Plastic free. Period.
A frank discussion about our period choices with some very candid ladies.
Lil’s Louise and five friends chat cups and other choices. These are just our experiences, check out what you need for you, and take none of this as medical advice.
A plastic free period is easier than you think. I’m not going to go so far as to say you can have a ‘feel good’ period, because none of us is believing that. But, we have more choices than we did even 5 years ago, and it’s worth a few blushes because – did you know?! -
- The average woman is estimated to use – and chuck away – more than 10,000 disposable sanitary items (assuming disposable use).
- On average, litter pickers record 6 pieces of sanitary wear waste for every 100m of beach. Are our kids playing in that? Ewww.
- Roughly 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet in the UK every single day, according to figures published in the Journal of the Institution of Environmental Sciences (2014).
- One pack of sanitary pads can contain the equivalent quantity of plastic as four carrier bags, from Marine Conservation Society and Natracare research. Just one pad can take as long as 500 years to fully break down.
That brings us to the question of whether we want plastics, ahem, down there? As well as the 4-carrier-bag pads, plastic is also present in some tampons to stop them falling apart. If your tampon comes plastic wrapped, there is a chance that trace plastic remains on the tampon when it’s in use too. Ew. Then there’s the toxic load of pesticides used on non-organic cotton.
So, what to do?
It falls down to three main choices: better disposable, reusable (washable) or cup.
If you want disposable, but to reduce that impact?
There is a wonderful East Lothian based social enterprise Hey Girls, who are fighting period poverty and waste through selling buy-one-gift-one pads, made of corn starch and bamboo. No dyes, chlorine or other nasties too. You can buy a pack of 10 from £3.25.
Or try for disposables that are organic cotton and sustainably wrapped. Natracare is a good option for these in the UK.
There is now a wide range of reusable pads and some special period knickers available. Hey Girls has just launched its bamboo and charcoal reusable pads. I haven’t taken these out for a road-test yet, but have been using reusable knickers for about a year. I wanted something to reduce the amount of plastic I was using, and wasn’t yet ready to take the leap to a cup (#ScaryNotScary).
My friends screwed up their faces when I told them about my new knickers. They thought I was too young for adult nappies. But the knickers are actually pretty stylish. Thinner than your bikini bottoms. Sure, there are a few extra layers in the gusset, but these are the ultra-moisture absorbent and anti bacterial bits you need to save leaks and smells, and having that slight extra throughout the pant saves you from those awkward spots where the pad ‘misses’. For me, on lighter days, I can use my reusable knicks and not have to worry til the next morning, when I can kick them off in the shower and not even have to see what I’m rinsing away. The rinse away? It can be a bit ick the first few times but you soon get used to it.
Taboo: Isn’t it odd that we feel ick about rinsing away periods, but pick up our dogs’ poo?
The knickers work well as a back up for a cup/ tampons, or a night time option, or on their own on lighter days.
Product review? I used Thinx, but since I bought there is also a new UK company called Wuka. The knickers cost about £25 for a pair, cheaper for a set (Thinx suggest 3 - one to wear, one in the wash, one next). The downside to me for knickers is that they are still using some synthetic fibres, that I’m actively washing down the drain – but they’re still better than totally synthetic pads. And it’s all a balance, and we all have our own comfort levels – ecologically, monthly and in just what we want to wear next to our V! But for me, that’s why I’m keen to try the reusable (bamboo and charcoal) pads.
Full disclosure (because, hey, we’ve come this far): I’m a new convert to the cup. I wish I’d started it sooner.
And it’s been this blog that helped get me there. We asked five very different women, who happen to be cup users, what they thought of the cup. They all spoke so highly of it and made it so not scary, that I >with trepidation< gave it a go. It was really OK. And, with 8 hours between changes, gave me a lot more freedom.
For those of you considering it, my top tips and those gleaned from my brave friends was
- Be relaxed when you first give it a go. A glass of wine first was a great tip! But whatever gets you relaxed – music, mindfulness, I’ve heard of one lady who lays flat on her back to get comfy first. Whatever floats your boat. *Wedging your shoulder against the door to stop the toddler coming into the loo is not ideal.
- Be prepared to experiment with the fold. The medical grade silicone is much more flexible than it looks (and more flexible than tampons). Twist it up baby.
- I was advised to trim the tail. I’d add to that – do trim, but wander about for a bit first to let it settle into place.
- Removing the cup: Ensure you have a hand basin in the toilet with you to rinse it out. It’s an idea to use the loo before you remove the cup. Removing is trickier, but not so messy as feared. Rinse it and pop it back in, and then try a few steps on the spot to check it’s comfy before you leave.
- You can go swimming, get out, and go back swimming again, in your cup. You can go waterskiing in your cup. You can hike, run, play.
It’s all summed up by this brilliant friend:
Really, it's worth a try. Only needing to "deal" with your period in the morning and at night? Why wouldn't you? And you can guarantee that if dudes got periods it's all we'd ever hear about, so go forth and discuss with your girlfriends! Even my male friends know about the moon cup because there's no shame in menstruation.
