Most people tend to notice that pads, tampons and applicators cause a massive amount of waste. It's not people aren't concerned; most women just aren't aware of the alternatives to conventional pads and tampons.
Stores and pharmacies don't normally carry alternative menstrual products, which is why most people haven't heard of them. Also, Americans are squeamish about menstruation in the first place and don't talk about it often. Many gynecologists aren't even aware of alternatives, despite the fact that most are safe, if not FDA-approved!
So what are the alternatives?
Store-bought pads and tampons
Aside from being excessively wasteful (the web links all feature statistics- check them out), most of these products are made with synthetic fibers and bleach. Bleaching increases the consumer's exposure to dioxins and other carcinogens (also known as "cancer causing agents"). Exposure to carcinogens is just one of the many reasons people avoid meat and other conventional food products.
Even normal exposure, just once a month, can be harmful. As well as physical waste, conventional paper products usually include plastic or adhesives including plastic tampon applicators, the backing on pads, etc. These materials aren't biodegradable.
Tampons can also cause Toxic Shock Syndrome. It's rare, but can happen in anyone, even a woman who's been using tampons for years. In fact, most cases of TSS occur in women using tampons. Tampon boxes contain information on TSS, but you can also find information online at Toxic Shock Information Services.
Conventional menstrual products can be costly because they must be replaced often. They're also inconvenient (having to pack your bag with so many) and none too discreet. The only positive is that they're disposable, which can be convenient at school or work. For more info check out:
Student Environmental Action Coalition
Dangers of Tampons and Dioxin
Organic cotton pads and tampons
These are an excellent choice for women who are just starting out with eco-friendly menstrual products; those just starting menstruation in the first place; or those who prefer a disposable alternative. They are regular pads and tampons made of 100% natural, unbleached cotton, without added chemicals. Overall, these products decrease the user's exposure to toxins and they are less damaging to the environment because they are produced in a more sustainable manner.
The main drawback is the cost. These products tend to cost a bit more than regular pads/tampons if you buy from your local health food store. Buying in bulk and buying off the Internet can help lower the financial cost, but they still produce waste. For more info check out:
Washable pads or "rags"
These are a major pull away from "normal" products; soft cloth pads that you use, wash, and then reuse. It's really less icky than it sounds.
Washable pads come in two styles- "AIO," or all in one, and "liner/holder" sets. The "AIO" pads are just like conventional pads, except they are cloth. "Liner/holder" sets include the two parts to the pad, the liner and holder. When you "change your pad," you change both parts. The advantage of "liner/holder" is that you can adjust the absorbency of the pad and many people believe they are easier to get clean.
These products are a little inconvenient when used as a primary source of protection, because they must be changed every three or four hours, depending on your flow. Cloth pads are good for night or backup use. Just by using cloth pads at night, you cut waste by 1/3. Using them as a backup for an internal product also works well since they don't need to be changed as often.
The main disadvantage is initial cost. Investing in a good set can cost upwards of $60. Costs can be decreased by ordering handmade cloth pads at eBay, obtaining from an individual maker, or making them yourself (it's not hard). Just ordering them for night or backup use is also cheap.
The advantages include comfort, long-run savings, much less environmental waste, and they seem to be more absorbent. For more info check out
The Keeper Shop
Here's where we get abstract. Sea sponges are small, strawberry-sized sponges that are used like tampons. It sounds gross but EVERYBODY who uses tampons should at least try sponges. To use sea sponges just insert, remove, wash with water, then reinsert. It's ridiculously easy. What complicates the matter is dealing with squeamish people in a public restroom. The only thing preventing sponges from being really popular is the fact that you wouldn't dare try washing one out in a public sink. (Editor's note: Understandably, in the age of AIDS, people are concerned about exposure to bodily fluids. Please keep this in mind when using any biological product)
Seriously, don't do it. I tried, thinking that if anyone gave me a strange look, I would rationally say "it's a menstrual sponge; yes, I'm having my period, which isn't too unusual if you think about it." But there is just no reasoning with people on this. Definitely don't try it at school or when young children are around.
Sponges would suit you best if you have a regular or light flow. I have a heavy flow and they worked wonderfully as well. If you're interested but attend work or school, the best way is to take a water bottle into the stall with you and wash them out that way. People will ask what the hell you are doing, but tell them to mind their own business. It works!! =)
The disadvantage is that they can be inconvenient, have to be replaced every 6 months. They are, technically, an animal product, too. But think of how many aquatic animals you're saving by not using tampons.