Most menstrual hygiene items go to landfills, but eco-friendly tampons, pads, cups and pants are on the rise. Experts share their tips on finding the right fit
Over the course of a lifetime of menstruation, you’re likely to use between 5,000 and 15,000 pads and tampons, most of which will end up in landfills.
While many of us are taking steps to reduce our consumption of plastic, one of the areas we have been slow to embrace is sustainable period products.
Add to that the cost of those single-use products — which, according to research from 2019, rings in at an average €5,700 in a lifetime — switching to a reusable option could also save you money in the long run.
Here, we asked sustainability and menstrual hygiene experts for their favourite alternatives.
Pads and tampons
The most commonly used items are the worst offenders. Disposable tampons typically feature plastic in the tampon itself, the string, the applicator and the packaging, while sanitary pads can contain up to 90pc plastic materials. Yet for many people, these remain the most convenient period product.
If you’re reluctant to abandon them altogether, Sheelin Conlon, founder of sustainable lifestyle store thekind.co, suggests trying the Irish subscription service Riley.
The West Cork company offers pouches with cardboard or bio-based applicator tampons, as well as plain non-applicator tampons (from €3.99 for 12 every three months, weareriley.com), with options for regular or super absorbencies and three- or six-month plans.
It also sells compostable pads in regular or super absorbencies (from €7.29 for 12 regular pads every three months).
“Their products are made in Europe with an ethical manufacturer from 100pc certified organic cotton. They also work with a charity in Kenya to help period poverty and provide period products to young women,” Sheelin says.
She also recommends UK-based brand Dame, which makes tampons with a reusable applicator (starter set, €35 from wearedame.co). “Price-wise, they are quite affordable and have a deal where you can purchase a year’s supply of tampons for €46,” she says.
“Their starter pack includes a beautifully designed tin that you can store the tampons in too. They have also recently extended their range to include reusable pads and are launching underwear soon.”
Dr Caroline West, sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, is a fan of the Irish-made reusable cloth pads from sweetlavenderandchilliflakes.com (from €6.50 for a light flow pad). “I love the fun, colourful designs — you can have rainbows, unicorns or a whole range of designs which add a sense of positivity,” she says.
If you prefer a more minimalist style, Sheelin mentions the reusable pads from Wear ’Em Out (from €9.15, wearemout.co.uk).
“What I liked about these is they have button clasps and nice designs. Other reusable pads can feel very childish in their design, which is the last thing I want,” she says, noting the brand also sells accessories such as storage bags.
“I would recommend people avoid reusable pads with Velcro, as you need to take more care when washing, and I’ve also heard reports that they can be less comfortable to wear and cause irritation.”
For an especially budget-friendly swap, Taz Kelleher of The Useless Project recommends the OrganiCup, which recently rebranded to AllMatters. It costs €24 (greenoutlook.ie), and she has used the same cup for three years.
“I still use that one and it’s perfect. Honestly, I will never go back,” she says. “I used to use applicator tampons, and when you actually think of the amount of plastic waste you’re using every single month, for however many years, it just didn’t sit right with me.”
A menstrual cup is a soft silicone menstrual cup that is inserted like a tampon and lasts up to 12 hours, after which you remove it, empty into the toilet, rinse and reinsert. Taz notes that it does take a little practice, but after your first couple of cycles, it should be very easy.
“When I saw the menstrual cup, I definitely was apprehensive to try it because it seemed a bit daunting,” she says. “We’re sold this idea that periods are dirty and gross — even the idea that tampons have an applicator so you don’t have to get too close.
“With a menstrual cup, you’re getting up close and personal. It took maybe a couple of months to get used to it, but genuinely, I will never look back,” she says. “It really does last [the 12 hours], and you do not feel it inside you — I completely forget about my period when I’m using it. I’ve never had any leakage — it’s never been an issue.”
After a period, Taz sanitises the cup in boiling water, as you would a baby bottle, and then keeps it in her bag until she needs it again.
“In three years, I haven’t gotten that sinking feeling of: ‘Oh God, I just got my period and I’ve got nothing for it,’ because I always have it in my bag. I’ve actually gone travelling with the menstrual cup, I found it so handy,” she says.
“Every time I change it, I rinse it under the tap to get rid of all the residue. The only thing is, you need to be in a bathroom with a sink so that you can rinse it, but that only really has to be once in the morning or in the evening time.”
Sheelin acknowledges that a menstrual cup can be a “harder sell”. “People are often concerned about how to use them, and changing them if you work in an office or are out and about, for example, can be a little tricky. They are by far the most eco-friendly and affordable option, so certainly worth considering.”
She recommends visiting the website putacupinit.com, which offers an online quiz to help you determine which brand might be best for you based on your activity levels, cervical height, menstrual flow and allergies.
Caroline adds that if you have a heavy flow, you may prefer to combine methods, such as using a menstrual cup along with period pants or a pad.
The latest innovation in menstrual products is period pants, which are designed to look like regular underwear, but can hold up to 12 tampons’ worth of blood, depending on the absorbency.
“My absolute favourite sustainable period product is period pants. These are so convenient, comfortable and low maintenance,” Caroline says.
She names Nickeze, run by an Irish nurse, as her top brand (from €20, sizes XS-XL, nickeze.com).
“They have been a real game changer for me — once I bought them, I had no more period costs. I love swimming and period pants come in swimwear options too, which means I don’t have to stop swimming just because I have my period.”
Sheelin recommends the UK brand Wuka’s range of period pants (basic hipster, €14.95 for medium flow, wukawear.com).
“All of their products are vegan and they cater for a variety of body shapes. They offer one colour, black, which is to limit the amount of dyes used in their products,” she says.
If you’re after more colour or prints in your period pants, check out Australian company Modi Bodi, which ships worldwide (from €23, eu.modibodi.com).
“They offer more diversity with various styles, colours, sizes and flow options to choose from,” says Sheelin. “They even have stylish period-proof swimwear.”