Monday, January 10, 2011

A personal experiment in feminine hygiene

"The average woman in Western society will throw away between 10,000-15,000 tampons/pads away in her life."

Over Christmas break, my sister and I were talking about my project, and she wondered how it would be possible for me to create (close to) no trash if I was a woman. Clearly, there is trash associated with modern feminine products (aside from the usual cosmetic products that females buy), including tampons and pads, as well as the plastic and cardboard boxes they come packaged in. My sister said that growing up in India, she used cotton cloths during menstruation, but having lived in the US for seven years now, she has become accustomed to using tampons. "They are just way less gross and much easier." My instant response to her was to say that if I were her, and were living trash-free, I would of course use cloths. "Oh yeah? Well do it," she said. "Take a piece of cloth, like a wash cloth, wet it, and stick it between your legs, for the whole day. Do it." So, I did. I took a wash cloth (it was pink, to be all feminine about it, although I love the colour pink), folded it up, soaked it, and put it in my underwear between my legs. My sister said, "Well, actually, it should be need to put ketchup on it. AND you need to make sure your pants don't get wet because you don't want the whole world to know that you are going through your period, and you have to periodically wet it to simulate some flow. AND you have to do it for three or four days" Now, I admit I didn't put ketchup on the cloth, and admit that I didn't periodically wet the cloth. I figured that the cloth was going to stay wet for the rest of the day. I mean, it was a cold day, and the saturation vapour pressure of water is pretty low, and there is very little convection down there, generally. I was therefore thermodynamically confident that the cloth would stay wet for the day. So, I spent the day (not three or four) with a wet cloth between my legs. It wasn't really awkward at all, honestly. I first felt it to be a little cold, but that's because the water I wet the cloth with wasn't 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. But it was alright. The temperature equilibrated with that of my body pretty quickly. I did everything with a wet cloth between my legs. I sat, I ate, I walked around, and I can't remember, but maybe we had some guests over that day. I admit that the simulation was far from true to actual life, but I was not afraid of trying it. I think I might have to try it out again, closer to real life, to calm those women who will surely comment on this post. I will. I promise. I would have to say though that if you truly were going to live trash-free, or close to it, this would be one source of it that would be absolutely necessary to eliminate.

This experiment has made me dig a little bit into the history of feminine products, particularly menstrual products. There are significant environmental concerns with menstrual products, as well as medicines such as birth control that are used to alter the menstrual cycle. Here are some findings...

"Tampons have been used by women for thousands of years.  The ancient Egyptian women made tampons from softened papyrus.  In other countries early tampons were made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood, wool, vegetable plant fibres and in Equatorial Africa women used rolls of grass. The earliest commercial tampons were available in the early 1900s. Whereas pads have undergone quite a lot of transformation over time from bulky reusable rags to disposable cotton worn attached to a belt, from bulky rectangular sponge-like things to ultra-thins with wings and adhesive backing, tampons have always been either sponges or wads of cotton or rayon fibres, usually attached to a cord. Disposable products started to be made in the 1940s, firstly with belted pads and then in the 1960s with adhesive-backed pads.  The 1990s saw the use of absorbent gels built into pads. The menstrual cup has been in use for at least 150 years, being first used from rubber collected in India.The history of the menstrual cup appears to be relatively recent.  There is a record of a patent being granted in 1867 for a cup that was to be worn in the vagina and attached by cord to a metal belt.  A later patent for a menstrual cup in the 1930’s more closely resembles the cups of today.  It was made of vulcanised rubber and didn’t gain much popularity because it was hard and heavy. Modern cups are made from softer rubber, silicone, and medical grade silicone that is latex free.  Although menstrual cups have never gained mass support in the past, women are currently turning to cups as an alternative to conventional pads and tampons because of health, ecological, economic and practical reasons."

(for a more detailed and well-researched history of tampons in America, click here)

Here are some things you may not know about menstrual products, and some suggestions on how to reduce the ecological impacts of your menstrual products..

"Conventional products may contain a mixture of rayon and cotton. Rayon has been implicated in Toxic Shock Syndrome, particularly for super-absorbent tampons. Cotton is highly pesticide-intensive; twenty-five percent of the pesticides used globally are devoted to growing cotton. To look as white as possible, conventional pads and tampons are usually bleached with chlorine, a process that can create dioxin, a known carcinogen. (click here for more detail on changes in manufacturing advocated by the Women's Environmental Network)"

There are alternatives.  Washable menstrual products are making a comeback in the form of cloth pads, reusable menstrual cups, and sea sponges.  This is another example of the cycles of tradition that exist – all these products were around 100 years ago. We have ended our madness and fascination with disposable, convenient, and fast, and are moving towards reconnection with our bodies, our lives, our communities

