Plastic free periods
By Charlene Nawar
Periods don’t just give us cramps – they do so many other things too!
Let’s start with the fact that the average woman goes through up to 16,000 disposable pads or tampons in a lifetime. Each product is used on average for 4-8 hours before being thrown away, only then to take another 500 years to break down – but never ever really go away! Why? Because the average sanitary pad is made up of approximately 90% plastic (which is equivalent to around 4 plastic bags)! And for plastic, there is no such place as … away!
Now, multiply that number by all the women on this planet that get their period and we get a ridiculous amount of waste! And if that wasn’t enough, menstrual taboos and period shaming still exist which massively impacts on the products that women choose to use and how they dispose of them. Period waste can affect our health and end up in a landfill, pollute our waters and build up on earth for hundreds of years. Given that plastic really only took off in the 1950’s, this means that every single disposable pad, tampon or panty liner still exists on the planet today!
Women’s monthly periods are costly too when you take into account the amount of “pink tax” we pay for panty liners, pads, tampons, new underwear, pain killers, acne medication, birth control, chocolate and ice cream that is required over these 40 odd years! And this is not an exhaustive list – it still excludes regular doctors’ checkups, etc. It estimated that an average woman pays around $18,000 (AED 66,000)over her lifetime on feminine hygiene products alone. That might seem like a hefty price tag, but the environment is paying the price too!
How are they disposed of?
Firstly, they cannot be recycled! There is no way that all those layers and dirt can be separated, cleaned and recycled. At best – they should be incinerated but burning plastic is not a good idea either! All too often they end up being flushed down the toilet, giving these products direct access into the water system and oceans. Or, they are thrown in a bin which goes to a landfill where they spend the rest of their life!
Where to start?
Feminine hygiene products are not considered a medical device and therefore companies are not required to reveal the exact composition of their products. So, we do not know exactly what is in these products.
- Cotton – if we deal with the raw material itself, cotton is known as the worlds thirstiest crop as it requires so much water to grow – which hurts the environment! However, you would be lucky if you have cotton in your sanitary pad or tampon, let alone organic cotton! Cotton is saturated in pesticides and insecticides that can stay on the cotton long after it has been harvested!
- Rayon – if cotton is not being used, which more than often it’s not, then a synthetic fibre derived from wood pulp is being used! This is rayon and it is widely used as it is much cheaper than cotton! The bottom line is very important for most companies, not what is good for your health!
- Bleach – why do you think these pads are so clean and white? Cotton and rayon are bleached white to look clean and sterile as they are not naturally white! Yes, so that is bleach on top of the pesticides and insecticides that you voluntarily expose your body to! That is a lot of chemicals!
- Dioxin – Chlorine bleaching can create a toxic substance called dioxin. Research and studies indicate that there is no safe level of exposure to dioxin and that the levels of dioxin in sanitary pads are quite low and do not pose any danger. However, dioxin accumulates in the fat cells of the body and with regular use, like 5 days in a row and over a period of 12 weeks a year, this is a lot of exposure! Continuous exposure to dioxin can lead to abnormal cell growth, pelvic inflammatory disease, hormone and endocrine dysfunction, endometriosis, and various forms of cancer.
- Plastic! Majority of the sanitary pads on the market contain plastic; not just the backsheet that is used to make the pad stick to your underwear and be leakproof, but a plastic polymer powder (derived from petroleum) that is super absorbent and turns into a gel when it becomes moist. This layer traps moisture and heat and creates a nice, warm environment to promote the growth of yeast and bacteria. In the case of a tampon, it is then inserted into a plastic applicator, with a reinforced plastic string, and packaged in even more plastic for you to use and easily dispose of!
- Fragrance – Odour neutralizers and other synthetic fragrances are used to hide the ‘bad’ smell, but which contain a combination of unknown chemicals, which can enter the bloodstream and cause side effects.
So what options are there?
You can replace disposable, toxic period products with ones that are better for the ocean, for our wallets and for our bodies. There are a few sustainable period products out there – like the menstrual cup, reusable pants and pads. They are BLOODY brilliant 😊 Seriously!
I have been conscious of my plastic consumption for almost 2 years, and my first switch was to a menstrual cup.
