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You Asked, We Answered: What Menstrual Product Should I Use?

(Photo by Intimina/Flickr CC)
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Ah, the period. You can expect to live with this perfectly natural -- but sometimes gnarly -- bodily process for decades upon decades upon decades. And until you hit The Change, you'll need a way to manage it. A number of you have asked us questions about that.

Regardless of which euphemistic phrase you have for period products -- feminine hygiene products, collection methods, period protection, menstrual care products -- they've been around for thousands of years.

Fortunately, here in the 21st century, you have plenty of options beyond using a literal rag when you're, well, on the rag. That said, some modern methods could have serious consequences for your health.

Insertable products, for example, can put you at risk for developing toxic shock syndrome -- a rare but sometimes fatal condition caused by an overabundance of a particular bacterium. Men and women can get it, but about half of all reported cases of TSS are linked to menstrual products (see the FDA's strict guidelines for use ).

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Here are your options for menstrual management:



One of the oldest and most popular options, pads are often used in combination with tampons or other internal collection methods.

They're great if you don't want to bother with an insertable method, and you can choose an absorbency level to fit your needs.

However, disposable pads are pretty terrible for the environment. Many of them are made with non-biodegradable plastics or artificial fibers, and can end up sitting in landfills for hundreds -- yes, hundreds -- of years.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of places to get washable pads -- or, if you're feeling crafty, you can make some of your own.

But keep in mind that reusable pads can get a little funky (and not in a good way) over time. And, depending on your circumstances, any pad you use could end up leaking.


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They're compact, easy to carry around, and easy to throw away.

As single-use items, you don't have to worry about losing or cleaning them (though most plumbers will thank you for not flushing them). And depending on your preferred brand and absorbency, they're probably the least likely to leak as other methods.

But for all the convenience they offer, tampons also come with a lot of drawbacks. Putting them in can be a challenge without an applicator -- and sometimes, those cardboard applicators just don't cut it.

Tampons are also the poster children for toxic shock syndrome. Medical experts made the connection between tampons and TSS in the late 70s, when a horrifyingly "efficient" line of tampons was introduced to the market.

You also need to be careful about choosing the right absorbency level. Using a more absorbent tampon than you need could disrupt your vagina's pH level and its natural bacterial flora. That, in turn, could give you a case of vaginal dryness, or increase your likelihood of yeast infection.

And let's face it: Tampons are bad for the environment, too.

Though most are made from a blend of cotton and Rayon fibers, it can take several months or even years for them to completely biodegrade. Plastic applicators aren't recyclable, either, so they end up polluting waterways like other forms of plastic trash -- hence the term "Jersey beach whistle."



Another option at your disposal: harness the power of the ocean to stem your own red tide.

The most commonly harvested species that end up as bath or menstrual products are the Coscinoderma matthewsi sponge from the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, and Spongia officinalis, which are typically found chilling out at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

As far as their environmental impact goes, you can't get more biodegradable or compostable than these things. And they're easy to renew, since sponges aren't hard to grow on aquaculture farms.

But there are some drawbacks to consider -- aside from the realization that these are dead sea creatures that go inside your body.

If you thought a tampon without an applicator was a challenge -- try putting in or taking out a sponge. Upkeep and cleaning can also be messy, time consuming and maybe not something you'd want to do (or are able to do?) in a public restroom.

And because of their texture and absorbency, sponges can also bring the risk of toxic shock syndrome, not to mention they could hide bits of sand, grit or other organic matter.

(Also: please, please PLEASE don't use a makeup sponge instead. Just don't. Thanks.)



In a nutshell, these are chonies made with reinforced material so you don't need to use a pad -- because the whole dang thing is absorbent!

They're washable, they're reusable, and they come in a dizzying array of styles and sizes.

The up-front cost can be a little hefty, since they're more expensive than a regular pair of cotton underwear, and you'll want to buy multiple pairs to cycle through your cycle. But in the long run, they're a much cheaper option than disposables.

The main drawback is the comfort factor. Also, rinsing out blood before you do laundry takes some getting used to (unless you're a homicidal maniac or a trauma surgeon).



While cups are gradually becoming more popular, they've been around since the late 1930s.

One of the biggest selling points is that, because they're made of silicone or thermoplastic rubber, they're really, really durable. With proper care and cleaning, you could potentially use one for a few years.

Even though they're made from specialized, non-biodegradable materials, they're a lot better for the environment in the long run -- instead of chucking them into the garbage, all you have to do is empty it out and wash it off every few hours.

Cups come in different sizes, putting one in for the first time can be ... challenging.

You do, after all, have to be comfortable with -- ahem -- getting to know yourself and getting your hands dirty.

They're not an option for the squeamish, nor are they an option without risks. New research suggests that cups could also put you at risk for developing TSS just like any other insertable product.


video by Lita Martinez

These are the new girls on the block -- they capture fluid internally just like cups, but are made out of a flexible plastic ring with a thin film that folds out in the middle.

And these suckers can hold a lot of fluid. One brand claims it can hold about the same amount as five regular tampons, or about 30 ml (roughly the size of a bottle of eyedrops).

They're made of soft plastic and designed for single use -- which is great if you want the convenience, but not so great for the environment.

Like their menstrual cup cousins, putting menstrual discs in and taking them out can be difficult and the standard diameter for discs runs just over 2 inches, which could be uncomfortable for some users.


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