Image credit: Modibodi
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As sustainability becomes a mainstream topic around the world, with everyone from actors to activists to Instagram influencers talking about it, period care, once again, is often overlooked in the larger conversation. That’s a lost opportunity, because lately there has been an explosion of interest, with sustainable period care products flooding the market — some better than others.
Typically, period products create a lot of waste. They are single-use, and are made with plastic or other synthetic and non-biodegradable materials. Sanitary pads are the most commonly chosen product for menstrual hygiene, followed closely by tampons. Estimates are that in the UK alone, roughly 200,000 tons of menstrual waste are generated every year.
When it comes to sustainable period care products, unfortunately, there’s a lack of information (and a lot of misinformation) out there. As a consumer, the most easily accessible source for information is probably the brands themselves, but greenwashing is rampant. For example, in 2019 a university lab tested two pairs of Thinx, one of the most popular period panties, and detected the toxic substance PFAS.
So before you decide to go for a product or brand, do some research. Here are some things you can look out for:
Natural materials: Look for products with minimal synthetics like plastics, which are not biodegradable and can last on earth for hundreds of years. Microplastics in particular are harmful, both for the environment and for human health. If unavoidable, then look for ones that use GRS-certified recycled synthetics.
Non-Toxic: Make sure the products don’t contain toxins like phthalates, parabens, dioxins, or PFAS. These are oft-restricted substances that could possibly enter your body through your vagina, and in addition, some of these chemicals are possibly carcinogenic or could affect your hormonal health and fertility. Some of these toxins are commonly found in dyes and fragrances, so ensure that the brand is using non-toxic and/or plant-based ones, if any. Also, verify that any claims are backed with certifications like GOTS or OEKO-TEX.
Sustainable packaging: The brand should be using sustainable packaging. Go for FSC-Certified paper over plastic, even if the plastic is recyclable. Make sure the paper is acid-free and is dyed using non-toxic plant-based inks like soy. Another good option is compostable packaging, which has been certified by BPI, TUV Austria, or DIN CERTO.
Ethical Production: The brand should be transparent about its supply chain. It should tell you exactly where it’s sourcing its materials from. It should be paying its workers a fair wage, and have ethical worker conditions. Look out for fair labor certifications like SA8000 or Fair Trade USA.
Impact Work: There is still a shocking lack of access to period products in low-income countries. For example, over 40% of menstruating girls in Bangladesh miss school because they don’t have access to adequate period products, and instead use materials like old cloth. Furthermore, not all of these women wash the cloth appropriately before reusing. So it’s a big bonus if you choose a brand that is addressing period poverty or menstrual health and education.
Luckily, there are more options than ever if you want to switch to more sustainable products that are better for both you and the environment:
Period panties are reusable underwear that you can wear while on your period, without using disposable products like pads or tampons. Depending on how heavy your flow is, you can wear one pair for up to six hours before washing and throw them in the machine with the rest of your load — just make sure to rinse them with water once before you do. Most brands will have underwear for different absorbency levels based on your flow, and a quiz that helps you determine which pair is best for you. Some people like combining the panties with a liner or tampon on the heaviest day of their flow, but if you have the heavy-absorbency ones you shouldn’t need to. If taken care of properly, one pair of period panties can last for six months to two years. I’ve had mine for about six months, and they’re still in great condition.
Look for underwear made using organic and natural materials such as GOTS certified organic cotton or TENCEL by Lenzing, or certified 100% recycled synthetics like ECONYL. We did a lot of research, but unfortunately couldn’t find any brand that’s 100% synthetic-free. They all use a small amount of polyester or spandex for stretch and/or in the lining. The amount is minuscule compared to the plastic in pads or tampons with plastic applicators, particularly since the underwear can be used for years, but it means they aren’t recyclable or compostable — you’ll have to throw them in the trash when they’re done.
Also known as a period cup, it is typically made from medical-grade silicone or latex, and is inserted into the vagina during your period. Rather than absorbing the blood like most other products, it collects it and needs to be emptied, rinsed, and reinserted every 6 to 12 hours, depending on your flow. According to multiple brands, one menstrual cup can last for up to ten years.
Another mark in their favor is that you only need one per period cycle, as opposed to pads and tampons, and even period panties, which have to be changed regularly through your cycle. Only around 4% of menstrual cups on the market are produced from thermoplastics compared to single-use pads which are usually constructed of 35% plastic, and 6% for tampons. And cups are estimated to have less than 1.5% of the environmental impact of disposable pads or tampons. It’s also worth noting that period cups are very easy to clean, and need less water and soap to wash than period panties. This is especially important if you’re living in a drought-prone area, or don’t have easy access to clean, running water.
