The average menstruating person in the U.S. uses 5,000 to 15,000 disposable sanitary pads and tampons over the course of their lifetime. People with bleeding disorders—who often have painful, heavy periods that can last for more than a week—probably skew toward the high end of that estimate.
Thankfully, today’s menstruators can find sustainable, earth-friendly alternatives to disposable pads and tampons that help cut down on waste and save money, too. In addition, many of the companies making sustainable period products are also involved in the movement to destigmatize menstruation and promote period equity.
Not that long ago, the term “period underwear” referred to the old, stretched pairs that someone would set aside to use when they had their periods. Now, it refers to a whole new category of washable, reusable menstrual products. Period underwear, or period panties, look just like regular underwear, except they have extra layers of fabric that absorb menstrual blood. Some styles absorb several regular tampons’ worth.
Thinx was one of the first companies to market period underwear, and today there are several other brands to choose from, including Dear Kate, The Period Company and Proof. While period underwear isn’t cheap (most brands cost $25 to $30 each), one pair usually lasts two to three years, and many women say they’re more comfortable than pads. People with heavy periods may prefer to use period underwear as a backup with a tampon or menstrual cup (see below). But it’s not a good idea to use period underwear with pads, since the underwear needs to fit close to the body to prevent leaks and stains.
Washable Menstrual Pads
Before disposable sanitary pads became widely available in the 1920s, menstruators would use cotton flannel cloths or rags when they had their periods. Now, there are new companies marketing reusable cloth menstrual pads, and they’re gaining popularity among those who like wearing pads but want a more affordable, eco-friendly alternative to single-use period products.
Washable menstrual pads from companies such as GladRags, Aisle and Rael are usually made of cotton, bamboo or other absorbent fabrics, and they cost roughly $15 to $20 each. Some brands are sold with separate pads and liners, while others have inserts that vary in absorbency, similar to disposable pads. Most pads are machine washable, but hand-washing them and hanging them to dry will extend their life spans.
Reusable Menstrual Cups
An eco-friendly alternative to tampons, a menstrual cup is a flexible, funnel-shaped cup made of medical-grade silicone or rubber that is inserted inside the body, where it catches and collects menstrual blood. The cup can be worn for up to 12 consecutive hours, depending on a woman’s flow.
Inserting a menstrual cup isn’t as easy as inserting a tampon. There’s definitely a learning curve, but menstrual cup companies such as DivaCup, Cora and Intimina have lots of helpful information on their websites to make the process easier. A menstrual cup costs about $40 and can last for a year or more.