Hey Girls cups are £8.95 including your donation to pass one on.
Read our real Lil ladies' cup experiences in full, in their words.
We asked whether they'd recommend cups, if they still used one, about comfort, what 'you get used to it' means, mess, flow and more...
Q1: The biggie. Would you recommend and why/why not?
C: Yes. It’s not for everyone, and that’s ok. You do need to be comfortable with your body and not freaked out by blood, and at least as curious about the idea as grossed out.
H: Yes, 100%. I could never go back to tampons! I don’t have to spend money every month; I don’t have to fill the bin with grotty bloody things; I don’t have to insert bleached stuff inside me!
A: Yes. The two main reasons are environmental (no chucking out single-use pads and tampons) and convenience. You only need to change twice a day and it's super easy. I usually change in the shower and rinse out. It means I just change (or really, empty and rinse) in the morning when I wake up and right before bed. Also, no more spending money on pads and tampons and no more trying to remember to pack tampons, or having them roll about in my bag all the time because I'm inherently messy.
S: Using a cup really suits my lifestyle. I am very active – I love being outdoors, whether it's surfing, skating, doing yoga, long hikes, I'm there.
I found from an early age that I needed to use tampons to take part in watersports. Tampons are not perfect for watersports and swimming so I was delighted when I started using a cup in 2005. I can often wear the cup for six hours without changing and it can be used on camping expeditions and anywhere in the outdoors with an active lifestyle.
L: Yes. Give it a try, and if it’s not for you then at least you know!
Q2: Do you still use a cup? (And if no, why did you stop?)
C: No. I got pregnant, and then I never quite got round to it, and then I got a coil fitted and there’s some advice that says don’t mooncup with a coil at first at least. Planning to restart soon ish though.
A: Not at the moment as I’m exclusively Breastfeeding and don’t get periods.
A: I'm not currently using a cup because I haven't had a period in 18 months (pregnancy and breastfeeding). I plan to use it again when my period returns.
S: Yes, I do. I only wear tampons or towels if I'm caught short
Q3: Comfort? On a scale of 0-10, where 10 is that you don’t notice it’s there, how would rate fitting/removing & general wear for cups vs tampons.
H: Fitting/ removing moon cup? 5. Same for tampon? 3
Mooncup for general wear? 9. Tampon? 6
C: Fitting 6 or 7? Not as easy as a tampon, but absolutely easy enough and capacity is higher so you do it less often. Removing 4-6. Once or twice I got it wrong and it pinged back and that HURTS. But generally it’s fine, although you do need to plan ahead - I wouldn’t want to do it in a cubicle without access to a sink. Worse than a tampon.
General wear though - 10. When I got the knack of putting it in and trimmed the stalk, I genuinely would not know it was in. Massive advantage over tampons - I can find the string irritates me.
A: Fitting/ removing moon cup? 7 find the ring quite hard. Same for tampon? 6 - feels very dry. Mooncup for general wear? 7 - can move about. Tampon? 8 can rarely feel it unless it’s saturated.
A: Comfort - on fitting and removing, it's a bit trickier than a tampon. You have to experiment with the way you fold it to insert (I use a C shape), then you run a finger around the outside to ensure it's all unfolded and has a suction-finish. It sounds scarier than it is! Removal is also a little trickier than a tampon, you have to break the seal (usually just by squeezing the cup or pinching the base) and then remove... I find I have to use two hands, which again sounds scarier than it is! One hand to pinch and break the seal, the other to pull on the stem. You can't pull on the stem alone, it won't come out. When learning how to remove there are a few moments of panic, thinking it's stuck but you can generally get there by relaxing, taking a deep breath and trying again. It's not painful at all. This is all done while squatting in the shower or bathroom. Just something to consider. A bit like scuba diving or hot yoga, it sounds more difficult than it actually is and once you're doing it you'll wonder what you were worried about. Once it's in I find I don't notice it... plus you won't be changing it for 12 hours so you really won't notice it compared with changing a tampon every four hours!
S: For fitting/ removing, I would give it a 7. It is a skill that you need to develop. To be honest that can be messy at times and you need to do a double check before you leave the bathroom. The benefits that the cup bring me make this more than worthwhile. Tampon I would give at nine without applicator and 10 with applicator- this really relates to the amount of mess made on your fingers and the surrounding area.
I would give cups a 10 for general wear because once it's in you can go and do anything!
I would give a tampon 5 for general wear – they need changed much more regularly and I cannot swim or do watersports in them as easily. They also make way too much waste.
L: For me, I find tampons hit or miss in that they can work really well, or be seriously uncomfortable. The cup is more uncomfortable for removal for me. But for fitting and general wear, the cup wins because if it isn’t sitting quite right I can “re-do” without too much hassle.
Q4: “You get used to it”… What does this mean? Do we dedicate a day around the house to getting used to it?
