No Tampons, No Diva Cup, No Problem: Two Earth-Friendly Tampon Alternatives

In a society that (largely) doesn’t talk about menstruation (and when it does talk about menstruation, it is often rife with body shaming/misogyny/the bullshit notion that bleeding makes you dirty, etc), it can feel radical when there are not only conversations about how to deal with bleeding and all of its complications, but when we are also provided with alternatives to the often toxic products made available to us. Tampons and disposable pads can be full of illness-causing chemicals, as well as impossible to dispose of responsibly, and can take a toll on your finances. Behold! A list of alternative menstrual products that promote health, chemical-free lifestyles, sustainability, local economies, and the wellbeing of your pocketbook — and we’re moving beyond Diva Cups (sorry, Diva Cup fans!).


 

Menstrual Sponges

Menstrual sponges are the absolute shit. I was converted to using them almost a year ago, when my pal Ash Fisher (who is a badass comedian, as well as femme extraordinare introduced me to Holy Sponge, an Oakland-based, queer-owned company that sells sustainably harvested sponges in a variety of sizes. I reached out to founder Janeen Singer to ask her to talk to me about her process, mission, and why she loves sponges so much.

“Sea sponges are the only menstrual product for insertion that is 100% natural. They come from the ocean and return the earth (they can be composted!). My main motivation in beginning to use them myself was how incredibly friendly they are to our planet. Obscene amounts of tampons, pads and packaging end up in the ocean and ironically, there is this beautiful resource in the very ocean we are trashing — a resource that does not have toxic cancer-causing ingredients like dioxins, furans, pesticides, and who-knows-what-else.”

Janeen and the fine folks at Holy Sponge are also committed to consumer-accountability and sustainable business practices. “If you are in a position where you are unable to pay full price for a kit, contact us and we can discuss possible solutions or a trade. If you are buying tampons, the kit and eventual refill sets will end up saving you money in the long run. One thing that is important to note is that our sponges come from a company in Florida that harvests the sponges in a sustainable way, under Florida laws. You may pay a bit more for our sponges (vs. craft supply sponges shipped from overseas with no labels or accountability) but your heart, mind, and body can be at ease knowing there are ethics to all parts of our process.”

The sponges feel pretty great, especially for those of us who experience wicked cramps — filling the sponges with warm water before insertion acts as an anti-spasmodic, almost like having a mini heating pad inside you. The only downside to these magical sea creatures? “The very thing that makes sponges so comfortable (the way they mold to the inside of a person’s body) also presents a side that can make them challenging — like sneezing and feeling your sponge contract with your body! We recommend using a thin re-useable pad alongside the sponge to catch any leaks that accompany belly laughs or sneezes,” Janeen writes.

The kits run around $20 for a new kit, and $14 for refills. They include two sponges, a muslin carrying bag, a sprig of sage (because Holy Sponge promotes the idea of menstruation as ritual), and a vial of tea tree oil for cleaning.


 

Cloth Pads

For those of you who can’t get behind insertion, there are some great alternatives to disposable pads! Gladrags and Amazpads all have a variety of colors, size, and fabrics to choose from, which helps make your red less monochromatic. However, my two favorite methods of procuring quality, fashionable cloth pads are to purchase them off Etsy, which allows you to support menstruation artists everywhere, and to make my own. You know you’ve got a bunch of old flannels lying around — utilize the cuffs to make super-gay plaid pads that have fancy snaps to fit around your underwear! Did your ex leave her favorite shirt at your house? Bleed all over that shit! Have leftover clothes from your last clothing swap? BOOM, FREE PADS! The possibilities are endless.

Cloth pads last about two years, especially if you aren’t picky about residual stains, and are easy to clean. Most companies recommend soaking them immediately after use, and then throwing them in the washer with a little vinegar or baking soda. They can then be line-dried or put in the dryer with your other clothing. Be mindful, of course, if you are using cotton that could shrink, and plan your pattern to allow for a change in size. Cloth pads can range from $10-100, depending on the materials used, sizing needed, and company you purchase them from.

The only downside to cloth pads? They can be bulkier-feeling than their disposable cousins, and you need to carry them around with you while you’re out in public or traveling (which can definitely lead to some hilarious situations, as I’ve experienced!).


As Janeen of Holy Sponge says, there is something radical and transformative about connecting with your body and the way it bleeds every month: “It stands in stark contrast to decades of menstrual product marketing which promises to make a the monthly flow “invisible,” pure white, like no one would never even know they were bleeding in the first place. Many people have a strong reaction to the idea of having to come in such direct contact with their vaginas and blood, and I think this is just a symptom of a larger social disease of disconnection from life’s processes. Life is not permanent and here inside of a the body is the possibility every month for new life. When new life is not created, the body sheds and re-creates itself anew. The life-death-life cycle is within us, but we live in a culture in denial of the death aspect, therefore we deny a natural letting-go.”

