This post is for women. Men: skip this one unless you are a doctor or a widower dad with a daughter. Seriously! I’m going to talk about menstruation and stuff and this is just not for you.
For some reason I have no trouble talking about fecal transplants and how many times I’ve contracted pinworms in my life, but when it comes to menstruation I still feel a powerful and shameful urge to keep quiet. Well here I am, working through it, because it’s time to talk about how different today’s sanitary pads and tampons are from the ones we grew up with. And it’s not like I grew up in a Little House on the Prairie; I grew up in the 80s.
LET’S GET TO IT THEN
I was one of those people who started using OB cotton tampons during my very first menstrual cycle. I liked the limited packaging, the small amount of waste, and the suggestion that they were 100% cotton, and I feel like they advertised in Ms Magazine and Mother Jones, which was cool. I also disliked the bulkiness and imagined mess of using sanitary pads, so I mainly avoided them. In addition, in 2000 I learned from a New Yorker article how to “skip” my period altogether by taking a series of low-dose birth control pills “straight through” for three months at a time, so that I only had to menstruate about 4 times a year instead of 12. By gaming the system this way, I potentially caused some long term issues but also potentially reduced my risk of breast and ovarian cancer by limiting the circulating estrogen and other hormonal surges that accompany menses. But that’s a lot of theory, and not something I would recommend again to anyone, ever (though it was super duper convenient). There are so many more complications with using the birth control pill that we now know about, but this post is not about the pill. The 90s and 2000s were a time when we were really excited about the convenience of prescriptions that could cure every perceived illness, discomfort or anxiety. This decade we supposedly know better.
SOME BIG MOTHERS
The thing is, you can’t go your whole life without sanitary pads. If you have a baby or sadly a miscarriage, you are going to need them for like a month afterwards. And not just regular ones, you are going to need some big mothers. In addition, when you are over 35, your Chinese fertility doctor is going to urge you not to use tampons anymore for one of those abstract reasons like that it blocks your chi. But on another level he might be worried about the dioxins and plasticizers in tampons now, and doesn’t want those things all up in your sensitive and permeable membranes interfering with your hormones and fertility.
I FEEL FOR TEENAGERS TODAY
Because I only ever used the mostly cotton OB tampons or the Natracare 100% organic cotton variety, I never had any issues. But a quick internet search will show you that teenagers today are freaking out over dry, peeling skin both inside their vaginal canal and on the labia. When they go to the doctor, they are told they just have sensitive skin and need to remember to rinse off their body wash better. Basically they are told they are stupid and should be ashamed of themselves. Doctors aren’t thinking about what is in these super engineered tampons these days – mainly, materials that are chemically manufactured to wick moisture away at any cost. Not just the “moisture” of menstruation, but all of it.
And so a lot of these girls give up on tampons and go back to menstrual pads with the same results. In particular, the Always brand menstrual pads are so highly engineered with moisture-wicking properties and an absorbent petrochemical gel interior that they can effectively suck the moisture out of your delicate skin until it is as dry and papery as an onion skin and peels off the same way. This peeling happens not just because the skin is dry, but also because it is reacting to the intensity of chemicals, plasticizers, and dioxins and so “sheds” the exterior skin to protect its deeper layers. This is a chemical burn.
TALKING TO THE INTERNET INSTEAD OF OUR MOMS
It’s just the way of the world now that it is faster, more convenient and less embarrassing to ask the internet or Siri about our body issues instead of our moms or doctors. So that’s what teenagers are doing. Back in my day, we saved embarrassment by consulting our worn copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. But because products are changing at an alarming rate, problems are changing. You might actually get more relevant answers from the internet than from your mom. Sanitary pads and tampons used to be made of cotton and were generally benign. Not so anymore, and your mom and your doctor might not realize how much these products have changed.
The brightest, shiniest products in the feminine care aisle that are being marketed to our daughters (and ourselves) are the ones most likely to leave us with chemical burns. There is no reason for a teenager to complain of peeling skin and vaginal dryness during and right after their menstruation, and it is downright horrifying that teenagers today think that chemical burns and dryness are just part of their monthly period.
If you’re not convinced, why don’t you take an Always sanitary pad and put it against the inside skin of your mouth for 2 hours. Not only will you absorb dioxins, plasticizers and petrochemicals through your permeable mouth membrane, but the skin will dry up and peel a few days later. If it sounds unappealing to put these engineered products in your mouth, then don’t put them in or near your freaking vagina.
BUT I CAN’T RETIRE TO A HUT FOR THE WEEK
The alternative is using the $30 Diva Cup or similar product. It is a flexible silicone “cup” that you insert in the morning and remove at night (and then reinsert at night and remove in the morning if you want). Unlike tampons, there is no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. There is also no waste, no burden on your pipes, nothing to throw away at all. You just wash the cup and buy a new one every ten years.
You will be required to have a familiarity with your vaginal region and its canal. It’s the total opposite of those applicator tampons that come with a disposable ten foot pole so that you can essentially close your eyes and pretend the tampon is not really going inside of you.
But even with a silicone cup, you are going to need some kind of backup barrier. Natracare makes organic cotton menstrual pads and panty liners, which are fine. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the ingredients in tampons and sanitary napkins, so be wary. Opt for an organic or at least 100% cotton claim if it’s going to be against your membranes or inside you. Again, if you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it in your underwear either.
It might also be time to check out the reusable menstrual pad arena: Lunapads, GladRags etc. There is also a whole contingent on Etsy making these for your comfort and convenience. Why not support a person instead of a multinational?
After taking all this in, it might also be time to consider how different today’s diapers are from the ones we grew up with. Again, diaper manufacturers are not required to disclose the petrochemicals, dioxins, plasticizers and hormone disrupters that they make their huggy pampering portable toilets out of. If you’re going to use disposable diapers, use ones that are organic or at least suggested to be cotton against the skin. Don’t use anything with those super-absorbant petrochemical gels inside them. You could also try using the hybrid diapers that have cloth bases and flushable or disposable inserts made of fully biodegradable (and disclosed) ingredients. My favorite was the gDiaper system.
Hopefully by the time I am old and infirm there will be a great hybrid adult diaper too. Here’s to dreaming big.
Article on the hazardous chemicals in feminine care products, so you know I didn’t just make this up