Once upon a time it was a choice between tampons and pads, while mooncups were for hippies. Now, there’s a smorgasbord of eco-conscious period products. But are they any good?
The phrase spoiled for choice has negative connotations but when it comes to women’s reproductive health, we’ve bloody earned it.
The first mass market sanitary towel was unveiled by Kotex in 1921 and the first applicator tampon in the early 1930s, and while we’ve thankfully seen cardboard applicators move to the eminently more comfortable plastics – and belted pads the size of mattresses transformed to winged wafers – menstrual products have barely changed in a century. That’s a lot of landfill.
More than a quarter of the population are of reproductive age and binning one-hundred billion period products globally each year, the vast majority of which are single use and non-recyclable. Pads comprise around 90 per cent of plastic content, while one tampon will take longer to decompose than the average woman’s lifespan.
Filling the niche for more environmentally friendly products, biodegradable organic cotton tampons started appearing and, about five years ago, rumours trickled across the Atlantic, of “magic period knickers”; mythical briefs capable of absorbing up to four tampons’ worth of blood. And then news of a reusable, antibacterial tampon applicator and, more recently, tampons impregnated with pain-busting CBD oil.
These vanguards started launching during my fourth decade and for that I am very grateful, since my flow has gotten increasingly problematic in middle age. In fact it was as if someone literally pressed a button on my 40th birthday, imprinted with the words “HEAVIER, MORE PAINFUL & ERRATIC PERIODS FROM THIS DAY FORTH”.
When once they appeared like clockwork every 28 days, they can now be up to four days early or four days late. Never mind the upsurge in pain, this plays havoc on your underwear, with unexpected spotting making disposable pantyliners a convenient solution. But I was determined to smarten up my sustainability act and started asking around for personal recommendations. None of my peers had tried period knickers yet – and mooncups were, and remain, moot.
Only until around a decade ago, the humble mooncup remained synonymous with braless, Henna-haired nymphs, who collected crystals like they collected cats, dabbled in Wicca and Eastern mysticism, knitted their own yogurt and left a cloud of patchouli in their wake, attributes of which have since become mainstream – and handsomely repackaged on Goop.
Yes, mooncups are reusable and long-lasting and therefore put a full-stop to creating any more landfill. But I needed something less complicated. Getting them in and out can be a messy, awkward business, requiring considerable trial and error (we’ve all heard Caitlin Moran’s hilarious/hideous anecdote, right?), and also cost, while shopping around trying to find the best fit.
That they should be emptied every four to six hours means that unless every public toilet cubicle you’re planning on visiting throughout the day has its own sink, you’re expected to clean the thing in full view of other people, which is neither nice or sanitary.
There is also a growing, almost militant element among some mooncup users that’s not dissimilar to those most ardent of vegans who use social media to scold other people for not being as self-righteous as they are, dismissing entire swathes of women who simply cannot use insertable products, perhaps for reasons of disability, a history of sexual abuse or vaginismus.
I was also turned off by the idea of reusable, press-stud pantyliners, which if consumer reviews are to go by, rarely hold their position. Not only that, I just want to feel less… buttressed.
And so I chose menstrual knickers and sustainable tampons as my weapons of choice, which I review below, counting myself very lucky I’ve the means to try them all out. Period poverty isn’t a soundbite but a real-life catastrophe for girls and women living below the breadline.
In 2018, a survey by Plan International Ireland revealed that 50 per cent of schoolgirls struggled to afford sanitary products and pain relief, and 61 per cent missed school (88 per cent feeling less able to concentrate in class). That Ireland’s menstrual products are exempt from the so-called luxury tax, unlike most other countries, is some, if small, comfort.
Any innovation means investment, which means higher costs for the consumer. However, as we see more smaller-scale, socially conscious industry disruptors take on the market leaders, sustainable products will become competitively priced over time.
With more choice becomes more bandwagonry, of course, and there’ll be unscrupulous entrepreneurs trying to cash in by peddling substandard copycats, at best, and fraudulent ones at worst, as they all clammer to be the eco-hero product du jour. But, like with all product design, there’ll be a baseline at which you get what you pay for and anything cheaper will be dismissed, never to be bought again.
All of the brands reviewed here support female-focused educational partners, charities, community groups and/or social enterprises, which you can read about on their respective websites, ditto about their fair trade manufacturing practices.
Every single woman deserves only the best menstrual solutions, not just the white, middle-class first-world masses with disposable incomes. In some developing countries, untouched even by disposable products, women are still managing their periods with old rags, powdered animal dung and handmade goatskin pads. For wealthier countries – even those that struggle with period poverty – this is nothing less than diabolical in the 21st century.
Here are my personal-best tried and tested products that will hopefully become even more affordable for the entire world as the marketplace becomes ever more competitive. All revolutions start somewhere and this only the beginning of reproductive-health helpers. Better late than never...
