Thursday, April 5, 2012

Six safer alternatives to conventional personal hygiene products: A women's health PSA (pt. II)

Last week, I blogged about the health risks involved in using conventional menstrual products, catalyzed by my long-time friend and former eLeMeNO-Pee client's accidental discovery of a brand new tampon growing mold underneath the plastic applicator.
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So what, you may be wondering, are the alternatives? Some of you may know that eLeMeNO-Pee carries cloth pads (shown above), but what if you're 1) not a pad person or 2) unable to launder cloth pads at this point in your life?

Like I said last week, this isn't about capitalizing on a friend's unfortunate experience for sales. This is about letting our readers know all of their options so that they can find one that supports both their health goals and their lifestyle.

Disposable alternatives

Now, eLeMeNO-Pee's mission, obviously, is to promote reusable hygiene products, but I know we have readers who don't have access to their own, private laundry facilities in their homes. Do these women have options beyond bleached cotton or rayon tampons and phthalate-laden bleached cotton pads?

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Yes! There are disposable tampons and pads that are chlorine-free, meaning they haven't been bleached and won't expose you to dioxin, a highly toxic compound gas released by chlorine bleach that is a known carcinogen as well as a hormone disruptor. Metabolism, the immune system, and liver function are all potentially affected by dioxin, and it permeates our industrialized society, so decreasing exposure as much as possible is an important health goal. Common name brands of chlorine-free and sometimes organic (pesticide-free) disposable menstrual products include Seventh Generation and Natracare. A smaller company called Maxim (not to be confused with the raunchy men's magazine) also makes an organic cotton pantiliner, tampon without applicator, and tampon with cardboard applicator as well as a conventionally grown natural cotton maxi pad with wings.

Additionally, there are disposable menstrual cups, like the Instead Softcup. A menstrual cup sits just underneath the cervix and collects, rather than absorbs, menstrual flow. This is a great alternative to tampons because it can be worn in all the same situations, including swimming and while sleeping. Because of its function, it is not as drying or disruptive of the pH of the sensitive vaginal wall membrane; "less drying" also means less irritating, which makes for a more comfortable period with lighter flow and less intense cramps. There's also no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome.

And the reusables

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One of the greatest, and possibly most unsung, merits of reusable hygiene products is that the woman who owns them can sterilize them herself and know that they are clean. This is especially true of the reusable menstrual cups like Diva Cup, Lunette Cup, the Keeper, and Moon Cup. Like the Instead Softcup, these cups sit underneath the cervix and form a seal to prevent leaks, collecting menstrual flow for up to 12 hours, meaning it probably won't need to be changed in a public restroom unless flow is super-heavy. Because of its position and the way that it keeps menstrual flow off of the wearer's skin, it's both sanitary and non-toxic, and no laundry is necessary in its cleaning. Simply wash with soap and hot water, boiling it occasionally as preventative sanitation if the manufacturer's instructions allow for it. The most important thing to remember is that one cup's size and shape may not work well for you, but another brand might be a better fit. Some brands also come in multiple sizes. Just like getting started with cloth diapers, there can be some trial and error before you find your reusable menstrual cup bliss, and manufacturers usually make their products' dimensions pretty clear on their Web sites.

Sea sponges are long-used, traditional reusable tampons in many cultures. These are actual sea sponges, harvested from the ocean floor, and they can be washed and reused for 3 to 6 months. These are a less popular alternative for vegetarians and vegans, because sponges are part of the animal kingdom despite their similarity to plants. Harvesting them means removing them from the ocean and killing them.

Photo from moocowmomma on
A less popular reusable option that is gaining some notoriety is the cloth tampon. While there are no "major brand" versions of this product, several FDA-authorized work-at-home mom manufacturers have them listed on e-storefront and shopping cart sites like Etsy and HyenaCart. They can be laundered in your washing machine with hot water and detergent--be sure to use an unscented detergent that rinses clean and won't irritate you! Because you won't want the string to fray, I'd suggest washing these in a mesh bag for delicates.

And, finally, there's my favorite option--but I was already a "pad person," and unashamedly so. Sometimes called mama cloth (but since they're not just for mamas, that's not my preferred moniker for them!), cloth pads are soft, comfortable, non-toxic, and cute.

They can be made from (my favorite) completely organic cotton in a variety of weaves, including soft flannel or knit. They can have a stay-dry wicking layer of soft fleece, which pushes liquid to the absorbent core and feels dry to the touch unless compressed very deeply, to ameliorate that "sitting in something that just came out of me" feeling.

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They can come in adorable prints (owls!) and about a million different sizes and thicknesses. They usually have wings that snap under your panties to hold them in place, and no granny panties are required: there's no slick waterproof plastic causing annoying slippage, so leaks are not as common.

Cloth pads should be washed in hot water with a non-irritating, clean-rinsing detergent--I wash mine with a load of towels. They can be dried in the dryer and folded up and snapped neatly to take up minimal space.

Any of these reusable options can work when you're out and about--just use a waterproof tote called a wet bag. There are small sizes made especially for cloth pads that fit discreetly into a purse or diaper bag.

Like any absorbent household item, all menstrual products should be stored in a cool, dry place if possible. If your bathroom sink is in a separate room from your shower and you know your sink pipes aren't at risk for leaking or bursting, under the sink is fine. If your bathroom is small enough that steam from your shower could be absorbed by your menstrual products, then an alternative location, like a linen closet, is the safest place to store both reusable and disposable menstrual products.

It's a lot to take in, I know. We've been marketed to our whole lives, and we are led to believe that we can trust namebrand conventional feminine hygiene. I think, however, that you'll find exploring these alternatives to be an adventure--one you can enjoy! It can feel really good to know that by your choice to use an alternative menstrual care product, you're decreasing your exposure to harmful chemicals as well as the potential for hidden mold growth. Yucky stuff is everywhere, and we can't always control it. But we can control this. We can use products that feel better and reduce risks. That's how you have a happy period.

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