Today's post is about menses. (I'll wait while several of the male persuasion consult Merriam and Webster about that one.)
Now that we're alone, ladies, let's talk about our periods. (And if you stick with me to the end of this long post, there's a potential reward!) More specifically, let's discuss the subject of tampons, pads, and one of their alternatives, the menstrual cup. Tom gave me “the look” when I told him I was going to blog about my Diva Cup. But why not? I haven’t seen any widespread marketing campaigns for tampon/pad alternatives, nor is menstruation a subject that most women discuss over lunch, or coffee, or a rum and coke. Or, ever, really.
That menstruation is taboo is not a new phenomenon, it has been this way for generations. In fact, while there is evidence that women have been using homemade pads and tampons as early as the ancient Egyptians in the fifteenth century B.C., the first commercial pad wasn’t manufactured until almost the twentieth century. (1) This first pad (a.k.a. the “sanitary napkin”) failed, because the makers couldn’t advertise it – such a topic was “improper.” (2) Even when Kotex came on the market around 1920, “[m]arketing these products was difficult because of society's squeamishness.” (3) The company that made Kotex was so worried that the pad would ruin its image, it created a separate company to sell only pads. “Stores wouldn't carry [Kotex], magazines wouldn't advertise it, and sales unsurprisingly weren't so hot[,]” until Montgomery Ward took a chance on it in a 1925 catalog. With the blessing of the retail giant, and with the “marketing innovation” that allowed women to buy a box of Kotex without having to ask a male store clerk to get it from behind the counter, the mass produced pad became mainstream. (4)
Early sanitary napkins were awkward things. (5) Women wore a belt that buckled around their waist and threaded a pocket between their legs. The pocket could be stuffed with whatever they chose – cotton, cheesecloth, etc.; almost all were washable and reusable. Women weren’t free of belts until the 1970s, when pads finally featured adhesive backings.
Tampons were available commercially (sans applicators) as early as the late 1920s; the first tampon with a plastic applicator appeared in the 1930s. (6) Surprisingly enough, menstrual cups aren’t new either – the first patents appeared in the 1930s. (7) The first cups were made of rubber; today most are “manufactured from silicone because of its hypoallergenic properties.” (8)
And while the market was slowly catching on to the convenience of more modern feminine products, the guys in charge were still reluctant to acknowledge the products' existence. They were so reluctant that the National Association of Broadcasters banned advertising of sanitary napkins, tampons, and douches until 1972. (9) Today, we are more accustomed to advertisements for feminine products. Unfortunately, we still don’t like to talk about them or our periods.
Menstruation is a big part of a woman’s life. The average woman can have 350 to 450 menstrual periods in her lifetime. (10) Wow! That many periods means we go through a lot of tampons and/or pads. One site estimates that a woman uses almost 17,000 tampons throughout her lifetime. (11)
17,000 tampons. And if you are anything like I used to be, you might wear a tampon and a panty liner, just in case. Let’s stop and ponder the environmental impact of the millions of used tampons and pads floating around our Earth.
One waste consultant estimated “that 6.5 billion tampons and 13.5 billion sanitary pads, plus their packaging, ended up in landfills or sewer systems in 1998. And according to the Center for Marine Conservation, over 170,000 tampon applicators were collected along U.S. coastal areas between 1998 and 1999.” (12) Setting aside the issue of the toxic waste we create by disposing of our sanitary products, consider the environmental impact of the continuous production of disposable products – both the product and the packaging. Not only is there the pollution of the manufacturing process, but there is also the not-so-small matter of the toxins introduced into cotton during the growing process. “No less than 170 insecticides are registered for use on cotton crops[!]” (13) One author predicts that if only one in twenty women chose to switch "to organic tampons, we could eliminate 750,000 pounds of pesticides annually." (14)
In the US, it’s estimated that conventional cotton farms apply about one-third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for every pound of cotton harvested. The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife alike—including fish, birds, and livestock.
Almost half of the chemicals sprayed on global cotton crops annually—an estimated $2 billion worth—are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO). Pesticide residues remain in tampons in the form of dioxins and other potentially harmful chemicals. The vaginal walls are made of the most absorbent tissues in the body, so these chemicals are absorbed directly into the blood stream. (15)
That brings me to my second point: the potential health concerns over using disposable feminine products. Aside from the toxins present due to the growing process, tampons can also contain absorbency enhancers, deodorants/fragrances, and chlorine compounds that are used to bleach the cotton. (16) Some of these substances may be carcinogens; others may “cause irritation, allergic reactions and may upset the vagina’s natural microbial balance.” (17)
Tampons also contain rayon, which is a manmade fiber composed of tiny strands of plastic. These fibers may cause “microtears of the vaginal wall when a tampon is inserted or removed, possibly leaving the vagina more susceptible to infection.” (18) And as we all likely know, both tampons and pads can increase your chance of developing a bacterial infection. (19)
As for the menstrual cup?
