Zero Waste Menstruation: Non-Trashy Menstrual Products for a Waste-Free Period
Ladies, it’s time to talk about that time of month. “That time” we don’t talk about. “That time” that creates mountains of waste I would rather not think about! Times that by the 2.0705 billion women on earth in the age group of menstruating women and NOPE!
It is most definitely time for the fairer of the sex to move away from single-use menstrual products and start using more eco-friendly options when Aunt Flo comes for her monthly visit.
This is most definitely the change I have personally put off the longest and the change I am most terrified of. To ease myself into it, I’ve done tons of research on the options and have read heaps of reviews of different products by fellow zero wasters.
I’ve summarised all my findings below to give myself and others a definite guide to non-trashy menstrual products that won’t have you running scared come shark week.
(I’ve now been using a Lunette menstrual cup for a while and wouldn’t have it any other way! So glad I made the switch! Totally worth it and easy to get used to.)
1. Menstrual Cups
Menstrual cups are reusable cups made from silicone or rubber that are inserted during your period to catch the menstrual blood in the cup. You take it out and tip the contents into the toilet when it is full. This means no more dealing with bloody tampons and having to bin them, allowing you to have a naked bathroom bin. Massive win for both women and the world!
The thought of having to insert these cups can be scary, but the majority of women that have started using them sing their praises and shout out their love for these devices from the rooftops, saying they wish they had started using them sooner, so it is worth standing up to this fear and being patient while you get used to it using it.
Choosing a menstrual cup
Before choosing a menstrual cup, you need to know your vagina (#knowyourvagina)! As not all vaginas are alike, not all menstrual cups will work for all vaginas and for a comfortable, effective fit, you need the right one.
Also, I would advise buying a respected brand – you don’t want to go cheap when it comes to something that you’re inserting inside yourself. The cheap ones are also known to start smelling and need to be replaced sooner, so you’re not really saving money.
Menstrual cups generally come in two sizes and most people fit in these two categories and can comfortably use one of these two sizes. Model or size 1, which is generally for women under the age of 30 who have never delivered vaginally or by caesarean section, and model or size 2 for women age 30 and over and/or for women who have delivered vaginally or by caesarean section.
But there are other factors to be aware of, such as how active you are, the height of your pelvis and how heavy your flow is. We cover the questions to ask yourself before buying a menstrual cup below.
Menstrual cup brand recommendations
These recommendations are based on the experiences of Australian zero wasters who have bought and tried these products. They are the brands that are advocated the most by them.
People like the JuJu cup because it is Australian made, comes in cardboard packaging and with a silk storage pouch. Some say it is the best brand they have tried. They also have an option to “share the dignity”, where you can donate a menstrual cup to women who are homeless or in a women's refuge centre.
People are also happy with the Diva cup, which is available both in Australia and Canada (it is actually the only reusable menstrual cup allowed to be sold in Canada by Health Canada according to Well.ca).
Some people who have tried JuJu cups and Diva cups prefer the fit of the Lunette (AU). I personally use a Lunette and find it very comfortable and easy to use.
These are all good options for women with average height cervixes.
But, for women whose vaginas don’t fall in these two categories and who have had problems with tampons in the past due to a low cervix or long vagina or have tried one of these standard menstrual cups and found them uncomfortable and ineffective, there are a greater variety of options.
Specifically, the MeLuna brand has the shortest cup - the MeLuna Shorty (AU) - for low cervixes and the Diva Cup brand has the longest cup available for long vaginas. Other good options for a high cervix include the Lily Cup and the XO Flow (both US/CAN). If you have a wide vagina, the Lena Cup (worldwide) is wider and more bell-shaped.
Questions to ask yourself before buying a menstrual cup
Have you had a vaginal birth or not? If so, most brands recommend going for the larger model of their cup.
Do you have a low or high cervix (how to figure this out is shown below)? There are cups that are more suitable for women with low and high cervixes (discussed above).
How strong are your pelvic floor muscles? These are what will be holding your cup in. If you’re over 30, you may need a larger size cup as these lose elasticity as we age. If you’re over 30 and do your Kegel exercises or have strong pelvic floor muscles from doing yoga or pilates, a smaller one will most likely suit you. A smaller one is also recommended for virgins and teenagers.
How heavy is your flow? If your flow is heavier than the average, you may need to consider a larger cup, although it is better to choose a cup that fits better and change it more often than to do this.
Unfortunately, there may be a bit of trial and error involved, which is frustrating as they are not cheap. But, think of all the money spent on tampons and pads and you’ll realise you get your money back in no time and will soon be saving money.
Follow these guides as well as you can and hopefully you’ll find the right fit first time round.
