A Quick Guide to Menstrual Products; Tampons, Pads, and More
The beauty of the human body is super vast and unrelenting. Be it the eyes from the deepest darkest brown to the lightest blues, big, unapologetic smiles, each one is unique and beautiful. It can then be confusing and uncomfortable at the same time and make you feel like a big bag of bloated meat, just toiling to go to work and eat without falling over. As someone with experience in the period, I feel like menstruation’s magnificence encapsulates both of such impressions. The cramps, the bloating can muddle the beauty of the uterus, of the cycle of life, and the egg released every month, and my archenemy: the tampon. If you—like me—get your period monthly, and if you—like me—are a victim of the discomfort of menstrual hygiene products, let me help you out here by giving you a quick (yet comprehensive) guide to menstrual products like Tampons, Pads, Period Underwear & more, and their pros, cons, and the legacy they leave.
(You can thank me later.)
Tampons are neither new nor the concept of inserting soft material into the vagina to catch the blood. As they say that Egyptian women would use soft papyrus as tampons as early as 1550 BCE; however, the modern tampon and Tampax got patents in 1931. It has clearly come a long way since the thirties, with a huge collection of sizes, materials, applicators, and brands, but where do they fall in comfort, convenience, environmental friendliness, and affordability?
To conclude that tampons are not the most comfortable things in the world to wear will not be an understatement. A dry piece of bleached cotton in such a sensitive place can be unpleasant in the best of times. Applicators are definitely a God-sent, but even with an applicator, you can accidentally put the tampon too low and come face to face with pulling out a dry tampon and effectively scraping your vaginal walls with sandpaper, or walking around for a couple of hours with a chaffing tampon. However, if put in properly in the first go, it’s not so bad!
As a woman who just paragraphs ago called the tampon “my archenemy,” I will begrudgingly say that tampons are very convenient Menstrual Products. They are discreet, fuss-free to insert, easy to dispose of, and small enough to slip into your bag or pocket. The applicator is a real stroke of genius, so putting them in doesn’t have you putting fingers inside of your vagina in a public bathroom. Out of all of our options, tampons take the cake as the product for convenience.
Environmental Friendliness 1/10
For those of us concerned for the wellbeing of the environment, using a tampon can be greatly disheartening. According to National Geographic, “In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons, and throughout a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste.” The abuse of single-use plastic and disposable products is a significant issue in North-Americans’ lives, and tampons contribute greatly to the problem.
Okay, so we can most likely agree that when you pay for a tampon, you’re paying for convenience, but how much does the convenience cost? According to the Huffington Post, the average person uses 20 tampons per cycle; a bulk box of 50 tampons at Walmart is priced at a regular $11.98. Annually, people who menstruate are using 4.8 boxes of bulk tampons at $12 a pop! At the bare minimum, we’re talking $57.6 annually, excluding the purchase of multiple packages for work, home, and the car, as well as the use of extra tampons because periods are not an exact science!
Imagine what you could buy in place of all those tampons for $60, a pair of sneakers? A dinner out? Six trips to Taco Bell? The options are endless!
Overall score 17/40
The Pad (Disposable & Reusable)
Although the pad can feel like a glorified diaper, it is currently the most popular menstrual product (followed closely by the devil himself, the tampon). Cloths and other soft materials have always been an option for women. Still, nobody patented the modern pad until 1888, and more recently, the reusable pad made with fabric and meant to be washed in the laundry and reused has surfaced as a popular choice!
The pad is a classic, like Coca-Cola or the vinyl record, and similar to Coke and Vinyl records, the pad can be tough to hold in your underwear.
As far as comfort goes, pads (both reusable and disposable) are pretty okay in the category of Menstrual Products. They’re soft and plushy, and you don’t have to shove them inside your body (score!). However, it can be hella awkward and scratchy to have a big wad of cotton in your underwear, not to mention the constant worry of having the pad show through your pants! Pads can feel like a big sweaty diaper, especially when they’re wet, and I can’t be the only one who’s always trying to “aim” for the pad when I’m going about my day!
Convenience (Disposable) 7/10
Disposable pads are almost as convenient as the tampon! They’re quick, easy, and comfortable to lap up on your underwear practically anywhere; however, I will deduct points for pads being a bit less discreet and a bit bulkier than a tampon.
