In the UK, disposable sanitary pads and tampons have dominated the shelves – and how many of us manage our periods – for a long time. But as concerns about disposable products, single-use plastic, and their impact on the environment grow, things are changing.
In the past few years, innovation in menstrual care products have seen reusable options, such as period-absorbent underwear and menstrual cups, make a move into the mainstream.
While this has largely been spurred on by the significant environmental impact that disposable pads and tampons have, reusable products also offer the potential to change how you manage your flow, from comfort and cost to fitting with your lifestyle.
But how do you decide what's right for you, especially when the upfront cost of switching can be high? Here we run down the different types of period products and their pros and cons, costs and how well their sustainability credentials stack up to help you choose.
A menstrual cup is a small flexible silicone or rubber cup that you insert into your vagina to collect your flow during your period.
You might’ve heard of Mooncup or Divacup, which are some of the longer-standing brands, but high street brands such as Boots and Tampax have also now developed menstrual cups of their own.
Menstrual cups can generally hold as much – and sometimes more – than regular tampons, so you can leave them in for about the same amount of time, and you can also wear them overnight (but it’s always worth checking on the pack).
When it’s full, you need to empty it in the toilet, wash it with water, and reinsert it.
At the end of your period, you need to do a more thorough wash and sterilise – by boiling the menstrual cup in a pan of water for a few minutes.
This isn't always the most practical option, but as the cups have become more popular a range of dedicated menstrual cup accessories have emerged, including small portable sterilising steamers.
Menstrual cup need-to-knows
It can take a few tries to get used to inserting and using a menstrual cup (as is often the case with tampons too), but you can find guidance online and on the instructions you get in the pack.
It's worth noting that, as with tampons, menstrual cups may carry a small risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) when used improperly. So it's important to stick to max usage times and clean them properly during and after use.
Menstrual cups are pricier than pads or tampons, but the idea is that you only need one and that you can reuse it for years with proper care (although you may have to pay for some trial and error before you settle on the right one), so they will typically pay for themselves within a year.
We surveyed 776 people, who have used either period pants or menstrual cups in the past two years, about their experiences.
Those who use menstrual cups don't tend to use them exclusively - 58% told us they still use some other products as well. People were just as likely to use them on heavier days as on lighter days.
People are more likely to use their menstrual cups at home, and this ties in with one of the biggest bugbears – that they can be awkward or difficult to wash when out and about. Not everyone is comfortable with doing this in a public loo or at work, and sometimes hygiene facilities are lacking.
Still, 61% of users told us that, overall, they liked using a menstrual cup. Some of the main reasons were that they:
The learning curve of using a menstrual cup, particularly the difficulty of inserting and taking them out, tended to the main thing people disliked.
Period pants use layers of moisture-wicking, absorbent and leak-proof fabric to lock away fluid, in a similar fashion to disposable sanitary towels.
They are relatively new on the scene (though reusable pads have been around for a while) and there’s an ever-increasing variety on the market – from those intended as a backup or light-flow option, to those designed to take several tampons' worth of blood – covering you on heavier days or overnight.
The price of period pants varies a lot and depends on the size and absorbency you’re after.
Bear in mind you'll likely need multiple pairs to rotate during your period, depending on how you want to use them, so the upfront cost can be quite high, especially if you need to try a few brands or strengths to find the right fit for you.
However, most brands offer multi-buy discounts or new customers discounts, which can help.
People who use period pants tend not to rely on them alone, though just under a quarter told us they did mostly use the pants.
They can be good options for overnight wear and lighter days, or when you think your period might start soon.
According to our survey, the things people mainly like about period pants are that they:
Drawbacks were that they don’t always feel fresh, they can be expensive and people felt they couldn’t wear them for long periods of time (they are also slightly more awkward to change when out and about, and you then have to transport the used pair).
Nevertheless, overall 75% of our respondents said they liked their period pants and the positive comments outweighed the negatives.
While period pants and menstrual cups are the most widely available options, there are also an increasing number of alternatives around, such as products that simply mimic the classic disposable option but are designed for re-use.
These are a little less common, but require less of a change to your period routine if you are nervous about making the switch, so could be a good starting point.
Typical cost: £13-£20
Reusable tampon applicators have very recently started to hit the mainstream, as tampon brands dial back from single-use plastic applicators, which, while not great for the environment, can be handy when hygiene facilities are lacking, and some people find them more comfortable to insert.
We’ve seen a handful of reusable tampon applicators now on sale in high street stores. These are:
These are designed for use with regular tampons, and replace disposable plastic applicators with one that you can wash and use again.
Need to know about reusable applicators: we've seen some reports of people forgetting to remove the lid before inserting the applicator, resulting in a trip to the doctor or hospital to get it removed. So make sure you remove the lid first!
Typical cost: £4-£12 a pad
Reusable cloth pads are just like a disposable sanitary towel but are made of washable cotton and other absorbent materials, and clip round your usual underwear.
They have some advantages over period pants as they can be more easily removed and swapped on the go, but do also tend to be more bulky and have never quite caught on in the same way,
DAME is one of the more mainstream brands that has recently branched out into reusable and washable pads and liners, as is Hey Girls:
There's still a place for disposable pads and tampons, and plenty these days claim to be made of more eco-friendly or plastic-free materials. However, some are more eco-friendly than others.
There are a number of ‘organic’ and plastic-free pads and tampons now available, which are said to be biodegradable. But while organic cotton is certainly less water-intensive and polluting than regular cotton, it still has some environmental impact during production.
We’ve spotted some innovations, such as dissolvable pads from Planera, that you are meant to be able to flush down the toilet – an otherwise cardinal sin with disposable sanitary products.
The pads are made of wood pulp and bamboo fibre, and 70% plant-based materials which dissolve when swirled vigorously in water. They are pricey compared to standard pads though, at £7 for 15. Available from .
Studies comparing disposable period products and reusable options, like menstrual cups and period underwear, have found that reusable menstrual products do tend to have a lower environmental impact than single-use products overall.
A that looked at the total lifecycle of disposable pads and tampons in comparison with reusable products found that menstrual cups in particular are significantly better for the environment than other options.
There are a few variables, like the way that products are washed, sanitised and disposed of, that can affect how sustainable they are, but overall – as in other areas of our lives – a move away from single-use plastic has a positive effect.
There is still a need to consider the longevity of products like period underwear, and what happens at the end of their useable life.
As with regular underwear, you can make the most eco-conscious choices with period underwear by choosing sustainable, biodegradable fabrics, and taking care of them well to prolong their usable life.