Periods are expensive. An estimated 70% of women use tampons or pads at an average cost of $7.99 per box, and they need to be changed every few hours, lest they start to leak or smell or, in extremely rare cases, cause toxic shock. In total, in addition to producing approximately 250 to 300 pounds of menstrual product waste, women spend roughly $18,000 on their periods over the course of a lifetime.
Given that roughly half of the global population has to deal with "that time of the month" from the average onset of puberty to menopause, these figures are staggering. But women don't just have to deal with the cost of having a monthly period. Due to the stigma of menstruation, women and girls are expected to hide the fact that they have periods at all.
There has to be a better way. Luckily, there are many alternatives to traditional menstrual products. As more and more people become concerned about the environmental impact and costs associated with traditional menstrual products, women are swapping out their floral-scented Tampax Pearls for washable menstrual cups, reusable fabric pads, sea sponges or nothing at all.
Mic heard from more than 100 women who are using nontraditional menstrual products. Here's why they say they'll never go back to using disposable pads and tampons — and why they think other women should have the option to do the same.
Using nontraditional menstrual products literally puts us more in touch with our bodies.
Many reusable products, such as silicone menstrual cups, are made from materials that must be washed by hand, and collect menstrual blood without absorbing it (as tampons do). That means the contents of, say, the cult-favorite Diva Cup, are visible — which also helps people see their periods in a new way.
"You have to get used to cleaning [a menstrual cup] out, but I think that confronting and owning our periods is necessary to overturn what we have been taught to think is gross. Getting up close and personal with your period blood really changes that." — Laura, 28, menstrual cup
"I really like the experience of rinsing out [my sea] sponge. It makes me interact with my period in a way that I never have before. I run water over the sponge and all this beautiful scarlet water comes out and runs into the sink. It's a lovely, connective experience, and it makes me value being a woman who has this miraculous potential to make a baby." — Alexandra, 27, sea sponge
They're more environmentally friendly.
Using disposable tampons means regularly throwing away a small mountain of cotton. Menstrual cups and sponges can be worn for years, while cloth pads can be tossed in the washing machine with the laundry.
"I've found that using a Diva Cup is much more convenient with my lifestyle; I essentially forget about it for half the day. I also like that it's environmentally and budget-friendly, because it's reusable and I no longer have to purchase a monthly stock of menstrual products. — Rebecca, 24, Diva Cup
"After buying a menstrual cup, I started thinking about other things in my life that could be reused, like water bottles and up-cycled clothing. I hear from so many people that simply changing to alternative menstrual health products have changed their lives, and that is true for me as well." — Melissa, 32, menstrual cup
"I really appreciate the fact I'm not throwing all this waste into the dump every month now that I've started using a menstrual cup and reusable pads ... I think disposables serve to separate us from what is really a natural, healthy bodily function. I feel more connected to my bodily rhythms because I have to actually take care of them, instead of just using some cotton that's going to get tossed." — Lacey, 28, menstrual cup/reusable pads
They're better for heavy periods.
Leakage is a huge concern for many women, especially those who bleed heavily. Reusable products tend to help catch flow instead of absorbing it, allowing women to go hours at a time without worrying about having to empty their cups.
"You have to be very comfortable with your body when using a cup, but the perks and convenience of being 'period-anxiety'-free for 12 hours at a time totally outweigh the awkwardness that might come with having to get used to the mechanics of it." — Rebecca, 24
"The biggest benefit is volume. I have a very heavy flow, and it's not unusual for me to leak through a super-plus tampon in six hours, which is very frustrating. Diva Cups also have volume markers on the side (it almost looks like a shot), so occasionally I feel like a vampire making a mixed drink." — Jane, 21, Diva Cup
A menstrual cup in particular can seem pretty costly, at $30 to $40. But instead of spending hundreds of dollars on tampons per year, women can save money by investing in a reusable product.
"I had been using tampons and pads for nearly 12 years by the time I switched to a sea sponge. I was tired of having to always check if there was one in my bag; I was tired of spending so much money on them; tired of having to dispose of them." — Alexandra, 27
"The biggest benefits to free-bleeding are largely psychological. It makes me feel pretty awesome that I no longer have to spends 20 bucks a month on tampons or run to the bathroom every 10 minutes ... I've misjudged my cycle and gone tampon-less and ruined a few pairs of underwear in the process. But [underwear stains are] a small price to pay for not having to deal with the expense of tampons and the pain in the ass of changing them." — Hannah, 26, free-bleeding
They let us be a little lazier about our periods.
Heavy flow or not, there's one huge benefit to having a menstrual cup or sponge: You can slip it in and forget about it for 12 hours(!).
"I'm also one of those girls who would always have to run out at midnight because I forgot to purchase tampons ahead of time. I liked the idea of avoiding the emergency purchase." — Lacey, 28, menstrual cup/reusable pads
"I am a forgetful person, so it wasn't that uncommon for me to run out of tampons in my purse at the worst possible moment. Now, I just put [my menstrual cup] back in its case in purse at the end of my period, and it's ready for me next month." — Angela, 26, menstrual cup
They don't force women to rely on big menstrual product manufacturers.
Cloth pads are often made by individual retailers like Etsy vendors. Using "artisan" menstrual products allows women to welcome Aunt Flo without having to support major pad and tampon companies.
"Cloth pads are great because they also last for years, and you can simply wash them with your other clothes. I buy mine from an independent seller on Etsy; I'd rather support a mom who sews products at home than dish out my cash to companies that tell me my vagina is dirty and that I'll find my dream guy and have perfect hair if I just purchase and use their line of tampons with fun, colorful wrappers." — Jenny, 30, cloth pads
They help reduce period stigma.
Menstrual stigma manifests differently from place to place, but it affects women around the world. By helping women become more comfortable with the fact that yes, their bodies behave like bodies, alternative menstrual products can change the way we think about periods for the better.
"When I looked into reusable pads and menstrual cups, I felt like they were an answer to a question I didn't know I had. For some reason using they actually makes me look forward to having my period ('yay I get to use the pads with owls on them today!') ... I'm not embarrassed about having a period, I'm much more open about it. I think there's a community that comes with the cloth pads that really fosters an open dialogue about your body and your period that I appreciate." — Renae, age not given, cloth pads
"[Using a menstrual cup] is probably one of the most major life-changing choices I made for myself in two years. Don't laugh — I also picked up and moved to a job around the world — but anybody who uses pads knows: The panic, the dampness, the sweat, the [question of] 'did it leak or is that just a random wet spot,' the fact that you know you are on your period all the time.
I want women everywhere to have access to menstrual cups. I want women to start talking about how to manage their periods. I want to take away the stigma women face in society when they are on their period." — Jackie, 24, menstrual cup