It is not just the chemicals from bleaching or from attempts to increase the absorbency of the material, that are toxic to our bodies and the environment, pads usually contain a plastic layer, and adhesive as well. Washable pads offer women a positive, healthier, and ecologically sound alternative to traditional disposable menstrual pads.  They are soft, absorbent and comfortable to wear.  Since one of the reasons to use non-disposable as opposed to disposable is to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals, it is important to choose washable pads made from organic fabric if you can.  Different manufacturers use different organic fabrics, with the most popular being chambray cotton, hemp, linen, jersey, and wool.
In one form or another, tampons have been around for thousands of years.  The traditional tampon works by expanding inside the vagina to absorb blood flow and prevent leaks.  Tampons are typically made of cotton or rayon/cotton blend.  Most come with an applicator made of plastic or cardboard. Tampons of any kind remove up to 35 percent of healthy vaginal secretions. The use of conventional tampons has some personal and health effects.  Most current tampons are rayon and rayon/cotton blends, which have been chlorine bleached and contain dioxins and furans.  Rayon tampons also carry with them a greater risk of toxic shock syndrome.  Tampon use is also associated with an increased risk of vaginal dryness and vaginal ulcers, especially with the more absorbent tampons. Most tampons come with plastic or cardboard applicator.  Despite all the entreaties of manufacturers and building managers, these applicators continue to be flushed down toilets in alarming numbers.  Not only are these a problem for sewage treatment plants they also end up in the ocean and washed up on the beach. Enviro- and health-friendly tampons are made of non-GMO, organic cotton, hemp or other fibre that is grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, are free of dioxin and furan residues, and are chlorine free.

The menstrual cup is a type of cup or barrier worn internally like a tampon but collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it.  Cups are reusable, and will typically hold 30 ml of fluid, which is roughly one third of the average total produced each menstrual cycle. It is recommended that the cup is emptied every 6-12 hours.  The frequency is an individual decision based on the volume of fluid released, and each woman is different.  Correctly inserted the cup is comfortable but it may take a little practice to find the angle and position that is right for your body. There are two main kinds of menstrual cups currently available.  The most common kind is the bell-shaped cup made of latex rubber or silicone.  These cups tend to last approximately 10 years depending on how they are cleaned and stored.  The second kind of menstrual cup is more like a contraceptive diaphragm.  This product is designed for single use only. Originally cups made from rubber were too hard but today rubber cups are soft and have a feel like the baby bottle teats that are made from rubber. The cup forms a light seal with the vaginal walls allowing the menstrual fluid to pass into the cup without leakage or odour.  Its use does not interfere with the healthy vaginal environment, and its use has not been associated with toxic shock syndrome.  Some women find, due to anatomical differences caused from childbirth, that there can be a very slight leakage.  If this is the case, women can use a light cotton pad on their heaviest days. Menstrual cups can be emptied, rinsed or wiped and then reinserted.  They can be cleaned by washing with soap and water and by boiling in water for 20 minutes after each cycle.

There are more than 4500 varieties of sea sponges.  They are plant-like animals growing in colonies on the ocean floor.  The softest ones are the Atlantic and Mediterranean Silks.  Harvesting sea sponges can have a disastrous ecological impact.  For these reasons the use of sea sponges as menstrual products cannot be endorsed.

You can find natural, less ecologically-degrading products here.

Happy, guilt-free menstruating for all!


  1. I totally agree this is an area trash that desperately needs to be explored, but Niyati is correct that you need a MUCH better dose of realism. Try doing exactly what she said, and then REPEAT it every month for the rest of your project. Instead of ketchup, though, I'd recommend something stickier. Maybe watered-down syrup? If the pad doesn't occasionally stick to your privates a bit, it isn't authentic enough.

  2. HAHAHAHA!!!! great recommendation Monica!!! Also, to get the full effect of the discomfort women feel every month, make one of your room-mates punch you in your stomach randomly - even in your sleep. Then with these fake cramps and the sticky syrup, you might understand why tampons are awesome!

    Tampons let me just focus on my cramps. Not all women get cramps or other body aches. Before tampons, I was MISERABLE because I would feel nasty with the constant sticky/wet feeling + hot flashes + terrible cramps etc etc....Tampons take the wet feeling away which is one less thing I have to think about...

    This all started because PARVATI had to take away SHIVA's pain!!!! I blame her!

  3. This. Was. Awesome! My 2¢: Years ago I had a diaphragm & found that it could function this way... reusable, keeps things tidy. Unfortunately, this quality also makes it easy to forget about, thereby increasing the risk of TSS. And sadly, the best products are indeed made of rubbery plastic. But I bet new bio plastics are being developed that could be a viable substitute.

    As for your personal experience, Darshan, suddenly oozing while sitting in class—or even better, while standing in FRONT of class—is *definitely* something you should try! Your efforts are indeed awesome :))

  4. Excellent efforts Darshan, but I do have one important question. How does one hygienically carry around several used pads in one's purse before they can be washed at home (doing so in a public bathroom, I fear, would create quite a mess)without creating a terrible smell , and what happens when they fall out while you are reaching for your wallet?

  5. Anonymous,

    I have absolutely no idea of how to deal with that. Although, you may be directed to the guest blog written by Crystal Thrall...


  6. Darshan,

    I saw this this morning and couldn't help but think immediately of your conversations with your sister :)

    An Indian Inventor Disrupts The Period Industry | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation

  7. Nice and interesting information and informative too.Can you please let me know the good attraction places we can visit: Chambray Fabric Manufacturer in India

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  9. Maintaining good Feminine Hygiene should be a priority in every woman’s regimen. We are careful about what we do to our hair and skin, so we should have that same concern for our feminine hygiene.

  10. Your experiments is cool. But from personal experience I suggest period panties, not tampons or pads when you are going through your menstrual cycle. Period panties by PantiePads are leak proof underwear providing you with confidence and convenience that no stain will occur. These are disposable underwear and designed for one time use only. They are breathable, hypoallergenic and biodegradable, which is beneficial in every way.

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