Commonly referred to as pads, sanitary towels are among the more popular products used by women in the UK. For some, that’s because they’re easy to use and a hassle-free option. Thirty-six-year-old mother of three, Hannah, who uses a combination of sanitary towels and tampons at night, said: “Sanitary towels really help me to deal with a heavier flow, rather than having to change my tampons at night-time.”
For Catherine, sanitary towels became the only menstrual product of choice after she gave birth. “Having children caused me to have a partial vaginal prolapse, so I can’t wear tampons anymore as they’re too uncomfortable. Pads are the only comfortable option for me now.”
But, Catherine also points out the downsides of using towels. “They’re visible, smelly, and feel a bit unhygienic, and I can’t swim when wearing them. I don’t like the scented versions either, as my friend used to be able to smell them and could tell I was wearing one.”
There’s also no escaping the fact that some sanitary pads are guilty of contributing to our environmental waste, because they’re not biodegradable. So if the environment is an important issue for you, you may want to consider opting for a biodegradable or reusable product instead.
Another potential downside is that some pads are made from a combination of synthetic and plastic materials. For some people, this may cause skin or allergic irritations. But, research suggests that these types of irritations are usually very rare.
Tampons are often chosen as a popular alternative as they’re more discreet and comfortable than wearing a sanitary pad. They may also be a better choice for women who are dealing with heavy periods, as in Hannah’s case:
“After I had children, I carried on using tampons but my periods are heavier now, so I have to use more and more of them.”
“I find them more discreet to use. They also feel cleaner as there’s less ‘mess’ as such, and they’re odourless.”
But, for forty-nine-year old Niamh, who uses tampons, she found her experience of using them changed after having children. “I found they would drop down sometimes, and put this down to not doing enough pelvic floor exercises!"
Another potential con is that some tampon product packaging is plastic and non-biogradable, which is damaging to our environment. But there are now some biodegradable and organic options available on the market to choose from too.
Tampon health concerns
Many tampons sold in the UK are made with either rayon or cotton, or a mix of both. Some research claims that a chemical compound called dioxin can be found in tiny amounts in tampons, which could pose a risk to women’s health. However, experts have deemed them safe to use.
Using tampons safely
It’s important to use tampons correctly and safely, and manufacturers advise not keeping them in for more than four hours, regardless of how heavy your flow is. This is to avoid toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS is a very rare but serious complication, that’s caused if bacteria get into your body and release harmful toxins. About half of all reported cases of TSS are linked to women who use tampons.
As tampons are made of absorbent materials, manufacturers usually advise you to choose the level of absorbency that matches your period flow. This is to avoid soaking up your natural vaginal fluids.
Are reusable period products on the rise?
While tampons and pads are popular traditional options for managing periods, if you use social media, you may have come across some newer period products. For example menstrual cups (also known as mooncups) and period pants. If you’re looking for a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly period product, these could be good for you.
The menstrual cup (or mooncup)
This is a soft, plunger-shaped, reusable product that’s made of silicone. It’s inserted into your vaginal opening to provide ‘leak-free’ protection. The cup works by collecting your blood, and (depending on your flow) can be worn for up to eight hours.
Because menstrual cups are made of silicone, they don’t soak up any of your vagina’s natural fluids, and can be worn overnight. The other piece of good news is that they’re environmentally-friendly, and you can use one for many years.
Twenty-nine-year-old Michelle recently started using a menstrual cup after reading about them on social media, and believes there’s a big shift towards reusable products happening. “I’d seen a lot of bloggers asking why we aren’t more open about our periods and talking about mooncups, and wanted to find out more.”
“I used to like using tampons because they’re discreet and easy to dispose of. But they can sometimes feel uncomfortable, and it’s easy to forget you’re wearing one.”
“It definitely took a couple of cycles for me to get used to using a menstrual cup, but I wanted to persevere because of the environmental and financial factors. So I watched some videos online to get some tips on how to use them properly. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I can honestly say I’ll never go back to using tampons again.” says Michelle.
Using a menstrual cup has also completely changed Michelle’s outlook to managing her periods. “It’s brought me face-to-face with what’s happening in my body, which has been a positive thing. I now feel more in tune with my body because I can see and understand what’s happening and be more hands on with it. That has also helped me to go easier on myself when I’m experiencing PMS."
But menstrual cups can be messy to remove. You can risk a blood spillage every time you wash it, and cups will need to be changed and washed at least twice daily.
Using a menstrual cup safely
Inserting a menstrual cup can also be hard when doing it for the first time, and require spending a bit of time learning the technique of putting it in properly. “Removing it can be painful at first, but once you get the hang of it, it doesn’t hurt at all”, says Michelle.
As with other period products, women who use menstrual cups may have a very small risk of getting toxic shock syndrome. So it’s important to follow the recommended usage guide, which explains that you should:
- sterilise your menstrual cup thoroughly before using it for the first time
- remove, wash and reinsert it at least every 4-8 hours during your period
- wash your hands before and after handling your menstrual cup
The menstrual cup is available in two sizes, so it’s important to find out the right size for your vagina before you make a purchase.
Washable period underwear
This year saw the launch of the UK’s first washable ‘period underwear,’ suggesting that the tide may also be turning for greener periods. So, if you’re interested in another eco-friendly option, period pants might be one for you to consider.
Also known as ‘high-tech’ knickers, these are washable, period-proof underwear typically made of layers of cotton and waterproof material. They’re available in a range of different styles that can match your underwear preference.
This means they can be worn instead of other period products and don’t need to be changed throughout the day. And if you have a heavier flow, they can be combined with other period products.
However, a potential con is that you’ll need to stock up on a few pairs of these leak-proof underwear, and be prepared to do more laundry washes.
Some women may also feel uncomfortable with the sensation of blood leaking into their pants.
Choose a period product that’s right for you
So when choosing a product, it’s really all about deciding whichever feels the most convenient and comfortable for you. “Personally I feel women should talk about this a lot more. It’s not a usual topic of discussion, and definitely not something you see a lot of in the media,” adds Hannah.