Menstruating environmentally friendly. This includes thinking about how many tampons and pads you throw away during your lifetime (What? That many?). What these products are made of (Really? Wow). Why tampon manufacturers aren’t required to include a list of ingredients (Oh?). And if there are any greener or healthier alternatives? (Spoiler: yes, there are).
All interesting questions if you want to reduce your environmental footprint. Or if you want to spend less money on periods. Because menstruating around 40 years of your life, which comes to 6.8 years of using tampons or pads in a row, really adds up. However, up until recently this issue hasn’t really been raised. And when, it’s been met with bored looks and a lot of yawning. The average woman throws away around 13.000 sanitary products during her lifetime? Yeah, so what? Or: all this menstruating is already causing me cramps and pain every month; should I now also feel guilty about the impact my monthly bleeding has on the environment? No. Yes. It’s up to you. But it is something that’s worth thinking about.
No ingredient list needed
Critical menstruation management is rising on the agenda. Especially in the USA, where there’s been a lot of criticism about the fact that manufacturers of menstrual products aren’t required to include a list of ingredients. That’s because the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies these products as ‘medical devices’ instead of ‘cosmetics’. Although the FDA recommends providing general information regarding the material composition on the label, such as whether tampons are made of rayon or cotton, the classification as medical devices basically means the exact composition of tampons or pads can be kept secret.
This secrecy is slowly changing though: in 2019, a bill was introduced in the state of New York which requires each package or box of menstrual products sold in New York State to contain an ingredient list. This list should be plain and conspicuous printed and include all ingredients with percentages of the components of the products. The bill has since been signed by the governor and has thus become law in New York. Only 49 more states to go… Last June Thailand has officially reclassified tampons as cosmetics in order to skip the tampon tax. This means that menstrual products now fall under stronger quality control and regulations.
In the UK, manufacturers of feminine hygiene products, disposable nappies and continence care products are represented by AHPMA. This trade association advises manufacturers ‘to include brief details of the absorbent materials used in the manufacture of the product’ on the accompanying leaflet, as can be read in their 2017 Tampon Code of Practice. Not very useful when shopping for tampons, as this leaflet is kept inside the box. AHPMA’s Code of Practice, by the way, is completely voluntary. For the whole of Europe, there is also a voluntary Tampon code of Practice. This document by EDANA (the international association serving the nonwovens and related industries) doesn’t mention anything at all about disclosure of ingredients on the packaging or accompanying leaflet…
Plastic in product. But is it oil-based or bioplastic?
Listing all ingredients on the packaging isn’t just beneficial for your own health. It’s also good for Mother Earth. Disposable sanitary products are one of the worst polluters of the environment. Some sanitary pads contain up to 90% plastic. And we use lots of them, every month again. Zero Waste Europe has calculated how many single-use menstrual products were used in Europe in 2017: more than 49 billion. Together, these products generate over 590,000 tonnes of waste annually. Logical that the worldwide #plasticfreeperiod movement has been on the rise. Its goal: to force manufacturers and politicians into environmental action.
A great plan, but with some unintended results. Because since July 2021, new EU restrictions dictate marking specifications for single-use plastic products (SUPs) such as disposable sanitary towels, tampons and applicators. It’s now mandatory for these products to bear a ‘Plastic in Product’ marking, either on the packaging or the product itself. Eco-brands who don’t use compostable and renewable materials to make their single-use pads aren’t happy about the law. That’s because the new logo is also mandatory for products that don’t contain any oil-based plastics, but are made from bioplastic.
Yes, you read that correctly. Unlike petroleum-based plastic, bioplastic is fully compostable, hence why these brands, that are now being forced to display the ‘Plastic in Product’ logo, often carry the words ‘Plastic Free’. Confusing, isn’t it? Seems like the pictogram below doesn’t really help those who want to menstruate plastic-free.
Apart from the mandatory ‘Plastic in Product’ pictogram, manufacturers are obliged to inform their consumers about the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) and to show the Syngina absorbency range on their packaging, displayed by droplet symbols. The more droplets, the more blood the product can absorb. However, this absorbency classification can also cause confusion, as was shown in a quiz recently held by Period! Magazine. The question ‘Does choosing a sanitary product with a higher absorbency level mean you need to change it less regularly?’ was answered with ‘Yes’ by a third of the contestants. This is, obviously, the wrong answer. Sanitary pads and tampons should be changed regularly, not just to prevent leakage stains. And definitely not because less changing leads to using less disposable products which would be better for the environment (sic).
