Green Perspective on Menstrual Products

Pulling the Plug on the Sanitary Protection Industry

Long and Great Village Voice article. Some choice excerpts:

"..Still, Tampax wasn't content with marketing convenience. Like others in the sanitary protection industry, it took care to remind women that menstruation was naughty; as irrepressible evidence of sexuality, news of its arrival, departure, and duration had to be kept under wraps."

"...Consider contemporary women's relationship to the $1.7 billion sanitary protection industry. While we may have noticed that the number of tampons in a box dropped from 40 to 32 in 1991--with no corresponding drop in price--protest mostly takes the form of a moment's grousing in the feminine hygiene aisle. And as long as everything is so hush-hush, who chitchats about quality or safety? Who calls the industry or the FDA on the fact that consumers can read an ingredients list on a shampoo bottle, yet there's no comparable requirement for tampons--which are held for hours in one of the most porous and absorbent parts of a woman's body? Despite concern about dioxin, word hasn't exactly raced through the tampon-using community to spark consumer outrage. And, while the government seems complicit--or at least complacent--who holds its officials accountable? Why are tampons not deemed a necessity, but taxed, while everything from Trojans to Cherry Chapstick are exempted? And finally, why are 99-cent bags of cotton balls sitting on supermarket shelves next to $5.99 (plus tax!) boxes of cotton plugs? Who's getting rich off menstruation? And is there blood on their hands? ..."

"...Use of Procter & Gamble's Rely tampon was linked to these deaths and its illustrious, if short-lived career, provides an instructive parallel to dioxin. Procter & Gamble began distributing the tampon in test markets in 1975 and introduced the product to the the general consumer in 1980 by mailing out 60 million free samples to women across the country. Made of superthirsty synthetics, like carboxymethylcellulose and polyester, Rely was billed as the most absorbent tampon to ever hit the market. As Rely's popularity spread (it quickly stole 24 per cent of the market), and as other tampon manufacturers introduced similar synthetics to stay competitive, the Centers for Disease Control began observing a strange phenomenon. Remarking on 55 toxic shockrelated deaths it had recorded since 1979 and 1066 cases of nonfatal TSS, the agency observed in 1980 that this previously rare disease was surfacing primarily in young menstruating women. How did the feminine hygiene industry respond to this news? With cover-ups and denials..."

"..Tambrands and Playtex came out with a box containing even fewer tampons. Again, Tambrands told its shareholders, ``We have announced a new package size in the United States, a 20-count that will retail at the most attractive price point for feminine protection products while further increasing our realization per tampon.'' Andrew Shore, an analyst who follows Tambrands for PaineWebber, estimates that Tambrands is making at least $1.21 in profit per box of 32 and slightly more than that with the 20-count boxes. (The average consumer can figure she is handing over at least $2137 in her menstruating life time.)..."

"...Tambrands' 1992 annual report drools over China, where ``a menstruating population of 335 million women, plus an economy experiencing explosive growth, define an exceptionally promising market for Tambrands.'' On the domestic front, the company replenishes its market by hawking to pubescent teens. ``One fundamental truth drives our business from Chicago to Shanghai: The consumer we attract today will likely stay with us for all the years of her menstrual cycle,'' Martin Emmett, chair and CEO told shareholders in 1993. ``If we can persuade young women to use our product during their early teens, we can gain loyal consumers for thirty-five years or more.'' To that end, Tambrands conducts an exhaustive educational program. Sending representatives into schools and classrooms across the country, the company bragged in 1991 that it reached 20 per cent of the 1.8 million 13-year-old girls in the U.S...."

"...In the 1930s though, medical expertise was summoned against religious expertise. Priests in the Catholic Church objected to the use of tampons. They worried that women would find them erotic. And they worried that girls would lose their virginity upon insertion. (Their other concern: all those women and girls using their fingers to go exploring ``down there.'' Who knows what they might learn along the way?) ..."

"...Seeking certification for a class action suit against Tambrands and Playtex, Brachtl contends, ``Both defendants have known since 1985 that tampons which contain highly absorbent fibers...increase the production of Toxic Shock Syndrome.'' In 1985, after a jury assessed an $11.5 million verdict against Playtex for its reckless disregard in continuing to sell the high absorbency tampons despite knowing women died as a result, both Playtex and Tambrands removed their high absorbency rayon polyacrylate tampons from the market. But Brachtl insists they didn't go far enough. They left their tampons containing highly absorbent viscose rayon on the market, where they remain today..."