Thinx was one of the early pioneers of period “panties” (ew), an American company employing patented high-tech textiles to soak up flow, wick moisture and neutralise odour.
Along with slick marketing campaigns, fawning bloggers and a ubiquitous social media presence, it all sounded too good to be true. And yet when I saw their organic cotton pairs at a Boots store in London last year, I bought two… And have never looked back.
To describe them as transformative is no hyperbole; they’ve genuinely improved my menstrual health, and I now have four pairs on rotation.
The results of which are a dense, stretchy and soft fabric – sturdier than a pair of regular knickers but not as forbidding as control pants. The absorptive gusset is wide at the back, but not heavily re-enforced (unlike Flux; see review below), so they otherwise look and feel like normal briefs.
When I first put them on I had the lowest expectations. I couldn’t fathom how such a regular seeming fabric could absorb around two tampon’s worth of blood without leaking, humming or feeling clammy.
But they totally worked. And 18 months and a zillion washes later, they still work. I’ll wear a pair for around eight hours before rinsing and putting on a clear pair, which will get me through the night, and so the cycle continues for the duration of each period.
After each use you must wash the knickers under cool water as soon as you can – never hot, otherwise it’ll create deep staining and degrade the fabric and thus its efficacy – until it runs 100 per cent clear, then dry overnight. I hang mine in the hot press or, in winter, pop them on the radiator.
I’m now using only magic knickers because they are like sorcery even though it’s really science
On the obnoxiously heavy days I might double up with a tampon, not because of a fear of leaking – which has never happened – but more for hygiene reasons: I wouldn’t choose to sit in a cradle of absorbed blood any more than I’d wear the same tampon or pad for a full day. But for 95 per cent of my periods (see Daye, below, for a potentially new regime), I’m using only the magic knickers because they are like sorcery even though it’s really science.
Knickers start at around €33 for a single pair at their website, while multiple sets offer better value (because you will need no less than three pairs for optimum rotation). However they add on a whopping €18.65 for Irish P&P so you might want to buy from Boots.
Menstrual pants, if you look after them properly, are expected to last around 2.5 years, so cost per wear is... well, you do the maths.
While I love Thinx, I did wonder if there might be similar brands closer to home. I found Flux online, a British brand that outsources 70 per cent of its manufacturing to China, and the rest within the UK, each one ISO and BSCI approved.
But when I first took them out the packet, I was disappointed. Compared to the lightweight Thinx, the gusset is considerably padded – perhaps reassuringly so, for period-knicker virgins. After having experienced the heft-free Thinx, though, I regretted buying them.
However, their super-soft fabric and pretty lace trim go a long way to offsetting the comparative bulk: a slinky, stretchy eco-friendly TENCEL modal fabric that feels incredibly comfy on and is also OEKO-Tex certified, meaning its safe on your skin.
Because they’re so soft and you don’t notice the galvanised gusset when you’re asleep, they’ve become my favourite nighttime pant for heavier days
Flux come in an array of styles, colours and absorbencies, and there’s even an ‘easy-change’ version with side clasps, for those with mobility issues, or for ease on long flights (although the choice of stuffing bloodied knickers back into your hand luggage or bringing back a sopping pair of rinsed ones to your seat wouldn’t be ideal).
Because they’re so soft and you don’t notice the galvanised gusset when you’re asleep, they’ve become my favourite nighttime pant for heavier days. EU P&P is €4.95, with free delivery for orders above €50, while building a set of four will see discounts per pair. As such, if Flux were to slimline the gussets to those of Thinx, I would likely swap my allegiance.
But what if you want to wear swimwear or simply have the freedom of wearing your own drawers?
Long before the Thinx ad lured me in, I was one of 5,000 donors in 53 countries who invested in a crowdfunded campaign for the world’s first reusable applicator by the British company DAME – such an obvious idea and yet no one had tried it. Three years on and they’re now available in major supermarkets and pharmacies, including Ireland.
This Kickstarter success story began when some 95 per cent of its future customers were using tampons with throw-away, plastic applicators. DAME’s founders created a smarter alternative: an antimicrobial, toxin-free, medical-grade long-life device, the results of which would be a three-petal-tipped applicator that’s smooth as silk.
The launch design wasn’t without its problems, though. I was one of many customers who struggled to dispense the tampon properly – I could never get it high enough or else the string would snag between the two separate pieces. I’d believed this product to be the great green hope so was crestfallen that I couldn’t seem to “work” it properly and sullenly consigned it to the back of a drawer. Was it me being hopeless (or, worse, anatomically quirky), or was it subpar design?
Turns out it was the latter and, thankfully DAME used every bit of feedback to create a new and improved version: a longer length applicator with extended petals, to easier eject the tampons. Result!