Related:

July Westhale is a Pushcart-nominated poet, activist, and journalist. She has been awarded residencies from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Sewanee, Napa Valley, Tin House and Bread Loaf. She is the 2014 Poetry Fellow at Tomales Bay, and was recently a finalist for the Creative Writing Fulbright.

July has written 12 articles for us.

64 Comments

  1. OMFG, yes! I changed to cloth pads a few months ago (and wrote about it) and I love them so much.

    I tried a menstrual cup and it’s just not for me, but washable pads feel really snuggly and it feels like getting a warm hug when I felt so sore.

    It also really helps to psychologically normalise your period. There’s a nice ritual to washing out and soaking your pads. That might just be me, though!

  2. Pro-all the alternatives! I love my DivaCup but totally grok that it’s not super accessible to all bodies/histories/lifestyles.

    Thinking of picking up some reusable pads to deal with the inevitable flow of being, especially during the follicular phase….

  3. I’m a huge Diva Cup fan, but understand that they’re not for everyone. My favourite cloth pads are LunaPads, they’re adorable, come in organic cotton options and are made by a small company in Vancouver. Look them up if you’re interested and you can get a free sample liner!

  4. I’ve been using cloth pads for a while. Despite the bulkiness I find them so much more comfortable than either disposable pads or tampons. I don’t really like having stuff inside me, but I did recently buy a mooncup so I’m going to see how that works for me.

  5. I think it’s sooo important to let you girls know that there are alternatives to disposable pads and tampons. It was eight years before I even knew there were any other options. Now I love my mooncup, but it was only through AS that I found out they were a thing.

  6. I love this article – and the skin-friendly gladrags. Does anyone know if it is advisable to just handwash them? As I don`t have a washing machine and so use the communal washing machines about every other week, I normally just put them in a cloth bag and not wash them until it`s Washer Time. Don`t want to soak them just to leave the bathroom full of icky semi-washed rags. Any suggestions?

  7. If you’re going to make your own and you use cotton, pre-wash the fabric (like, before you cut it out or anything.) That way if it’s going to shrink it can do so without messing up your creation.

  8. I’m desperately seeking a tampon alternative that pleases and sparkles with me, but point of interest:

    “When a University of Iowa lab tested 12 sponges in 1980, they found sand, grit and bacteria. The FDA followed up with further testing and found sand, grit, bacteria, yeast and mold, as well as Staphylococcus aureus in one sample. As a result of these tests, the FDA requires pre-market approval for any sea sponge products being marketed as menstrual tampons. If you do wish to use sea sponge tampons, make sure they have FDA approval.”

    http://naturallysavvy.com/live/trade-in-your-tampons-for-a-green-alternative

    • This study was funded by Proctor & Gamble, who was trying to distract (at that same exact time, 1979-80) from the hundreds of cases of TSS that resulted from their Rely tampon (which P&G “generously” donated to countries in Africa). When a non-biased study is done, I’ll take it more seriously. Jade & Pearl has been selling seas sponges for menstruation since the 70’s and there are no cases of infection or TSS to speak of.

    • The Politics of Menstruation (and sponges, specifically) are a lot more complicated than a study that was done 34 years ago, funded by the very company that owns a near monopoly on the “femcare” industry- Tampax/Proctor & Gamble. It’s a $7 billion/year industry in the US (today) and coming off the heels of the women’s lib movement of the 60’s & 70’s sponges were on the rise and a perceived threat to P&G. The only femcare research done to test whether products are safe or toxic are by the manufacturers themselves. As you can imagine, this is problematic. The FDA does not do research- which is why Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (of NY) has been working her ass off the get government funding for (theoretically) non-biased research of said products.

      • The only use of sponges I’d heard of before this was as a form natural birth control. Possession and buying a sponge is a lot less incriminating than condoms. Especially, if your young and/or from a community that disapproves of birth control or premarital sex.

        That said it’s different from plant and it would make sense that there would be some risk of bacteria. Also, potential allergies.

    • The interesting thing about this research study is that it was funded by Proctor and Gamble- just after they were under the spotlight for a giant outbreak of TSS because of their 1979 Rely Tampons. They were diverting attention away from the fact that hundreds of people were dying because of the “most absorbent tampon to date” and trying to look like a good guy by funding scientific research, demonizing another product (sponges) and giving no information about the 12 sponges they tested.