"...Who is going to give money to do research on tampons? The government?'' Tierno doubts it. ``Frankly speaking, this is not a priority issue.'' And the industry prefers it that way, admonishing women not to worry their pretty little heads about it. As Tierno's favorite Rely ad put it: ``We'll absorb the worry.''


Bloodcatchers and Other Practical Matters by Alana Wingfoot

"...Reusable Pads You don't have to use disposable pads -- you can buy or make reusable ones. Pads can be sewn from muslin or flannel; you can fill them with absorbent material or just use several layers of fabric. You can make a belt to wear them, or you can sew Velcro fasteners to the pad and to a special pair of underwear, or you can use safety pins; some people find that they don't even need fasteners, depending on the pad fabric and underwear fabric. When you change them, if you're concerned about stains you can soak them in cold water immediately; if you aren't worried about it, you can just wash it later. You'll also want to carry a plastic bag that you can put the used pads in until you get home and can toss them in the wash. Advantages to pads: Since they don't go in the body, the shape and size of your vagina doesn't matter. Pads can be used by women of any age; they're a common choice for girls who have just begun menstruation. You have no risk of toxic shock syndrome. Disadvantages to pads. Since they're outside your body, the blood can get in contact with air, and a pad left on for a long time may develop an odor. This isn't necessarily a problem -- our society is far too finicky about natural body odors -- but if you're concerned about odor, make sure you change your pad at least every three to four hours. Leakage. Many of us report that pads leak at night or off the sides, though one of us has a solution to this (see our experiences for more information). Pads are outside your body -- which means that you can't wear them when swimming, and they can be visible under very tight clothing. How much of a disadvantage this is, if at all, depends on your activities and your attitudes. If you never go near a swimming pool, you never wear tight pants or leotards, or you don't care if someone can tell you're menstruating, this won't be a problem. And keep in mind that 99% of your activities can still be done while wearing a pad. Disposable pads may present something of an ecological problem; you can go through several thousand pads in your lifetime, and all those pads have to be manufactured and then added to our landfills. Of course, you can avoid this by using cloth pads that you wash and reuse, but then you have to factor in the cost and energy of the washing. A lot of the discussion in the cloth-vs-disposable diaper debate applies here as well (wonderful comparison, eh?). Some women are concerned about hazards from the chemical used to bleach many disposable pads. A few companies do make unbleached menstrual pads, disposable or reusable. Some women find that pads chafe their inner thighs. This can sometimes be helped by switching brands or changing to another type of pad.

Sponges You can use natural sea sponges for reusable, effective tampons. Find a natural sea sponge that is about the size of your fist (don't worry, you are not going to use the whole thing!). Boil it in water first before you use it. Now cut it up into several pieces. Cut them to about the length of your favorite tampon and about twice the diameter. You might need to experiment a bit, so don't cut your main piece all up at once. You will want two or three pieces to work with. You should change them as often as you would regular tampons. If they should leak before that, then you need to cut your pieces a little larger. Take the used sponge and rinse it out in the sink and put it in a little container of hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide disinfects and cleans out all the blood quite easily. When you are out in public places, just carry a few empty film canisters to pop the used sponge in to deal with later (if possible, rinse out before putting in the cannister, but if you can't it will hold for a few hours). After your period, boil the sponges, let them dry thoroughly, and store them until next time. Advantages to sponges: All the advantages to tampons apply here as well. You can wear sponges while swimming, they don't show, odor isn't a major problem. Since they do not have a wick, you do not risk infection like you can with most commercial tampons. Disadvantages to sponges: In using this method, you must be very comfortable with touching your genitals and with getting blood all over your fingers. While it can be a very effective way of collecting your menstrual flow, it's a little messy changing them. Because the sponges don't have a wick, you may have to probe a bit to find it or to get a good grip on it for removal. Some women may find it embarrassing or impractical to rinse a bloody sponge in a public or office restroom. If you have trouble physically inserting a tampon, you might have some trouble with the sponge as well..."

