, it feels different — and yes, there’s a distinct smell of iron. I wonder why I’ve never experienced that smell before, and then I brush off the thought of all the perfume and other damaging ingredients, such as polyethylene and polyester, that I’ve had in direct contact with and even inside my body every month for the past more than two decades.
I have an accident on day one. Then I remember that I’m a woman who’s given birth vaginally, who regularly passes clots and needs double protection of the super plus extra kind during the first few days of my period, and that I’m wearing the regular absorbency pants on my heaviest day.
After that, I sort of get the hang of it. I’m a little nervous and it feels a little different, but I brave a power walk with nothing but the period pants on day three and they do the job. Best of all, I sleep. It’s been a given for me for the past few years that as I need to double up with both a tampon and a pad when I go to bed during my period, my sleep is disturbed by the discomfort of moving, awkward pads. With the period pants, I wake up rested.
Am I converted? Let’s say that I think it’s a learning curve. Much like it took me months to get used to inserting and wearing tampons in my teens, with a whole unihoc floorball team cheering me on in the changing rooms before a big match, I’ll need to find my groove with period pants. Some say that, even with super absorbent pants, heavy day-one bleeding will always require a tampon as well. But if it means I’ll never have to wear a pad again, that’s a huge victory for me — and for the environment. Sustainability, naturally, is a huge motivation both for Ellie and for most women who abandon disposable period products in favour of more eco-friendly options.
In Ireland alone, more than 200,000 tonnes of period product waste go to landfill every year, at an average cost of €132 per year on tampons and pads for each person in Ireland who menstruates.
All the more reason to mind your period pants and make sure they last, which is also why Ellie recommends that you leave your period knickers out to dry naturally rather than put them in the dryer.
Some brands suggest that you can wash and dry their products whichever way you prefer, but Ellie says: “It’s an investment — you want to mind them. It’s fine if they end up in the dryer occasionally, but you don’t want to destroy the waterproof layer. It sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t — a normal wash, that’s all.”