Green menstruating – whether done for the environment or for health reasons – is en vogue. Period! Magazine’s mailbox has been overflowing with requests from all over the world, asking for attention for new and hip menstrual products or crowdfunding campaigns for those products. Green menstruating is done by choosing tampons or pads made of certified cotton or reusable products such as menstrual cups, washable tampons, washable sanitary towels or sea sponges. But exactly how hip is this hype?
The answer is a bit disappointing. The biological cotton sanitary pads and tampons that are currently launched as ground-breaking and innovative have already been for sale for decades, mostly in ecological health stores. Up until now, the majority of women only bought these menstrual products if they had no other option. Because regular products caused itchiness or rashes, or because their gynaecologist advised a change, for example because they’re carrying the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer. By the way: no epidemiological study has ever proved a link between using regular menstrual products and gynaecological cancer.
What is new, is that these products nowadays can be found in the supermarket aisles. A break in the trend, because up until recently, this space was taken up by the few companies that have been dominating the western menstruation market for decades. Multinationals that weren’t too happy with the new competition, as British environmentalist Susie Hewson found out when launching Natracare, the world’s first certified organic sanitary towel brand, back in 1989. Achieving her goal of making an alternative to regular menstrual products that was free from plastics, toxins and animal testing, wasn’t easy. According to Hewson, 16 lawsuits were filed against her. She won them all, paving the way for other green players on this market.
Sanitary pads and tampons made of biological certified cotton, that are biodegradable because the anti-leaking layer is made of for example maize instead of plastics, are already a huge step into the right direction. Especially the plastics are a big problem for the environment, as is shown in various studies (and can be seen in the plastic soup that’s floating in our oceans). Unfortunately, these biological products also have a small disadvantage. Just like the biologic apples in the eco-store sometimes look less ‘healthy’, with bumps and spots, also the eco-friendly menstrual products aren’t as pristine white as their regular counterparts. Often the adhesive layer isn’t as sticky, they don’t smell as nice, and the absorbency level is lower. That’s because artificial additions are needed for sanitary pads with fragrance or for super absorbing tampons. Like rayon (viscose). The more rayon, the higher the absorbency.
New! From 1937…
The second disadvantage of disposable menstrual products is logical: you throw them away after using. This increases your ecological footprint; for every use you need new products which need to be produced as well as distributed. That’s why it’s more sustainable to use a reusable product. Like a menstrual cup. This isn’t a new invention. Quite the opposite: the first usable commercial cup, made from latex rubber, was already patented in 1937. However, it took quite some time for menstrual cups to go mainstream. Only in the last few decades, they’ve become quite popular in the UK, Canada, Australia and the USA.
The huge advantage of a cup: you only need one, which will last up to 15 years if you take care of it. On environmental level there’s also a concern though: you need water to clean it. Using a lot of warm water every time you rinse out the cup also burdens the environment. Therefore, washable sanitary towels could, in theory, be an even greener choice. They are soaked in cold water before they’re thrown in the energy-saving washing machine. Saying for sure what’s the most eco-friendly option is almost impossible, as there are so many variables to take into account.
Chamomile flowers & cotton plants
The menstruation market is currently being overflowed by new brands and products. However, it’s unclear what materials many of them are made of. So how to find the right one? By looking out for quality labels? Yes. No. A tricky one. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of symbols, hallmarks and quality labels. Plus, these labels can differ from country to country. Therefore we won’t give you a list of quality labels to look out for. However, we will give you an advice: be critical. An image of a chamomile flower or a cotton plant on the packaging doesn’t automatically mean the product is awesome for the environment. Check the writing on the packaging and the website of the manufacturer or producer. Are the ingredients listed anywhere? What is the product, but also the packaging, made of? And, if you care about others: under what circumstances has the product been made? Has it been tested on animals?
Also important: is this product really worth its price? A few years ago, the Dutch television programme Keuringsdienst van Waarde managed to get a quote from one of the participants of the triennial sanitary pad convention in Geneva about the cost-price of a sanitary pad: somewhere between 0.6 and 0.06 euro cents. ‘The rest is marketing.’ Same goes for green menstrual products: you’re still buying a story. However, it’s a greener story. Now we just need some good green marking specifications.
LAST UPDATE: JULY 25, 2021.