The Adventures Of Gynomite Girl

"...My foray into the world of alternative menstrual products takes the shape of a super hero's quest. Special powers: a death-defying ability to contort my vagina around recalcitrant products. Shazam! An unruly sponge is tamed. Holy nappies! One more double-thick pad is wrestled into submission beneath jeans. My mission: to make the world safe for femi-nazis. My motto: no super plus is too great, no junior/lite too insignificant...

Cloth pads Major bummer for the city dweller who hasn't got her own washer and dryer and sometimes doesn't do laundry for weeks at a time. Plus, it's very much a drag when you discover, a week or two after the fact, that you've forgotten a used pad, now buried and fermenting at the bottom of your gym bag. True, cloth pads are comfier and less bulky than commercially sold paper ones, but it's a little like comparing a corset with a girdle. (Glad Rags, P.O. Box 12751, Portland, OR 97212/phone, 1-800-799-4523; Many Moons, 14-130 Dallas Road, Victoria, B.C. V8V 1A3; Modern Women's Choice, PO Box 245, Gabriola, BC V0R 1X0/phone, 604-247-8433; New Cycle Products, Inc., Menstrual Wealth Catalogue, PO Box 1775, Sebastopol, CA 95473.)

The sea sponge Technically speaking, sea sponges are not allowed to be sold as menstrual products today. According to Bonnie Ferguson and Teri Dowling, who sell a $1 brochure about sea sponges, the FDA banned menstrual sponges in 1981 after a University of Iowa study reported that sand, chemical pollutants, bacteria, and fungi were found in natural sponges. ``Since sponges are a natural, organic product, the levels of these substances can not be controlled or regulated,'' they explain. Like tampons, no further studies have been done to see whether the presence of these pollutants corresponds to other health problems. Unlike tampons, sponges have been yanked from the market. Sort of. Carefully including a lawsuit-averting disclaimer that this is ``not intended to recommend the use of menstrual sponges, but simply to give women the information they need to make an informed choice,'' Ferguson and Dowling's brochure explains that silk sea sponges can be purchased at any cosmetic counter and cut down to size. And indeed they can. Charmed by cost and minimal environmental impact, I bought one, took it home, and boiled it for five minutes, as suggested, then inserted it. It worked fine--in an around-the-house kind of way. After all, when you sneeze or cough, the accompanying muscle-clenching response can cause a near saturated sponge to leak. Also, for some women I talked to, rinsing one out in a public restroom or at work required a whole new level of intimacy with colleagues. (For details: Sea Sponges, Medea Books, 849 Almar Avenue, Suite C-285, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Or call: 1-800-41-MEDEA.)

Chlorine-free disposable pads Clearly preferable to most commercially produced pads for environmental reasons, I'm conscience-bound to recuse myself from this consumer report since I hate the whole nasty lot of them--pads, that is. But for those who've acclimated themselves to the bulk, there are some dioxin-free alternatives. (Seventh Generation, Colchester, VT 05446-1672/phone, 800-456-1177; Today's Choice, 500 American Way, King of Prussia, PA 19406/phone, 800-262-0042.)

Non-chlorine bleached, 100 per cent cotton tampons My favorite by far. Traditionalist that I am, my menstrual odyssey began and ended with tampons. As I began trying these products some months ago, I kept wondering why they couldn't just make a tampon that was good for you. Or at least, not bad for you. Or at least, not as bad for you and the environment as dioxin-laced plugs. Then, inadvertently, while waiting in the snail's-pace check-out line of the Park Slope Food Co-op, I discovered Natracare... (Natracare, 191 University Blvd., Suite 219, Denver, CO 80206; Bio Business International's Terra Femme tampons, 178 Hallam Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6H 1W8.)


It may sound gross, but the menstrual sponge is safe, cheap and comfy...

Sponge It Up

Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health

Cleaning sponges

Dr. Philip Tierno, Jr., a MUM board member and expert on the safety of menstrual products, writes (October 1999), in part, "The odor emanating from the used and washed sponges represent the action of surviving vaginal bacteria and their degradation of menstrual debris that survives the wash. The only effective way to sanitize those sponges is by boiling for about 5 to 10 minutes. This will kill ALL bacteria there..."