      This study shut down all the companies that were selling sponges- all but one (and that company just got issued a warning letter by the FDA). This is bureaucratic bullshit, all designed to keep people buying commercial disposables. The FDA is now even requiring sellers of cloth pads to get approved (that costs $3600/year- likely more than any of the vendors will earn).

      If you do more research, you’ll see that the only documented cases of anyone having medical trouble because of a sponge, the cases are related to contraceptive sponges, which are synthetic. Natural sponges have been used by people for decades with no issues.

      Anyone who is really interested should check out Chris Bobel’s book New Blood.

    • I have problems with this so-called scientific research. Can it even be called scientific? If I were the scientist actually doing a scientifically accurate test, I would first test the sea sponge unsanitized,then do another test with the sea sponge properly sanitized. In the article, it doesn’t even mention if the sponge had been properly cleaned or not. It most likely was not. Then they published the article all skewed with half truths. Logistically, it really does looks like Proctor and Gamble had anterior motives for publishing an article without even a proper scientific lab test preformed. Biased for sure.

    • For the record, I love Natracare pads, especially in combination with a less-leakproof-than-Divacup insertable like a sponge or a tampon. The woven cotton cover makes a huge difference – that funky blood-on-plastic smell never shows up, and they breathe like a dream. A+, only not an A++ because sometimes the adhesive is less sturdy than Always plastic-y pads and they’re prone to midday underwear creep.

  9. I switched to cloth pads about a year ago, and it was life changing. I purchased a diva cup shortly after and just didn’t like it. I had been using disposable pads for years and I’m not used to having something inside me. Even though I hated the disposable pads I felt I had no other option. Since I switched I tell all my girl friends of both alternatives.

    Cloth pads made my cramps completely go away. They made my periods even shorter, and made my cycle consistent. Not to mention the adorable Moonpads I just got from Etsy.com. They came with a little pamphlet of why they’re better, care options, and advised watering any plants with the water used to soak. So I decided this would be a good re-use of water since we are in a drought after all…. my plants love it!

  10. I’m really intrigued by the sponges, however the living animal/not living anymore animal thing is a little strange to me. That, and I found that Holy Sponge did a lot of gendering of menstruation, which I actually sent them an email about.

    • Yeah, I was really not into having this article unedited. The people at Holy Sponge can use whatever language they choose, but the editors are not obliged to reprint it that way.

      I bleed on things, I enjoy observing my body’s biology and taking some time for myself to just chill when that time kicks in, and I’m not a woman, hello!

  11. Thanks for the great info! As someone who had bad experiences with a Diva Cup but can’t get by with just a pad, I’m excited about the sea sponge possibilities.

    I’m a committed vegetarian and animal lover, but I don’t have any qualms about this. I avoid meat because cows, pigs, chickens, etc. are capable of feeling physical pain and experiencing emotional terror. I could personally never bring myself to kill a creature that can experience pain and terror, so I choose also not to eat creatures that others have killed.

    Sea sponges, on the other hand, are classified as animals simply because of a couple of characteristics that don’t happen to fit them into the “plant” category (they don’t photosynthesize and they don’t create their own food). However, they have no brain, no nerves, no neurological system of any kind. They can’t experience tactile or emotional feelings. Pieces of them regularly fall off in the ocean and regenerate into new sponges. Other “borderline” lifeforms that are considered closer to animals than plants include fungi… so if you are a mushroom-eating vegetarian, that’s not much different than this.

  12. My partner just got a job working for party in my pants (otherwise known as P.I.M.P.), a cloth pad company, and you all should definitely check them out! She’s one of 5 people who do the work and they come out with some pretty impressive patterns, she just picked one for the Halloween season with all sorts of bloody zombies on them…

  13. I feel like killing any organism for our own benefit is just as bad as killing some other type of organism for our benefit. The only way to make it seem less “bad” is if we respect the organisms and appreciate them and not waste what we take, whether it’s a cotton plant, a sponge, a cow, or a puppy.

    • sea sponge harvesting doesn’t actually kill the sponge- it’s more like pruning. there’s a mutually beneficial relationship between sponge and diver- an unprunned sea sponge lives for about a year, while a regularly pruned sponge will live for 100 years!! just like pruning plants.

  14. Reusable pads tip: get/make some with an ordinary cotton top especially for the summer, and some with a flannel top especially for the winter.

    A flannel pad in winter is like a warm warm comforting hug, I promise.

  15. I hear a lot of mention of the Diva Cup and I hope all of the people who are new to menstrual cups reading this know that menstrual cups come in all shapes and sizes to accommodate your body. I have a very low cervix and don’t engage in much penetration, so the mini Meluna in small is the cup I use. I would absolutely hate the Diva and it would actually stick out length wise during my period.