They’re also super loud when you open them! It sounds like I’m opening a bag of chips on the toilet when I use them! People far down the block can hear me.
Convenience (Reusable) 4/10
The reusable pad, available on places like Amazon, Etsy, and even Walmart is horribly inconvenient. They aren’t always as absorbent as the disposable kind; they need to be washed between uses, which for many users, means they need to be washed in their separate laundry load. There’s also the issue of carrying the soiled pad in your bag if you carry it in public, but to help remedy that, many brands include a carrying bag for your pads!
Environmental Friendliness (Disposable) 1/10
Similar to tampons, disposable pads are a huge contributor to landfill pollution. Again, according to National Geographic, “Pads generally incorporate even more plastic, [than tampons] from the leakproof base to the synthetics that soak up fluid to the packaging.”
Environmental Friendliness (Reusable) 9/10
Using a reusable pad for your monthly is genuinely an admirable and significant step in your fight for the environment! The average person throws away almost 100lbs of clothing annually, so if you’re crafty, consider using one of many online tutorials to make your own! If that’s too much work (trust me, I get it!), buying them from a store is also a great choice; make sure to get a fair amount of use out of each one before retiring them!
Affordability (Disposable) 3/10
Like tampons, pads are definitely a chunk of money that can seem pretty ridiculous as the cost increases, but unlike tampons, pads aren’t incredibly convenient. If you’re not paying for convenience, then what are you paying that much money for? Seriously, somebody tell me because I haven’t figured it out yet.
Affordability (Reusable) 10/10
Suppose you decide to make your pads out of old clothing. In that case, you’re getting your menstrual products free for life, which quite literally is the best possibility for affordability! If you decide to buy them, you can still get a great deal, getting the average pack of ten for $29.99! When treated right, you could potentially use the same reusable pads for years! There is a bit of a cost for washing in their load of laundry, but if you don’t mind, you can also throw them in with your regular clothes; either way, you’re still coming out ahead!
Overall Score (Disposable) 17/40
Overall Score (Reusable) 29/40
The Menstrual Cup
The Menstrual Cup is a relatively new player in the world of menstrual products. The first menstrual cup design was patented in 1867, but the public never genuinely noticed until the late 1980s. Although not nearly as popular as pads and tampons, according to Popular Science, “The global market for menstrual cups has been estimated at between $46 million and at $1.4 billion by 2023″ The menstrual cup is my favorite menstrual product. Still, I’ll try to stay unbiased as I can!
The menstrual cup is very, very, and very comfortable. Most are made with 100% medical-grade silicone; the cup is soft and pliable, conforming to the body’s shape nicely. However, I did deduct points because the menstrual cup can be tricky to maneuver at first and can take a few days to wear it comfortably. Luckily there are many tutorials online to help you on your first try! I also deducted points because of the public’s general stigma and discomfort towards an unfamiliar menstrual product. The cup takes getting used to, but boy is it worth the effort!
The menstrual cup is very convenient in terms of how simple it is to insert (once you get the hang of things, of course), the ability to pour out the blood and re-insert the cup quickly, and how discreet and small it is. The cup can be somewhat awkward to use in a public bathroom because you don’t always get the chance to rinse it out, but overall, it is an excellent product in terms of convenience!
You also clean the cup by simply boiling it in water for a few minutes! Easy-Peasy!
Environmental Friendliness (9/10)
Like reusable pads, the menstrual cup is a great environmentally friendly alternative to disposable pads and tampons. According to an article by CNN, “One [Menstrual] cup produces an estimated 0.4% of the plastic waste that single-use pads build-up, or 6% of that created by tampons in the span of 10 years” Additionally, because of the durable materials, one menstrual cup can be used for up to a decade. In a decade, the average person who menstruates could send over 2,400 tampons to landfills.
The menstrual cup is a great choice financially as well! I use the menstrual cups from the Satisfyer brand; I spent $19.99CAD on two cups instead of $567 on tampons over ten years (as per my previous math). I did deduct one point because the menstrual cup isn’t always easy to find as they’re not usually stocked on shelves at Walmart or your local pharmacy, so many of us have to find them online. We can’t make our own like a reusable pad, which is the Queen of affordability!
