Q: I've recently started making some little ecologically positive changes in my life. Right now I'm contemplating a pretty big change, though: to eco-friendly menstrual products.
I know about the dioxin and bleach in rayon tampons, and I really don't want to put that stuff inside my body anymore. I've seen the organic cotton tampons, but they're twice the cost of a box of Tampax and I already resent having to pay that much every month. I know about menstrual cups, but haven't tried them. Before I buy, is there anything I should know about products or usability? Is one product better than another?
-- Aunt Ruby
A: Preach it, sister!
The average woman uses more than 12,000 tampons or pads in her lifetime. Multiply that by the millions of menstruating women in the world and you've got more than 12 billion tampons and pads clogging sewer lines, choking landfills and washing up on beaches every year. The convenience of one-stop shopping at Target is hardly a priority when you consider the havoc that disposable products are wreaking on our once-pristine environment.
Then there's your pristine body. The vagina and its opening are your most delicate parts, and using chlorine-bleached products made from God knows what -- FDA regulations? Ha! -- means absorbing these toxic additives through the tissue and into the body. I'll take "external irritation, Toxic Shock Syndrome and carcinogens" for $4, Alex!
If you prefer maxi-pads but don't particularly enjoy the sensation of wearing a damp diaper, you might like a washable cloth version. Pleasure Puss offers a natural fabric maxi-pad with all the accoutrements of Kotex but without the uncomfortable sticky adhesives and plastics that irritate your skin and don't break down in landfills. The pads are machine-washable and -dryable. Downside: They do require soaking before laundering, which can create uncomfortable bathroom scenes if you share a dwelling. ($49.95 for three to five years of use, www. pleasurepuss.com.)
Menstrual cups are another alternative. The Moon Cup is a bell-shaped device made from soft, medical-grade silicone that's inserted and positioned over the cervix, where it collects your menstrual flow for up to 12 hours. According to the website's Q&A, it takes all of one day to fully master this suction-reliant insertion technique. Downside: Penetrative sex is a no-go with the cup. ($35 for eight to 10 years, www.keeper.com.)
Which brings me to -- what else? -- ocean phyla. The Sea Pearls tampon is a specially shaped, sustainably harvested sea sponge. It goes in like an applicator-free tampon, but is more comfortable because of its naturally soft, squishy texture. (Bonus: Since it feels a lot like your vaginal walls and has great absorbency, you can enjoy mess-free sex during your period.) The reusable sponge is rinsed, squeezed and reinserted every four to six hours, and can be disinfected anytime with a baking-soda bath. Also, a lot of women rave about miraculously diminished cramps and vaginal discomfort upon switching to the sponge. Downside: The sponges were once living creatures so, ethically, they're not for everyone. ($9.95 for six to 12 months, www.jadeandpearl.com.)
All of the above do require carrying a leak-proof pouch in your purse or, at the very least, a little discretion in public restrooms. The Web vendors I've listed offer pouches, but you can also find waterproof makeup bags at department and travel stores.
If all the rinsing and re-using is just too squicky for you, then organic cotton tampons are probably best. Even if you are throwing out 250-plus pounds of them over your lifetime, at least you're not voluntarily absorbing any known toxins or sending thousands of maxi pads out to sea. They've gotten a little cheaper over the past couple years, too. Downside: They still absorb your vagina's mucosa, which provides a natural barrier against the tissue damage that's strongly linked to TSS. (Seventh Generation, $6 per month, www.drugstore.com.)