They are safe. There are no known health related risks to using a cup. (20) They are environmentally friendly: they can last for years, there is nothing to throw away, and they are not disposable (in the sense that tampons and pads are), so the manufacturing process does not have as negative of an impact.
They are cost effective. If you are concerned about your wallet, consider the cost: an average woman will spend approximately $10 each month on disposable feminine products. (21) You can get a menstrual cup for a one-time investment of $20-$30, and it should last you at least a year; some claim that their cups last up to ten years. Let’s say you spend $30 on a menstrual cup that you use for five years – that equals a savings to you of $570 (if you had spent $10/month in the same amount of time). Awesome!
They are comfortable. I’ve used mine for four cycles now, and I don’t notice its presence once I’ve inserted it correctly. (Insertion, by the way, has been my biggest complaint. It is a skill that you perfect over time, but it’s not really complicated.) One complaint many women have about tampons is that they cause overdryness. “More than a quarter of the fluids absorbed by a tampon are, in fact, natural and necessary vaginal secretions.” (22) Because menstrual cups collect, rather than absorb, fluid, you should not experience the feeling of dryness caused by tampons.
They are easy and clean. Menstrual cups hold more fluid than a highly absorbent tampon, so you need to “change” them much less often (normally two to four times on even your heaviest day). All you do when it’s time to change it is (carefully) pop it out, empty the cup into the toilet, give it a rinse (not necessary, but I always do), and reinsert. In between cycles, you should sterilize the cup by boiling it. And because of the secure seal they form, they are more effective than tampons or pads, plus they are perfectly safe for any activity – no leaks. For the record, I also use a thin cloth panty liner, just in case.
There are many menstrual cups to choose from. I use the Diva Cup; the other popular brand in the
I have been so excited to share all of this with you, and if you’ve made it with me this far, (thank you!) there is a possible reward. The makers of Diva Cup are super cool, and they’ve agreed to sponsor a contest. Leave your comment about why you would like to try a Diva Cup. It can be serious, funny, clever, informative, or a straight plea for Diva Cup mercy.
I (and probably an impartial third party) will choose the best comment, and that person will receive a Diva Cup absolutely free! The winner will be chosen on October 1st, so please submit your comment no later than midnight on September 30.
I look forward to reading everyone’s comments. Also, be sure to tune in for an upcoming post on another hush hush topic . . . toilet paper!!
***Be sure to check back on October 1st to see if you are the winner. I'll need to figure out how to contact you so Diva Cup can send you the correct size cup!***
(1) http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2252/who-invented-tampons ("The Straight Dope") (quoting Freidman, Nancy, Everything You Must Know About Tampons (1981))
(2) The Straight Dope (citing Delaney, Janice, Lupton, Mary Jane & Toth, Emily, The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation (2d ed. 1988))
(3) The Straight Dope (citing Delaney, et al.)
(4) The Straight Dope (quoting Heinrich, Thomas & Batchelor, Bob, Kotex, Kleenex, Huggies: Kimberly-Clark And The Consumer Revolution In American Business (Historical Perspective on Business Enterprise) (2004))
(6) The Straight Dope
(7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menstrual_cup#History ("Wikipedia")
(9) The Straight Dope
(11) http://www.emagazine.com/view/?510 ("E Magazine")
(12) E Magazine
(14) Rogers, Elizabeth & Kostigen, Thomas M., "The Green Book" at 105 (2007)
(15) http://www.greenyour.com/body/personal-care/feminine-hygiene/tips/choose-organic-tampons-or-organic-pads ("Green Living") (citing http://www.sustainablecotton.org/html/who_we_are.html)
(16) http://www.miacup.co.za/eng/why_features.php ("Miacup")
(17) Miacup (citing Armstrong, Liz & Adrienne Scott, "Stop the WhiteWash" (1992),
(19) Miacup (citing Wroblewski, Sandra Sieler, "Toxic Shock Syndrome" (January 1981), The American Journal of Nursing, vol. 81 (1), pp. 82-85; Neff, Melissa G., "Acute Female Cystitis", US Pharmacist, vol 26 (9))
(22) Miacup (citing R. Levin et al., "Absorption of menstrual discharge by tampons inserted during menstruation: quantitative assessment of blood and total fluid content" (July 1986), BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, vol. 93 (7), pp. 765–772)