    • Do you have more details/links/suggestions for this? I just made the switch to OB tampons but have always been nervous to try a Diva cup or a moon cup (I’ve heard some horror stories.) I was under the impression that there are pretty much only 2 sizes: 1 for vagina-having folks who have had children, one for those who haven’t.

      • I’m not Jessie, obvs, but this link has about a million size comparison photos: http://menstrualcupinfo.wordpress.com/brand-comparison-photos/

        It’s true most brands have two sizes (no childbirth, post childbirth) but there’s a lot of variety between brands. They have different fluid capacity, length, width, shape, etc. I am personally super happy with my Diva Cup, but everybody’s vagina is different, so it makes sense that one size wouldn’t work for all.

        • Oh, thank you for this link! I have the opposite problem from most people – very high cervix, and the Diva Cup I tried got legitimately stuck despite everyone everywhere telling me that was not ever going to happen – but I see that MeLuna sells a cup with a ring, and string that can be tied onto it like a tampon. Maybe I will be brave enough to give it another go…

  16. I have never forgotten my Mother’s face when I gathered my supplies and started making my own cloth pads. I think that’s when she really knew I was gay.

    I then successfully converted a friend – to cloth pads, not gayness, after I showed her my accomplishments. As a result her baby wears modern cloth nappies and now she makes her own, too!

    If you’re wondering how much stuff you need to make your own: not very much. A standard sized towel, a shirt or couple of fat quarters with awesome prints and a sewing machine is all you need. There’s great free patterns available on the internetz, or you can copy what you already wear.

    *Official Volunteer to write the Make A Thing: Cloth Pads*

  17. Does anyone know about waterproofness of menstrual pads? I have a couple from some brand called Fuzzibunz and they’re awesome and waterproof but not crinkly.

    Is it a problem to use non-waterproof ones?

  18. I’ve been using Natracare products for a while but I had been looking for other alternatives. I found someone in my country who makes cloth pads but I don’t like them, never thought about looking on Etsy though and this article inspired me to do so, after looking through lots of shops I finally ordered some regular pads from one shop and others from another shop. I can`t wait until my next period to try them out!

  19. I was a big fan of cloth pads until I stopped having laundry facilities in my house. Do what works for you, is my advice! A fun, possibly TMI fact about sponges – they do leak on heavy days, so a backup pad is necessary, but you can squeeze them out without removing them by doing kegels on the toilet. Handy for public restrooms!

    Also, dampen them before insertion or you will feel a little like you just sanded your vagina.

  20. I’m sorry to repost this here again, but I’m just confused as to why the cissexism in the article quote has been left there. (‘Fitting a woman’s body’ and the like)

    Autostraddle makes visible efforts to underline things like ‘abortions are not just had by women’, etc., and I feel like it’s unfair and hurtful for this article to be immune to the policy of the site as a whole.

  21. It’s so great to see folks with a wide range of DIY techniques & menstrual preferences!

    Thanks also to everyone posting about the cissexist language inherent in Holy Sponge’s interview language– we here are AS believe that menstruating & bleeding is not exclusive to folks who identify as women or females, & the company does not reflect the views of Autostraddle! As such, the language in the quotes has been edited to reflect that.

  22. July Westhale clearly made a mistake in posting the non-inclusive language- especially because it does not reflect Autostraddle views and in the end she changed it. It’s a shame she put it all on Holy Sponge and didn’t take any accountability around that. Shame, shame, July. First, you flubbed the editing- then you couldn’t own your own part.

  23. Firstly, a huge thanks to Autostraddle for this feature.

    Secondly, thank you, readers (Sierra especially!) for pointing out areas where we need to improve. We apologize to anyone who felt excluded by our language. We know that folks who bleed don’t all identify as “women.” Part of our learning process is to make sure our language matches up with this. Thank you for bearing with us as we make these changes.

  24. I recommend checking out daysforgirls.org
    They make and provide reusable pads for girls and women in third world countries, enabling them to continue school and work during their period. The big bonus of buying from them is that when you buy a pack for yourself, they send a pack to a girl in the third world

  25. I do like thinking about alternatives to wasteful and chemical filled tampons and pads. I think cloth is probably the way to go as far as the environment is concerned. Sea sponges are great, and at the moment the demand for them is small enough that they can be sustainably harvested by mom and pop companies. I do worry about what would happen if that demand surged and larger corporations got involved. Would they really care about unbalancing underwater ecosystems? Sea sponges have great regeneration rates and can be “farmed” but it makes me uncomfortable to think about the irreparable damage that could be done to reefs in the process. I would highly suggest looking into Be Girl products. Aside from being really cool, I love that they’re doing good for girls around the world.

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