Unfortunately, since they’re made of silicone, menstrual cups are not compostable, or even easily recyclable. However, there are special services through which you can recycle your cup, such as through the DivaRecycles program in partnership with TerraCycle.
Reusable pads are similar in concept to period panties, eliminating the need for disposable pads. You attach them to your everyday underwear with snaps that come on the pad, and then just rinse, wash, and reuse. Look for ones made using GOTS certified cotton or other natural materials. Like period underwear, reusable pads also have a small amount of synthetic fabric in the construction.
Organic pads and tampons
A number of brands make entirely plant-based and synthetic-free single-use pads and tampons. According to period care brand TOM, provided they’re 100% natural, they can be composted, or thrown in the bin and will decompose at the landfill. The idea of tossing used pads or tampons in your home compost bin may be a bit icky at first, but as long as you wrap them properly (in biodegradable wrapping which most products will come in), you’ll be fine!
Brands That Make Eco-Friendly Period Products
We know that periods are a very personal experience, so choose the product that feels the best to you! To make things a little easier, here are eight brands we recommend.
In addition to period panties, this brand makes period-proof swimwear and activewear. Their leggings are made from a blend of recycled nylon (78%) and spandex or elastane (22%), and can hold up to three tampons worth of fluid. Modibodi also has period undies for your ultra-heavy days — they’re designed to hold up to ten tampons worth of fluid, the highest of any brand in this list. The other fabric is made from 95% bamboo viscose and 5% spandex. Note: It’s based in Australia, but has U.S. and UK sites for shipping too.
Barcelona-based Ruby Cup makes medical-grade silicone menstrual cups that can last up to 10 years. Addressing period poverty is at the core of its business — with its Buy One, Give One program, each time it sells a cup, Ruby donates one to a person without access. To date, Ruby Cup has donated over 100,000 cups to people in 13 countries. You can read more about its impact here.
Nat’v Basics is an Australian brand that makes reusable period panties (as well as regular undies and bras). Its period underwear are made from 95% GOTS certified organic cotton and 5% spandex. They can hold three to four tampons’ worth of fluid, making them a great choice for light-moderate days. If you have a very heavy flow, you might want to combine these with a tampon or a period cup on your heaviest day. It currently only has one style (bikini cut), which is available in black.
Vancouver-based Aisle is one of the earliest entrants to the industry, and is a certified B Corporation. Aisle makes period panties in various styles and colors from a blend of natural and synthetic materials, including GOTS certified organic cotton, GRS and OEKO-TEX certified Tencel and recycled polyester, spandex, and polyurethane laminate, a waterproofing film. The panties can hold four tampons worth of fluid, while the thong can hold one, and most come with a booster liner for your heavier days, which gets the panties up to eight tampons’ worth. It also sells reusable pads, which can hold four tampons worth of fluid, but it’s worth noting that the core for these is made from mostly polyester.
Australia-based TOM Organic stocks all the sustainable period care essentials: organic pads and tampons, menstrual cups, and period panties. TOM Organic carries tampons and pads that are 100% synthetic-free — they’re made with organic cotton, and are biodegradable and hypoallergenic. The tampon applicators are recyclable cardboard and plastic-free, and the pads have a bioplastic barrier back sheet. Its period panties are made mostly from organic cotton, with a small amount of elastane, polyurethane, and polyester. Its supply chain is quite transparent, which is a big plus.
Lilli Pads is a period care brand that makes organic pads and tampons. Its pads are made with GOTS certified organic cotton and are ICEA certified. They’re biodegradable and hypoallergenic and are free of dioxins, petroleum, and fragrances. The tampons are also made from organic cotton and come with a plastic-free cardboard applicator.
I’ve used these pads and liners myself and can vouch for them. Based in India this brand also makes menstrual cups. The pads are 100% plant-based, including the adhesive. They’re made from organic corn and bamboo fibers, and can be composted — make sure to wrap them in the cornstarch-based biodegradable film that they come wrapped in. Just don’t flush them down the toilet! They break down in about six months in a compost bin, and even if you throw them in with your regular trash they will decompose completely within two years. Some of Heyday’s many certifications include FSC, EcoCert, and ISO.
This UK-based brand carries menstrual care products for your entire cycle. In addition to period panties and organic pads and tampons, it carries CBD oils for cramping and mood swings. The panties are made with 92% modal and 8% elastane, and can hold two tampons worth of fluid. The pads and tampons have a Soil Association Certification, are made from GOTS certified organic cotton, and are biodegradable.