Tampons, a fairly recent invention, are not the only form of feminine protection available. Generations of women before us used rags - hence the unsavory euphemism for menstruation, "on the rag." In addition to being economical and sanitary, cloth rags are more ecologically sound than are disposable items. A women-owned company in Portland, Ore., Gladrags, produces machine-washable and reusable organic cotton pads that rival the ones our grandmothers used to snip. These rags function like a duvet - cotton liners are enclosed in a cloth envelope that fastens around the crotch of your panties. However if the idea of buying rags seems ludicrous, cut up and old cotton bed sheet or fold and create your own.

Sponges Another form of protection used in many countries is the sea sponge - the natural kind, not man-made cellulose. These peaceful Poriferas absorb moisture and fit perfectly to the contours of your body. Prior to initial use, inspect the sponge for foreign material and boil it for one to two minutes. After use, rinse the sponge in warm soapy water and then reinsert. You can deodorize your sponge in a vinegar-and -water solution. Also, choose sponges from Caribbean or Floridean waters rather than the Mediterranean due to the prevalence of oceanic pollutants in this variety, suggest the editors of The New Our Bodies Ourselves..."

Forget the "Woman Gynecologist" by Stacy Graber

"You don't have to be a casualty in 'The Great Tampon Wars' staged by the major pharmaceutical companies. The rag cartels are manipulating images of female bodies and exploiting those images for financial gain, as they always it really relevant whether a 'woman gynecologist' designed our tampon? Are we buying into commercial pitches about femaleness rather than recognizing that we should make our own decisions? In the world of product consumption, problems do not create products - products create problems. Humiliate women into believing that their menstrual blood is filthy unnatural and uncontainable, and you've created a specialized market for myriad deodorizing, prophylactic and stabilizing devices. Is that bad? Yes. Consumers may confuse authority and need (e.g., because a 'woman gynecologist' created this you need it)..."

No Overnight Solution by Robb Cribb

"... While at least one manufacturer is touting overnight tampon use as safe, some medical professionals fear the move has created a medical time bomb, as the threat of toxic shock syndrome is reborn in a new generation of young women..."

"...Marcie Peterson's voice begins to falter when she recalls the nightmare that took away her legs and four fingers -- all because she used tampons. ``I literally watched my feet rot off, my fingers on my right hand rot off, I was on life support machines, kidney machines and, for three weeks, I could only communicate by squeezing hands or blinking. I went through the pits of hell,'' says the Kansas woman, who had both legs amputated below the knees and lost the fingers after suffering from tampon-related toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Now, she is incensed the threat of TSS may be reborn with an advertising campaign from Tampax, telling a new generation of young women tampons are safe to wear overnight. ``It angers me that making money outweighs seeing a young woman destroyed the way I was,'' says Peterson, who lost her limbs in 1980 at age 38..."

Camping and Cramping How to Handle your Period while you Enjoy the Great Outdoors by Beth Clarkson

"...An Alternative from the Sea: Sponges Isabelle Gauthier of Blood Sisters, an organization of women in Montreal, created a publication called Hot Pants which describes the use of sea sponges for menstruation. Often sold as cosmetic sponges in pharmacies sea sponges can be inserted into the vagina and can be left inside until saturated. The sponges should be soaked overnight in water with white vinegar before and after each period. It is necessary to dispose of the sponge in the garbage once it begins to fall apart. Pros: This option is environmentally friendly and chemical free. Cons: Being aware of the saturation level of your sea sponge may be the last thing on your mind as you portage across a rushing creek. Although Gauthier insists that the sponge will not get lost "up there" it may be difficult for some to get used to reaching up to extract the sponge. There may not always be fresh water available to rinse your sponge. Cost: Pharma Plus sells a bag of 3 natural sea sponges for $6.49. Gauthier approximates that a single sponge could last "six months if you take good care of it." A lifetime of menstruation could be yours for just over $100.00.."

First Periods: Q & A for Teens About Periods

Recommended Sources & Products

Sea Pearls

Reusable menstrual sponge.

GladRags cotton menstrual pads

Reusable cotton menstrual pads.


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