That, when combined with DAME’s 100 per cent organic, fully biodegradable, chemical-and additive-free tampons (processed rayon and viscose can shed fibres, which you really don’t want hanging around your vagina), means you can have an entirely plastic-free period.
There’s also a subscription service for DAME tampons that you can skip/cancel at any point, and also tailor to your flow
The starter pack arrives in a handsome storage tin containing the reusable applicator, six tampons and a small, zipped pouch, which is ideal for handbags or pockets. After each use, rinse the D under the tap and either leave to air-dry or wipe with a tissue or towel, before storing in the zip wallet. Simple as, and it should last at least a decade.
A box of 14 organic applicator-free tampons costs €3.90, with the choice of regular, super and super plus.
There’s also a subscription service for DAME tampons that you can skip/cancel at any point, and also tailor to your flow, ie 17 regular and 17 super, all regular, all super or throw in some super plus. The bad news is it’s only available to UK customers… so if you haven’t yet registered for AddressPal, maybe now’s the time. Each delivery contains 34 non-applicator tampons which, depending on your usage, should last between two and three months.
Buy the Reusable Applicator set online and, at the time of writing, get 50 per cent off the first two subscription boxes. Again, it’s applicable to UK-address holders only, so get-set with AddressPal or else stock up at your local Boots.
And just when I thought I’d dismissed CBD oil as snake oil… Daye entered my field of vision, which is another pioneering tampon brand.
Prone to insomnia, I’d tried CBD aural drops in the hope they’d send me off to a blissful slumber. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it did diddly-squat, since no one in the entire world has yet been able to agree on a recommended dosage or even its safety and efficacy. So while scientists and quacks continue to argue over the potential health benefits of a hemp derivative, Daye was busy putting in its own research.
To the uninitiated, CBD is a cannabinoid, a molecule derived from the hemp plant. Our bodies produce similar molecules, known as endocannabinoids, which are responsible for coordinating pain relief and reducing inflammation – and the vaginal canal boasts the body’s highest concentration of endocannabinoid receptors.
Daye, a British startup, enlisted the combined help, research and clinical trials of the Center for Applied Science and Innovation at the Sofia Medical University, the Institute for Medical Research, Liverpool Women’s Hospital, and also Louise Kenny, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Liverpool University, to put their CBD oil infused tampons to the test.
I chose seven CBD regular and five CBD super, which arrived in a lavishly designed box – made from recycled, and recyclable, cardboard, natch
The bad news – again – is that Daye don’t yet ship outside the UK (although they are working on it) so you’ll need to set up that AddressPal account in Ireland if you want to give their products a whirl. Whirl I did, buying a subscription box that you can modify, skip or cancel at any point.
There are sets of 12 or 18, including “naked” tampons that are CBD-free, but I chose seven CBD regular and five CBD super, which arrived in a lavishly designed box – made from recycled, and recyclable, cardboard, natch – with a beautiful carry tin that can hold three at a time, and a compostable refill pouch.
Applicators are made from a recyclable sugarcane derivative – a fully biodegradable version is currently in development – while the 100 per cent organic and nasties-free tampons and individual wrappers are biodegradable. All are made in a CO2-neutral facility in South London, produced by women who were once within the criminal and care system.
Sleek and ergonomic, the fully loaded Daye applicators are more slimline than the DAME, which makes for easier insertion – with the exception of the super size tampons, which kept getting stuck in the applicator. (I sent Daye an email, in case there was a dodgy batch – or simply me being a klutz – and they’re kindly looking into it and sending a replacement).
But the million dollar question is: Did the CBD oil reduce the cramping pain? It’s difficult to say categorically after one period, but I think so. To really put them to the test I forsook my prescription painkillers – but when the going got really tough, they couldn’t touch the powers of Ponstan.
By the end of my period, however, I had taken much less painkillers than normal, hence I’m continuing with my subscription plan, modifying the next delivery to an 18-piece set of regular size CBD tampons. Based on my first trial, I’m hoping they’ll offer relief for up to four periods, on the heaviest days per month, saving me considerable money on prescription meds (mefanamic acid around €13 and tranexamic acid €20 for each and every period).
If they continue to make my future periods more tolerable as a result, I’ll hope that Daye might consider selling them applicator-free, so I could combine them with my DAME and magic knickers. Less pain, less spend and less single-use waste all round, then.
I’d been following the Scottish social enterprise, Hey Girls, on social media for several months and liked the cut of their gib.
A family run outfit based in Leith, Hey Girls’ mission was to create leak, chlorine and leak-free environmentally products that tackle period poverty by pouring all profits from their Buy One Give One products to help girls and women in need.