A menstrual cup is made from reusable medical grade silicone and is similar to a tampon in that it is inserted inside the vagina and collects menstrual fluid in the cup. It is not very expensive, especially when you consider that it can be washed and reused for up to 10 years – which actually saves you money!
One thing that does amuse me is that it only comes in 2 sizes – a smaller cup size for before childbirth and a larger cup size for after. Something us women never really had to think about when buying a tampon – this is real!
Is it that easy?
Yes and no. Once you get the hang of it – it is great! But it takes time to get used to inserting it correctly and feeling confident that it won’t leak. It is not as though you can practice regularly as often as you need as you can only try it out during a small window period of 5 days a month! It took me about 3-4 months to get it right!
Will the cup overflow?
The average woman loses 30 – 60ml over their entire period and the average cup holds 30ml – which is a lot! A regular tampon only absorbs 5ml and a super tampon holds double that! So, you still have a way to go to “fill your cup”.
If you have very heavy periods, wear a cup with a pair of period underwear and you will not have to worry!
How often do I change it?
It is recommended that you empty a menstrual cup 2 times a day or every 10 – 12 hours. If you feel that you have to empty it more often – that is fine too as this will help to avoid leaks and maintain good hygiene.
How do you clean it?
You remove it and empty the blood in the toilet and then wash the cup with warm soapy water and insert again. I have found this a little more tricky when you are not at home or in a toilet with a basin in it, but in almost every bathroom in the UAE we have a bidet attachment (aka “shattaf“) where you can rinse it down, dry and reinsert. Otherwise if you are stuck you would need to wipe it with tissue and wash it properly another time or consider having 2 and keeping the dirty one in its waterproof pouch until you are home!
Period underwear is still my favorite option as they do not go inside the body and are unbelievably comfy! Made from cotton and bamboo, they are not bulky and nothing like adult diapers which is what most people seem to think! They do the exact same job as a sanitary pad but look and feel great – just like normal underwear! So many times I have forgotten that I am even on my cycle! They just have a special layer that helps prevent blood from seeping through – so no mess liek you might think!
Not only are the sustainable, they are also economical. They can last up to two years and can be worn any time of the month!
How often do I change them?
They come in different absorbencies depending on where you are in your flow – heavy to moderate or light. You change them as often as you would a regular sanitary pad.
How do you wash them?
You need to rinse them under running water until the blood runs clear – and then you can throw them in with the regular wash. First time it may seem a little ‘wild‘ but after that there is not much to it!
Where can I buy these in the UAE?
We have a local Modibodi supplier here in the UAE! They are fabulous and have a range for teens, classics, seamfree, swimwear, vegan, maternity … you name it! Check out their website here at https://modibodi.ae
Going back to how pads were before this life of convenience started, cloth pads were the only option! They have now made a comeback except these days, they have so many different designs and cute patterns too!
They look just like their plastic counterparts however instead of having an adhesive strip, they have a small stud that connects the ‘wings’ on the back side.
Reusable pads also come in different absorbencies and should be changed as often as you would change a regular pad. They are cleaned in the same way as period underwear too!
Whilst they are not bulky, I find that some brands don’t stay in place as they should! I have 2 gorgeous “Rose pads’ and wish I could offer you the details of a local supplier however the company is no longer making them!
My preference is to use the cup by day, and period underwear by night.
Now, most people feel that having to touch their body fluids is dirty and a bit gross, but this really is a misconception. Would you prefer having all these chemicals and other substances getting anywhere near the most sensitive area of your body? ⠀Skin is the largest organ of your body but vaginal tissue isn’t like other skin. It consists of lots and lots of mucous membranes that are very permeable and is a direct route to our reproductive organs. And we don’t want that either!
I regret not having known all this stuff sooner however am so grateful that I can introduce them to my daughter when she is ready!
The time has come to go plastic-free. Period.
BE THE CHANGE!
Charlene Nawar is the founder of Unwrapped UAE dedicated to teaching people how to live a more zero waste, sustainable and meaningful way of life with less! A lifestyle that is rewarding, simple, effective and worth living! Through informative blog posts and DIY’s on ways that you can reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle and rot – Charlene has done the hard work for you and learnt through her own mistakes and wants to share the success so that you don’t have to learn the hard way too!
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