Overall Score: 34/40
Usually paired with one of the above products for extra protection, period-proof or leak-free panties have become quite popular in the past couple of years. Becoming prominent in the mid-nineties, period-proof panties (say that five times fast!) are favorites for people with light to medium flow periods, as well as people who use them to sleep in for a more comfortable rest.
Period-Proof underwear is similar to pads in its ability to absorb without being inserted into your body. However, unlike pads, period-proof underwear’s claim to fame is thin and non-bulky, which is quite a comfort. They look like underwear and act like underwear, and there’s no fear of feeling like you’re wearing a diaper. However, period-proof underwear is not as absorbent as a pad or a tampon, meaning they’re not worn on a heavy flow and will not catch blood or mucus clots, meaning the thicker parts of your period will be sitting on top of the underwear and touching your skin!
Similar to reusable pads, convenience is lost on this period-proof underwear. If you accidentally run-off your underwear and need to change it when you’re out in the world, you’re forced to change your underwear in a public stall! Not what I call a good time.
Environmental Friendliness (7/10)
Period-Proof underwear is an excellent alternative to pads and tampons, as long as they’re used carefully and purposefully. As discussed above, clothing is a huge contributor to landfills. Landfills claim 85% of wearable textiles in Canada, and regardless of their purpose, period-proof underwear is part of that statistic. It’s important to remember when buying and using Period-Proof underwear—or any clothing for that matter—to get your money’s worth and use the dress until you can’t anymore. Period-proof underwear is also not meant to last a decade like the menstrual cup, and people’s weight fluctuates throughout the months and years, both reasons that would make someone throw out their period-proof underwear.
Period-Proof underwear is—for the most part—very affordable for what the product is offering. Considering how pricey regular underwear can be, the famous brand Knix selling super leakproof period underwear for CAD 34 could be worse, especially if you plan on getting used to it. However, it does begin to add up when you consider that most people won’t want to have just one pair of period-proof underwear that they have to wash every night of their period to have ready for the next day. When you think about buying three or four pairs, the cost begins to rise. I’d much rather spend $20 on a menstrual cup that’s going to keep me dry and last a decade than $105 on underwear that I can only wear for a year or so.
Overall Score 25/40
Although free-bleeding isn’t a menstrual product, it has been around basically for as long as periods themselves. I’m sure you, the reader, have free bled at least by accident before! Have you ever been standing in line at the grocery store, and your period starts unexpectedly? Until you get a tampon/pad to remedy the situation, you’re a free-bleeding baby! Free-bleeding is most commonly known as a feminist movement beginning in 2004 to protest the stigmatization of periods and attempt to normalize bleeding as a part of human life.
Free-bleeding isn’t always very comfortable, but to be fair, it’s not still meant to be. In many ways, free-bleeding is a feminist movement first and a comfort second. Drummer Kiran Gandhi famously ran the London marathon while free-bleeding in 2015, giving even more traction to the campaign. Some people do find comfort in the ability to menstruate freely without the barrier of the menstrual product, and some people have claimed their menstrual cramps diminish when not using a tampon/pad. There is also a social comfort in the acceptance of bleeding without shame.
If you’re comfortable with the blood on your clothing, this method can be considered pretty convenient. Wake up in the morning, put on your clothes, and wash the blood out of them when you come home at night. Sounds freeing, huh? Just make sure you find a suitable blood stain remover before you try it!
Environmental Friendliness 10/10 (if you can find an excellent way to get blood from your clothes)
Once you figure out how to get blood out of your favorite pair of jeans, this concept is pretty genius as far as environmental issues go. What better way to take menstrual products out of landfills than to not use them at all! Just make sure you’re not wasting clothing by staining them and not getting the blood out.
Affordability 10/10 (if you can find a good way to get blood from your clothes)
With free-bleeding, you might be spending a bit more on water and detergent to get your clothes nice and clean, but if you can manage to get into a stain-removing routine, you have it set for life. Wear your clothes like usual, give them a good wash, make a feminist statement, save money, save the environment, repeat. Where do I sign up?
Overall Score: 35/40
Being a person who menstruates is not easy. The pads, the tampons, the cups, and the period underwear can really get anyone down. The beauty of living in the time that we do is that there are so many options and ways to take care of yourself at your particular time of the month. Making a choice can be difficult, but I, for one, am so thankful to have options; hopefully, this quick guide to Menstrual Products helps you make yours.
Check out more stories about Menstruation on Femonomic.