For most menstruating women there are only two options: disposable sanitary pads or tampons. The average woman will menstruate approximately 500 times, and use an estimated 16 800 sanitary towels or tampons, during the course of her lifetime. It takes a tampon six months to biodegrade, and a sanitary pad can take up to 500 years.
According to Women's Environmental Network in 1999 about 2.5 million tampons, 1.4 million pads and 700 000 panty liners were flushed down the toilet daily. More than 12 billion pads and tampons are disposed of yearly in the US and Canada alone.
Most of the waste is sent to landfills or burnt, but a good portion of it passes through sewage treatment plants ending up in oceans, as litter on beaches and endangering wildlife.
A 2006 study found that sanitary pads are twice as harmful to the environment as tampons. Sanitary pads contain processed plastics, specifically polyethylene. The process used to manufacture this plastic contributes to global warming and ozone depletion, while also emitting sulphur and nitrogen oxides, contributing to acidification.
What's in your sanitary product?
Materials used to make sanitary products are not entirely safe. In fact they could be causing serious harm to your health.
Cotton and rayon, used to make tampons, and processed wood pulp, used to make sanitary pads, are usually bleached with chlorine.
Chlorine bleaching is a source of a carcinogen, dioxin. Prolonged exposure to dioxin may lead to endometriosis.
Dioxin pollution is a worldwide problem research suggests that it can disrupt hormones within the body. By using tampons and sanitary pads women could be exposing themselves to additional dioxin exposure.
Fragrances used in tampons and sanitary pads, and the new "dry weave" cover sheet used in sanitary pads, can cause allergic reactions and disrupt the body's natural processes.
Tampons have long been a cause of concern. Tampon use has the potential to change vaginal microflora. If abnormal bacteria are harboured in the vagina, menstrual blood which is accumulated inside the vagina above and within a tampon can act as a culture medium allowing micro-organisms to multiply, thereby promoting infection.
The most commonly associated health risk is toxic shock syndrome (TSS) caused by a bacterial infection. A normally healthy bacterium found in warm, moist places of the body can sometimes produce toxins that lead to TSS. TSS is a potentially fatal disease, and is associated with prolonged use of superabsorbent tampons.
Another big concern regarding tampon use is that it sheds fibres. Rayon commonly used in tampons consists of tiny strands of plastic. It is believed that rayon fibres can cause lacerations to the vaginal walls during insertion and removal, leaving the vagina open to infections.
Environmentally friendly alternatives
An increasing awareness to the environment and women's health has led to an increase in the manufacturing of reusable and environmentally friendly menstrual products. Not only are these products safe for the environment, but they also hold benefits for women's health.
The menstrual cup is a reusable device inserted into the vagina that collects menstrual blood. It is made out of medical grade silicone rubber – the rubber is biocompatible, which means that it is not harmful to living tissue, hypo allergic, latex- free and odourless.
The menstrual cup is more expensive than a packet of tampons or pads, but it will save you money in the long run as you will no longer need to stock up on tampons or pads on a monthly basis.
Marina Green, stockist of the Lunette menstrual cup, has been using the cup for three years.
"It is better than a tampon; it is convenient and easy to use. It collects rather than absorbs fluid which is more natural. It can be used by any women of any age. An increasing number of women are using it - it is economical, environmentally friendly and healthier to use," says Marina.
Inserting and removing the cup will require some practice. Cleaning the cup is easy and should be done with water and a fragrance-free soap. To sterilise the cup, simply boil it in water for two to five minutes.
*Diana Black has been using the Mooncup for eighteen months. "I never liked tampons or pads and was eager to try something else. It feels extremely comfortable once it's inserted you can't feel it. It feels more hygienic as the flow is caught in the cup. I like the idea more than a saturated wad of cotton. Compared to before I am not creating any waste. It is more hands on though, but after the second period I was used to it. Now I don't have to carry any pads or tampons with me anymore during my period, and no more hassle to get rid of pads or tampons in uncomfortable places," says Diana.
What about cleaning the cup in a public toilet?
"Most public toilets have a door you can close behind you. You can just wipe it clean, and even take a little bottle of water in with you and rinse it with water," says Diana.
There are a number of menstrual cups available in South Africa, the Lunette cup, the MPower cup, and the Miacup which comes in two different sizes. The Mooncup is an imported product and can be ordered online.
For decades before the invention of the disposal sanitary pad women have been using cloth rags. Environmental awareness has led to many women returning to the rag but unlike before, cloth menstrual pads now come in a range of designs, colours, sizes and different fabrics.
Cloth menstrual pads are softer to the skin, more breathable, and reduce women's exposure to chemical and artificial fragrances. When choosing cloth pads go for unbleached organic materials. You could even sew your own pads from old pieces of fabric from t-shirts and even underwear.
Cleaning cloth menstrual pads are easy - just soak in water to remove stains, hand or machine wash, tumble dry or hang them on the line to dry.
Popular overseas brands such as Lunarpads, Gladrags, Pandora pads, or Sckoon Organics can be ordered online.
Disposable sanitary pad rule 1: do not flush down the toilet. With Flushaway this rule can be forgotten, flush it away no mess, no fuss, no waste.
Flushaway is a disposable sanitary pad made up of different materials including an absorbent polymer. The material is called Polyvinly Alcohol (PVA) which dissolves completely in water into 100% biodegradable components such as oxygen and carbon.
Besides the PVA polymer, Flushaway is made up of other components that are wholly, or substantially, biodegradable. The only part that is not 100% biodegradable is the inert glue used to stick to the underwear.
For more information about Flushaway pads visit www.flushaway.co.za
Natracare has a range of organic tampons and natural sanitary pads and panty- liners that are biodegradable. Natracare tampons are 100% organic cotton and they are not chlorine bleached.
The range of sanitary pads and panty-liners are made from pure natural materials made from plant cellulose. They are not chlorine bleached and are free of rayon, plastics and other synthetic materials.
To find out more about Natracare visit www.faithfultonature.co.za.
(Leandra Engelbrecht, Health24, June 2009)
*Name has been changed
- Organic alternatives to female hygiene. Taryn-Lee Biggar. 11 November 2008 http://all4women.co.za
- Green Your Feminine hygiene. www.greenyour.com
- Cloth Menstrual Pads. Kelly Harrison www.greenlivingtips.com
- Marina Green www.lunette.co.za
- Are your sanitary products damaging your health? www.sanitaryproducts.co.uk
- Behind the label: Tampons. Pat Thomas www.theecologist.org
- The menstrual cycle www.netdoctor.co.uk