How do I know if I have a low cervix or long vagina?
Do the finger test! After cleaning your hands, gently insert a clean index finger into your vagina using an inwards and upwards motion and go as far as in as you can. You won’t be able to go any further when you reach your cervix.
If you are touching your cervix by your first knuckle, you have a low cervix, if you are touching your cervix by the second knuckle, you have an average length average and if you are touching your cervix beyond the second knuckle and up to the third, you have a high cervix.
Cleaning your menstrual cup
If using a reusable menstrual product, it is vital that they are cleaned properly as toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which is an infection caused by bacteria entering through wounds or, as in this case, mucus membranes, can occur if it is not.
You can get TSS by using tampons and this is well documented. As menstrual cups are a relatively new product, there isn’t as much data on this occurring with menstrual cup use.
I was able to find two studies, with one finding that menstrual cups could have a greater risk of TSS versus current tampon brands due to air being inserted along with cup and biofilm surviving rinsing. The study recommends using a second cup to enable cup sterilisation between uses by boiling it between use.
The study, however, was based on just rinsing the cup after empty and not washing it before reinserting, which is advised by most brands. It is also not a statistical study based on actual case numbers but done using laboratory test conditions only.
A second study, which was a small observation study of menstrual cup use by 604 Kenyan schoolgirls, found “no adverse event or TSS was detected over a median 10.9 months follow-up”. It concluded that “no evidence emerged to indicate menstrual cups are hazardous or cause health harms among rural Kenyan schoolgirls, but large-scale trials and post-marketing surveillance should continue to evaluate cup safety”.
There have only been two reported cases of TSS due to menstrual cup use globally and one was in a woman with an autoimmune disease and an abrasion in her vagina.
I feel that these studies just highlight the importance of cleaning your menstrual cup properly between uses.
I spoke to my gynaecologist about this risk and the first study, which she was aware of, and she is still happy for me to use a menstrual cup.
Follow the cleaning instructions that come with your specific menstrual cup, but in general it is recommended that you:
sterilise it before using it for the first time by washing it in warm water with a mild, unscented, water-based soap, rinsing it and boiling it in a pot in a good amount of water (so it doesn’t burn) for 20 minutes
clean it before your cycle, every time after you empty it, and after your cycle
wash your hands well before touching your menstrual cup
rinse in cold water first so it doesn’t become discoloured or start smelling
after rinsing in cold water, wash with hot water and a mild, perfume-free, oil-free soap or a dedicated menstrual cup cleansing wash
you can gently stretch your menstrual cup’s holes under warm running water to remove any debris that may be inside them
sterilise it after you have finished your period by boiling it in a large pot of water for 5 to 10 minutes
don’t use a menstrual cup for more than 12 hours at a time – it needs to be emptied and washed at least twice a day i.e. at least every 12 hours, but ideally every 4 to 8 hours
Some brands do sell menstrual cup cleansing wash. DivaCup has DivaWash (here for AU and here for CAN) and Lunette has Feelbetter Cupwash (AU). Lunette also has disinfecting wipes, which are biodegradable, compostable wipes that can be flushed down the toilet or thrown into compost, could be useful when camping or travelling.
Menstrual cups need to be stored in a way that they are properly ventilated, so use a dedicated breathable pouch that provides ventilation. Do not store them in a plastic bag or container because there will be no air flow.
I’ve written a separate in-depth blog post on cleaning your menstrual cup as there are a lot of opinions on the best way to do this and a lot to talk about. It talks about how to properly clean and store your menstrual cup, what soap to use, and how to prevent and get rid of stains and smells. You’ll find it here: How To Clean and Store Your Menstrual Cup Correctly.
FAQ ABOUT MENSTRUAL CUPS
Could it get stuck inside me?
No. You will always be able to push it out. You may need to activate your kegel muscles to help you push it out if you are struggling to get it out.
Can I swim with a menstrual cup in?
Yes. If it fits properly, it should create a seal and not let water in. Emptying it before going swimming is recommended.
Can I sleep with a menstrual cup in?
Yes, they can be worn overnight. Be sure to empty it before you go to bed and first thing in the morning.
How do I dispose of my menstrual cup?
If your menstrual cup is damaged and can no longer be used, Lunette recommends burning it rather than sending it to landfill, while Diva advises washing it, cutting it up into small pieces and disposing of it in the trash.
Can I trim the stem of my menstrual cup?
Yes, if the stem is too long and causing discomfort, you can carefully trim it with scissors.
If you’re struggling with anything menstrual cup related, there’s a great group on Facebook called Menstrual Cups and More Australia that will get you through and answer any awkward questions you may have without judgement.
