Rachael Crow shares the benefits of reusable menstrual products
We are all trying our best to be mindful about the products we buy; what they are wrapped in and what they contain. It finally feels as though others are talking about what I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years, that the products we use, and their effect on our bodies and the planet, matters.
The effects of plastic on our bodies
If you are a regular JUNO reader you are probably well aware of the issues around plastic as a hormone disruptor, not to mention the pollution it causes to the planet. It’s only now that science is finally catching up with what many of us have been saying for years: all this ‘disposable’ stuff isn’t good for us.
Research is showing even ‘safe’ BPA products aren’t in fact that safe. Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a common building block in resins and some types of plastic. It’s what’s known as an endocrine-disrupting compound. In the body, these chemicals can act like hormones or disrupt normal hormone functions. “What’s kind of disturbing about this is hormones regulate almost everything in our bodies,” says Johanna Rochester, senior scientist with the non-profit organisation The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. In the case of BPA, there are concerns surrounding its oestrogen-mimicking effects.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics cites the potential risks of cumulative exposure to toxic chemicals. The fact that major companies are not obliged to disclose these ingredients – in the US this is because the Food and Drug Administration classes feminine hygiene products as medical devices, not personal care products – allows women to believe that disposables are not only the most convenient option, but that they also pose no health risk. Used internally, the absorption of chemicals from tampons serves as a direct route to the bloodstream.
In the 2014 report by Women’s Voices for the Earth, researchers found contaminants in tampons could include dioxins, furans and pesticide residue, as well as meltdown polymers, super absorbent shells and chemically stiffened fibres. Depending on the number of hours a tampon is used for, the average 11,000 tampons used in a woman’s lifetime amounts to between 7.5 and 10 years. This is a phenomenal amount of time to have products manufactured with toxic substances in direct contact with permeable membranes.
The chlorine bleaching of pulp used in pads and tampons produces dioxins, known human carcinogens and highly toxic environmental pollutants, which can have serious health implications. Toxic shock syndrome, for example, a rare but life-threatening condition, is linked to the use of tampons. While we don’t yet know the full extent of the impact these chemicals and hormone disruptors will have on future generations, we only have to look around to see how many people are living with chronic illness today.
The effects of plastic on our planet
Tampons and menstrual pads might not be the first things that come to mind when we think about the ‘plastic problem’, but according to a recent report by the European Commission, they are the fifth most common type of plastic waste washing up on beaches. When the UK’s Marine Conservation Society did its annual beach clean-up in 2016, it found 20 period products per 100 meters of shoreline. Despite warnings against it, millions of pads and tampons are flushed down the toilet every day, which causes our sewer systems to backup and overflow into rivers and oceans.
A standard box of menstrual pads contains the equivalent of five plastic bags, according to the community interest company City to Sea, and pads can take up to 500 years to decompose whether in the sea or landfill. Most tampons contain plastic too, in addition to their plastic applicators, and women use on average 11–16,000 disposable tampons in a lifetime. This all adds up to a lot of plastic in our periods!
The effect on our finances
Menstrual products cost the average woman more than £18,000 in her lifetime. The cost per period for disposable menstrual products works out to be between £3 and £5, whereas the cost of reusable menstrual products comes to roughly 20p per period. While some campaigners have focused on urging the government to abolish the ‘tampon-tax’ (the 5% VAT that is charged on menstrual products), perhaps we also need to ensure all women know that by switching to reusable products, they could save as much as 96%. Convenience comes into this too, as women don’t have to remember to buy new products each month.
1 in 10 girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products, according to Plan International UK, and it is estimated that over 137,000 girls in the UK miss school each year because of a lack of access to sanitary products. Louise Godwin has written about period poverty on pages 52 and 53.
If we make careful reusable buying choices, or learn how to make our own pads (see links below), we can have an impact on all three areas – our bodies, the planet, and our finances.
Making careful buying choices
When it comes to reusable period products, we need think carefully about our choices, and what a wide range of choice there is nowadays! There are more menstrual cups than ever on the market (some are even ‘smart’ and tell your phone when to empty them), and cloth pads that are made from all kinds of fabric – bamboo, hemp, minky and fleece – each of which has an impact. This is where we need to take care, because our periods are being greenwashed. The cheap products that are flooding the period market (pun intended) are not always as green as they seem; some coloured cups use chemical dyes, and reusable pads can be made from fabric containing harmful substances. We have to be aware that buying cheap items can mean that there are non-ethical processes involved in their manufacture, including the use of questionable materials or poor labour practises.
Slowing down and connecting to our cycles
My hidden agenda behind selling Moon Times cloth pads has been to get women to slow down and connect more to their periods and the cyclic nature of their bodies.
For me, and for many women who have bought my products, using cloth pads (or cups and sponges) has eased some of the cultural shame we hold around our periods. The positive effect of using these products is astounding. The first example I had of this was about 20 years ago when my eldest took her pads to a sleep-over. For her it was embarrassing to have these products, but once her friends saw them, they thought they were so cute that they then asked their mums to buy them some, and this opened up beautiful conversations at home between mums and daughters.
My cloth pads and cup live in a basket on my shelf in the bathroom for all to see. Visitors have asked me about them and my children just look at them like they might be a pile of toilet rolls; they are totally normal. Other children visiting the house ask about them too. The period conversation is an open book in our house.
When I have held groups and menstrual health workshops, women can’t get enough of the reusable products – many women just haven’t got a clue about the harm disposables do – and in fact, once women start talking about their periods, they can’t stop! It’s like we’ve all been waiting to talk about this.
Switching from disposables to cloth has, in some cases, eased women’s monthly symptoms and brought them a deeper understanding of their wombs. Many women find that just taking the step of ditching disposables can have an amazing positive ripple effect.
We live in such a fast-paced society which goes against our natural cyclic way of being as women. When I asked women what using washable pads did to support their wellbeing and self-care, the largest response I got was that it connected them with their cycle. They enjoyed feeling their natural flow. It allowed them a more intimate relationship with their body and connected them to the quantity and quality of their bleed. They also liked that cloth feels just like wearing clothes. It is soft and breathable in contrast to the feeling of plastic against the skin.
Of course, many women resist switching, feeling that the throwaways are much more convenient, especially if they have heavy periods. My thoughts have always been that maybe heavy periods are the womb’s way of asking us to pay attention, to slow down and to look after ourselves. And maybe by switching, heavy periods might just lighten.
Switching to a plastic-free period has so many positive effects. Why not give it a try and see what works for you?
Rachael Crow made her first set of cloth pads after having her first baby and using cloth nappies. That child is now 30. She runs Moon Times online shop selling organic cloth pads, panty liners, moon pants, sponges and cups. She also has meditations and online courses to support women to connect deeply with their wombs and cycles. She offers in-person and online healing sessions.
Find out more
Moon Time: Harness the Ever-changing Energy of your Menstrual Cycle by Lucy H. Pearce, Womancraft Publishing
Reaching for the Moon: A Girl’s Guide to her Cycles by Lucy H. Pearce, Womancraft Publishing
Why Does Mummy Bleed by Rachael Crow and Stephanie Green, Dauntless Daughters
Menarche, a Journey into Womanhood by Rachael Hertogs
Thirteen Moons: a Book of Women’s Wisdom, by Rachael Crow
Further JUNO Reading
This article was originally published in JUNO Early Spring 2020, issue 65.