C: Maybe an afternoon around the house. You need to be relaxed and have plenty of time (and perhaps be a glass of wine down) to put it in the first time. Then you’ll be feeling paranoid because you don’t trust it yet and if you haven’t got it quite right it can leak - so a back up pad might be a good idea. And it’s handy to be in your own bathroom in case of dropping the cup/splashes But then you get more confident and you’re flying.
A: Might need to experiment with different positions to get the most comfortable one for you. Might need to trim the stem of it too.
H: The only bit to get used to is putting it in and out, really. It’s fiddly! But it’s second nature pretty soon - and doesn’t have that horrible dry scrapy feeling of a tampon! The first day I wore one, I went swimming. No need to do anything different.
A: I got used to it by trying it in the evening and wearing around the house that night and sleeping with it in. No issues.
S: The part that you need to get used to when using a cup is inserting and removing. Once it is then you can go about your normal day for around six hours. You will not feel the cup. I sometimes wear a thin NatureCare pantiliner for spotting which can happen depending on how well you have fitted it and how full your period is.
L: I’m still learning, but I certainly didn’t have to sit at home – can get out, about and active (even watersports) straight away, with back up pad/pants (training wheels?!)
Q5: Mess. I can’t get my head around removal. Have you been brave enough to remove and replace while out and about?
A: I've never had to change mine while out and about but they recommend you use an accessible toilet with sink in the cubicle if possible. You can just empty into the toilet. I don't even think you need to rinse in the sink but you can if you want.
C: Mess. Yes, this can be an issue. Warning - sometimes you empty it out and a puddle of blood stays at the bottom of the loo after flushing. It makes reinsertion much easier if the cup is wet, so yes, I frequently did change when out and about (although I felt safe going for 8 hours with it) but I would endeavour only to do so in cubicles with sinks. But I’ve managed just fine in a normal cubicle too.
H: You just need to have a sink where you are, therefore not all public toilets are suitable. I think I once had to use a water bottle to rinse because I couldn’t find a toilet with a sink.
A: Absolutely. Maybe weird but I like being in touch with my body that way. It’s not dirty, it’s life sustaining stuff and doesn’t smell bad. I would take it out in a bathroom cubicle, empty it, give it a wipe with toilet roll and pop back in. If I was in a cubicle with a sink, I’d give it a rinse too.
S: I insert and remove over the toilet. I think there are some cups that give you a cleaning option as a carry case but I do not have one of those yet. It's possible you have a sink right next to you then you can clean it out and re-insert. If there is not a sink handy then you can use tissue to clean it out. If this is the case it is also handy to have some wet wipes for your fingers.
Mostly, depending on flow, I can insert it before work & empty it after work. I prefer to do this in the comfort of my own home if possible. I avoid doing it in public toilets or anywhere that doesn't feel that clean – that is a personal choice I suppose! I have even had to do it when I was hiking in Glencoe! I used tissues to clean it out which I took home with me.
If you are thinking about a cup it would be better to have experience using a tampon so that you know that angle and are confident and inserting and removal
L: Absolutely nowhere near the horror-movie mess I’d feared.
Q6: Do you think your flow affects use? For our heavy/light ladies, would this change your recommendations?
C: Flow. Hmm. It has a massive capacity, so I know of many ladies with heavier flow who swear by it - but if you do have heavier flow, you do have to change it out and about more, and so deal with that. Light ish flow it’s brilliant for - when I was on the pill I loved it because I would need to change it three times a day for hygiene reasons, at times and places that suited me. Very light flow might not be worth the hassle!
H: Not sure. I don’t think my flow is particularly heavy, so it may be that some people have to empty theirs more frequently, which might get annoying.
A: I have quite heavy periods so I prefer the cup to other “sanitary protection”.
S: It is interesting seeing what actually comes out of your body, I guess blood doesn't really bother me and it is an amazing natural process. If you have a heavy period you may need to change your cup slightly more regularly and wear and environmentally friendly pantiliner to catch spotting. On a heavy period I would only need to use one pantiliner.
L: I’ll keep using a mix of solutions; the cup can feel like overkill on lighter days.
C: On balance I think I will go back to it - but if someone invented magical tampons that didn’t chafe and weren’t going to landfill/the sea, I’d prefer those! Does that help at all? Happy to answer any follow ups and hope you weren’t eating lunch!
S: To summarise I would say if you're an active person who is interested in reducing your personal waste then I would recommend a cup. It has really changed my ability and confidence in taking part in many sports and outdoor activities. It's helped me in my job (which involves long stints outside), but understanding my body and aligning with my personal environmental and social values.
Anon: On a side note. I’ve found the cup really useful for conceiving too! Both my babies were brought into being with the help of a cup... I struggled for 6 months to conceive my son and changed my diet etc, used a cup and I’m sure it helped. My baby girl was also conceived with this method!
With massive thanks to our Lil ladies for their openness and support xx L&S