2. Period Underwear
Period underwear is underwear with a built-in absorbent liner that absorbs menstrual blood. They can also be used for bladder leaks.
They can be used on their own like a pad or just to catch any leaks.
I personally use Modibodi period underwear alongside my menstrual cup. I wore it while I was getting used to and learning to trust my menstrual cup and I now wear it on its own as my period winds down.
Period underwear brand recommendations
Modibodi is an Australian company that is highly praised by Australian zerowasters. It is also cheaper than other options and works brilliantly. Only 3 mm thick, the Modifier Technology used in Modibodi’s underwear means it can hold up to 20 ml or two tampons worth. There is a layer to wick away moisture, fight bacteria and stop smells, a layer that absorbs and locks away fluid and a layer that provides extra waterproofing.
Thinx’s period underwear THINX QuadTECH can also hold up to two tampons’ worth. It has four layers and is antimicrobial, moisture-wicking, leak-resistant, and absorbent. The company’s product was very popular but then it came under fire for issues with its company culture and this is now putting some people off buying from this brand, but its product is good. The brand also has a range specifically designed for teens and tweens called Thinx BTWN.
Sewing a cloth pad directly into panties allowed Lunapads to offer a product that is a less bulky, unshifting alternative to its reusable cloth pads – Luna Undies. You can choose how much absorbency you need – everyday, light, moderate or heavy – with some of their underwear having removable inserts so they can be adjusted to fit your flow. They can absorb two tampons’ worth with the insert and absorb one tampon’s worth without it.
Cleaning period underwear
You firstly rinse them by hand in cool water (this can be done in the shower to save water) and then put them in the washing machine. Machine wash in cold water using a laundry bag like you do for your other delicates and then hang to dry.
Avoid the use of chlorine bleach, strong detergents such as stain removers and fabric softeners, which decrease materials’ absorbency and stop the antimicrobial and moisture-wicking treatments on these from working.
3. Reusable Cloth Pads
Swap single-use menstrual pads with reusable cloth menstrual pads! Pads are the kind of thing that are either for you or not. Some people swear by them and some people won’t go near them.
I feel a lot of it is perception. I personally haven’t tried these and prefer the idea of period underwear and a menstrual cup. I hated the feeling of pads when I used them as a teenager and moved on to tampons as quickly as possible.
But if you are happy using pads, definitely go the reusable route! In addition to being better for the environment, they’ll save you heaps of money and the fabric ones don’t ever make a crumpling sound when you walk and don’t slip around as much.
**EDIT: I have since tried out some Hannahpads. I found these reusable cloth pads to be a great supplement to my menstrual cup and period undies! They're comfy, leak-free and silent! I've also found that they don't smell unlike disposable ones. I now keep one in my bag when my period is due as I'm not very regular and that way I'm prepared if I'm out and I use them for the less heavy days.**
Reusable cloth pad brand recommendations
And, some people make their own themselves from fabric scraps – there are loads of DIY how to’s online. You can also get heaps of homemade ones on Etsy.
Cleaning reusable cloth pads
These also need to be pre-rinsed in cold water to remove as much blood as possible (this can also be done in the shower to save water). They can be soaked before washing them with your regular laundry in the washing machine and some brands advise doing this.
If you do soak them, do not soak them for longer than a few hours, as leaving them in water too long can encourage bacterial growth and mold. Ensure they are completely dry before storing.
Again, don’t use chlorine bleach or fabric softeners on these. If you hand wash them, it is important to make sure that they are rinsed well, as detergent build-up can also affect their absorbency.
4. Reusable Tampons
You also get reusable cloth tampons that you roll up and insert as with regular single-use tampons. They also have a string attached for easy removal.
I haven’t personally heard from anyone using these and am unsure about their effectiveness, but they do have rave reviews on Etsy, where you can buy them. Check them out here.
If you have used these let me know your thoughts in the comments section!
Cleaning reusable tampons
Wash new ones before use and then wash them in cold water (hot water will lock in stains), preferably by hand using a mild detergent. Rinsing thoroughly and air drying them will also help to prevent permanent stains.
One seller recommends soaking them in 50/50 vinegar/water mixture for 15 minutes followed by the normal wash routine to sanitise them.
Do not use bleach, fabric softener, or dryer sheets with these.
5. Organic Cotton Tampons
If you really can’t bring yourself to use any of the above options because the thought of doing so makes you too uncomfortable or they are not the right option for your body, use the eco-friendliest single-use tampon and pad options out there.
These are ones that are made from organic cotton.
Recommended brands are:
Probably the most confronting zero waste change to make, this change is not easy, but it is an important one that will divert a lot of waste from landfill.
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