Reusable Menstrual Products Are Earth-Friendly, But Are They Safe?
By Rachel Kramer, MD, Ob/Gyn—Virtua Obstetrics & Gynecology
A new and booming market for reusable feminine hygiene products has emerged recently. These products are touted as economical, environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional tampons and pads. Some also claim these products promote a healthier, or more convenient, period experience.
There’s no current research that suggests any reason to avoid these alternatives. Just remember: most of them carry the same risks as tampons including toxic shock syndrome (TSS) and vaginal infections.
Here's what you need to know about some of the most common reusable menstrual products.
Menstrual cups are usually made of healthcare-grade silicone, which is also hypoallergenic. The cup is inserted into the vagina and held in place by pelvic muscles. Menstrual cups usually come in two sizes: smaller for younger women or those who haven’t had children; and, larger for women after childbirth and those in their 30s and beyond. Menstrual blood is collected in the cup and should be emptied at least every 12 hours. You have to wash and reinsert the cup at least twice a day throughout your cycle. The cup also should be boiled briefly between cycles to sanitize it.
What you should know
- The one-time purchase offers significant cost savings over the repeated purchase of tampons/pads.
- You must be comfortable inserting the menstrual cup into your vagina with your finger(s) to achieve proper placement, and this may take some practice at first.
- If left in too long, women are at risk for developing TSS and bacterial vaginosis from using the menstrual cup, just as with traditional tampons.
Cloth Pads and Period Panties
Most reusable menstrual pads are made of cotton or organic cotton cloth. Manufacturers offer everything from heavy-flow-day kits to pads with “wings,” with sizes and shapes that accommodate every style of undergarment, from briefs to thongs. Period panties are sometimes a combination of a panty with a cloth pad insert. Other versions feature all-in-one construction and usually use synthetic materials for moisture-wicking. How long you can wear reusable pads or panties depends on the absorbency of the product and the heaviness of your flow.
What you should know
- You have to buy a variety of pads or panties in a range of absorbencies to get started, so the entry price for these is higher than some other reusable options.
- You have to carry with you a small waterproof pouch for on-the-go changes, and be prepared to wash these pads or panties daily throughout your cycle.
- Unlike tampons or other products that are inserted into the vagina, cloth pads do not increase risk for TSS or bacterial vaginosis.
Though not as popular as the options listed above, some women swear by the menstrual sponge. Menstrual sponges are, literally, sea sponges, which are rounded and made into a variety of sizes. The sponge must be removed every 4-6 hours, rinsed out, and reinserted.
What you need to know
- Menstrual sponges are reusable, but only should be used for a total of 6 cycles before replacement—making them an ongoing expense.
- You must be comfortable inserting the sponge into your vagina with your fingers. While insertion is usually quite easy, some users have reported difficulty with removal. Make sure you read manufacturer instructions carefully to avoid potential complications.
- If left in too long, women are at risk for developing TSS and bacterial vaginosis from using the menstrual sponge, just as with any other menstrual product that’s inserted into the vagina.
Updated December 12, 2016