Updated: Sep 27, 2022
I was taught to talk about ‘the curse’, tuck a tampon discreetly up my sleeve, and whisper to friends, only close friends, if I was out and needed to borrow something for my period. None of which is remarkable but they are all examples of the period shame (1) that many of us unknowingly exhibit a lot of the time. Isn’t it a bit weird that we should be secretive about something that half the population of the world will experience for a significant proportion of their lives.
I don’t love my period, but I don’t hate it either. And since switching to using a menstrual cup I find myself weirdly proud of my period. I also cut myself a whole lot more slack for PMT, low moods and low energy at the start of my cycle. All because I can actually see the blood. I’m pretty certain my cramps are reduced and a cup is so convenient to use, take on holiday, wear in anticipation, just forget about. It’s hard to explain, but profound to experience, just ask a cup user!
Menstrual cups are surprisingly easy to use, the recommendation is to give it 3 cycles before you decide if you want to make the switch. I heard about them from an Icelandic friend who’d been using a cup for 20 years, and she did because all her friends did. Ah, the positive power of peer influence. There’s even one manufacturer that offers the elusive money-back-guarantee if you don’t get along with your cup. There is definitely a knack to cups, and it gets easier with practice, but happily there are lots of people online (us included) to show you how. Friends who already use them are also a great source of know-how.
Period pants are a brilliant option. Amazingly reliable, discreet, comfortable, just normal really. We really rate the brand WUKA (company with a great ethos) who are at the pricier end, but they’re becoming so commonplace that M&S and Primark are now making them (though we are suspicious of their supply chains). Pants are a great option for young people and those who either don’t want to or can’t use something internal. There’s also a big market for washable pads which come in a whole range of designs, from pads with bunny ears to teeny tiny thongs, there's something to suit everyone.
There’s a brilliant organisation, Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), who have done a lot of carefully cited research into different period products available. We use lots of their data in our plastic free periods workshops. An excellent place to go for further reading.
Switching to reusables is a big cost saver. Each period can cost on average £10 which works out at £4940 over a lifetime, so this is a massive marketplace (2). It’s not in the interest of Procter & Gamble (owners of Tampax and Always and no. 5 in the top 10 worst global plastic polluters) to let us know about the game changing, never-look-back practicality of reusables.
According to WEN “if the whole of the period product market were to move to reusables such as the menstrual cup, the total market value would fall from £48 million to just £1.1m per year.” (4)
With the cost of living surging in the UK, and some period products absurdly still including VAT (5) reusables are urgently needed to be more accessible, more widespread and readily spoken about. During lockdown 30% of girls aged 14-21 struggled to afford or access period products, and over half had to use toilet paper because they were unable to access the free period products at school. (6)
Around 40% of all single use period products bought in the UK will end up being flushed down the toilet. That’s a massive 2 billion menstrual items. (7) This results locally in blocked sewers and further down the line in plastic pollution in our rivers, beaches and ocean. Things that have been flushed down the loo, such as wet wipes, tampons and pads are the 7th most commonly found piece of plastic pollution on the UK's beaches. (8)
Time to confess: I used to be a flusher. As a teenager as far as I could see tampons were made of cotton, a natural material that must break down in water. I didn’t think much about it and flushing was just doing what I’d been taught to do. Oh the horror of finding out I’d been polluting the environment for years with my bad habit (perhaps running period workshops is my penance). In fact 6% of a tampon is actually made from plastic, the rest being a mix of cotton and rayon (a semi-synthetic material).
Another reason for flushing is lack of bins in loos. There’s an excellent campaign by City to Sea promoting the flushable 3Ps: Paper Poo and Pee. If it’s not one of those, it's un-flushable. But some people don’t have a bin in their loo - think house-shares of only men, male employers who haven't thought about it - and consequently period products get flushed. Every loo needs a bin too!
Even when disposed of correctly, single use menstrual products generate 200,000 tonnes of waste per year in the UK.
Many single-use period products contain fragrances. No other product used to soak blood has added fragrance, so why period products? Is it so shameful to bleed that the only way to make this acceptable is to mask it with synthetic fragrances? If the same levels of fragrances were found in cosmetic products they would be legally required to label the ingredients. Not so with period products even though synthetic fragrances are known to contain allergens and the skin of the vagina is extremely absorbent. The whiteness of tampons and pads is achieved by bleaching the wood pulp, rayon, used to make the product. This process means that chlorine and dioxin (one of the most toxic substances known to humankind) can still be found in menstrual pads and tampons. (9)
Oh, we could go on and on. There is so much more information to share! Come to a workshop and hear it all…
Bodies are the things that we are in. Not a particularly profound statement, but isn’t it odd how much time we spend being ashamed of them. They’re marvellous fragile things. Bits are going to go wrong throughout our lives and we might as well get practiced at talking about this stuff earlier rather than later. I'm an able-bodied white woman in my 40s and its only now, after 30 years of having them that I can talk easily about my period. That's got to change. After all, the menopause is round the corner :)
If you fancy a giggle, here’s a funny history of menstrual cup design. Eeks.
2 Periods and Pandemics. Bloody Good Period. https://www.bloodygoodperiod.com/post/periods-and-pandemics
3 Procter and Gamble own major period product brands Always and Tampax. In Break Free From Plastic’s 2021 brand audit they came 5th out of the 10 of worst global plastic polluters.
The Scottish Government. Mapping Economic, Behavioural and Social Factors within the Plastic Value Chain that lead to Marine Litter in Scotland. Sept 2019.
6 Plan International UK. 3 in 10 girls struggle to afford or access sanitary wear during lockdown. 6th May 2020
7 The Marine Conservation Society Beach Clean 2020.