They’ve done exactly that, their range including reusable pads, mooncups and organic tampons (including those with bio-based sugarcane applicators, as per Daye). There’s even a “Pads4Dads” kit – its ad campaign fronted by Welsh actor Michael Sheen, no less, who has a daughter with Kate Beckinsale – aimed at removing the gendered stigma surrounding periods, when perhaps there are no female relatives around to ask.
They looked ideal for those lighter, spottier, less bloated days, when you feel less like wearing a smock
For myself, I was most interested in their period knickers, which are considerably cheaper than Thinx and Flux, and ordered the lace bikini brief, for its attractive scalloped edge. They seemed ideal for those lighter, spottier, less bloated days, when you feel less like wearing a smock and getting changed in the dark.
Alternatively, they could be useful for doubling up with a tampon on those less pained days, protecting your regular knickers from a bloodied string. FYI the gusset is slightly thicker than Thinx’s but thinner than Flux’s.
As with everything in this round-up, Hey Girls used eco-friendly products and packaging (a combo of sustainably sourced, biodegradable and water soluble), and their are subscription services for tampons and pads.
Sadly, the lace briefs were smaller sized than their Thinx and Flux counterparts, which means I should’ve ordered a large (which is surprising, as I’m a dress size 10). I emailed them about an exchange, and they recommended sizing up in that particular size so hopefully my replacement will be as good as the other pants I’ve raved here about. Watch this space.
I love Hey Girls’ Buy One Give One initiative as much as I love their price point, so fingers crossed the drawers are high performers.
Flux might be good entry-level pants if your flow is particularly heavy and you’d like the physical reassurance of a padded gusset. But if your periods are light to medium, consider going straight to Thinx or, speculatively, Hey Girls. Also, when the time comes for travelling, you’ll want to be packing the more lightweight and space-saving Thinx pants than the heavier and bulkier Flux, which subsequently take longer to dry.
There are loads of different shapes and colours than when I first bought my black cotton Thinx: last Christmas, for a stocking filler (ho ho ho!), I insisted my mum buy me a cobalt pair of their retro-style high-waist mesh pants, which are pretty snazzy. I’ve not tried a nude or lighter shade, though, which could be interesting.
Some women will prefer the sustainable tampons over the upfront cost of buying at least three pairs of menstrual knickers, or if they’re turned off by the cycle of rising and drying after each wear.
The daily cleanse could be a faff for those with an impromptu social life (well, when we had social lives), who might arrive home, tipsy, to the dilemma of being a good girl and rinsing the knickers and hanging them in the press or being revolting and chucking them straight into the laundry bin to deal with the next day.
I, though, in my middle age, am a creature of habit so do the rinsing without batting an eyelid at this stage, it takes less than making a cup of tea. After the cold-rinse, I’ll fill the sink with warmer water and add one drop of antibacterial tea tree oil and another of geranium and let the knickers soak for ten minutes before a final rinse. This helps repel long-term odour, because, if you’re not diligent about rinsing immediately after use, they can develop a funky niff.
This soak freshens them for reuse, and then at the end of each period I’ll throw all the knickers into the washing machine on a 40 degree delicate wash (never use fabric softener, which will compromise the fabric). Et voila.
Which one you go for will ultimately boil down to your average flow and budget
With regards to tampons, from a comfort point of view, for me personally, the slimline Daye is easier to insert and load. But there’s no denying the great advantage of DAME negating a single-use applicator altogether, and you can use whatever brand of biodegradable/compostable/organic tampon brand you prefer, or can afford.
As for space-saving and weight, the telescopic DAME applicator is unarguably the most convenient for handbags, at just 8cm in length compared to the applicator packets of Daye at 16cm.
Each and every one of these products have multiple benefits: even the packaging for all the reviewed products is either recyclable, biodegradable or compostable (or a combination of), making them a level playing field. They are each as high performing as they are environmentally sound, so which one you go for will ultimately boil down to your average flow and budget. For instance for heavier days you might want to double up with knickers and a tampon; other days, just the knickers (which are ideal for spotting, by the way, you’ll never need to look at another pantyliner again).
Periods suck. But since I’ve probably around ten more years of throwing Ponstan, tranexamic acid tablets and hot water bottles at them – or if ever climb the public waiting list for a hysteroscopy first, whichever is shorter – I may as well manage them wisely.
NB I bought each of these items over an 18-month period, paid out of my own pocket – hence the god-honest reviews and why I can’t afford to trial any more new menstrual products or brands! (Also, buying more at this stage would defeat the object of consuming less). I will, though, update this post if any of the products offer new surprises, good or bad, and also when I’ve trialled the Hey Girls undies.
Header photo by Thinx
Read more: 1 tampon takes longer to degrade than the average woman’s lifespan
Read more: ‘The shame and stigma around periods has to end’
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