Go with the flow

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The last thing most women want to think about during "that time of the month" is the harmful environmental impact of feminine hygiene products. Ditto on the widespread societal demonization of menstruation, the increasing distance between women and their natural body processes and the profit margins of tampon and maxi pad manufacturers. More likely, the onslaught of monthly menses is accompanied by thoughts of steamy bubble baths, large doses of chocolate, pain killers and catnaps.

Yet a small, vocal group of women are taking up the cause of menstruation. More specifically, they're protesting the pink and blue rows of menstrual products available at your local pharmacy. In an odd meshing of environmental, health, feminist, New Age and anti-corporate activism, these women claim that feminine hygiene products not only harm the environment, but put women at an unnecessary risk for everything from toxic-shock syndrome to cancer. They are calling on women not only to reconsider their attitudes toward the "curse," but to toss out their boxes of pads, tampons and liners, and go -- no joke -- reusable.

As in reusable tampons such as the Keeper and the Sponge, both of which collect menstrual blood and can be emptied and used again. These women also promote washable cotton pads, attached to underwear by either an old-fashioned belt or a snap-on fastener.

Sound gross? Perhaps. But the women who use these nondisposable menstrual products swear that once you make the switch you'll never go back to disposable again.

Lorie Kellogg, a graphic designer from Los Angeles, is one such convert. She started using the Keeper a year ago after reading about it on a Web page for environmental activists. Kellogg says she was tired of shelling out $5 or $10 a month on disposables and worried about the environmental impact of tossing out hundreds of applicators and packaging each year. The Keeper, which for a onetime payment of $40 lasts up to 10 years, seemed a financially sound and socially responsible choice.

But, Kellogg adds, there was a hidden bonus. "It's very convenient. You don't have to worry about packing supplies with you. Once you have it with you, you just empty it out and keep using it."

Francine Chambers saw an advertisement for the Keeper five years ago and decided to give it a try. She was so impressed, she bought the business and has been running it full time from her home in Ontario, Canada.

"I'd been using those other products and I hated them every time," Chambers says. "When you use pads and tampons, you're sitting right in those icky pads. That's why they smell so bad. They are expensive and they chafe. You get sore." Chambers says she was also bothered by the environmental impact of disposable products and worried by the bleaches used in most feminine hygiene products.

But as she describes her product there's a hint of religious fervor in her voice that goes beyond the average endorsement. "It's a lifesaver," she says. "Once women try it they are in awe of it just like I am ... It's fantastic. I've got so many testimonials."

Perhaps calling the Keeper a "lifesaver" is taking things too far, but it is reasonable to say that it saves money, reduces landfill and, if lugging around a few tampons is a bother, is more convenient -- because you basically tote the Keeper inside you. Also in its favor, the Keeper is no more messy to use than tampons, which must be changed more regularly and can require a panty-liner as backup. (Although some women still use the Sponge, problems with blood squirting out of it made it unpopular.) But why would anyone choose reusable pads, when you have to soak and wash them before you can reuse them?

For Susanna Eve, a member of Moonwit, a collective of women in Canada who make and sell reusable cloth menstrual pads, her motivation to go reusable was more than environmental and financial, though both figured in her decision.

The pads are generally made from washable cotton and terry cloth and are attached either by snaps or a belt. They cost around $7 a piece, depending on where you purchase them, and Eve recommends having about a dozen on hand. Unlike store-bought pads, these come in a variety of patterns -- from flowers to zebra stripes to blood red. Eve calls her pads "menstrual lingerie" and compares them to clothing items. "Why shouldn't it be fun and pretty?"

"Fun" and "pretty" are not adjectives normally associated with periods. But Eve's views on menstruation are not exactly mainstream. Growing up, Eve says, she was taught to hide menstruation. "When you took off your pad you double-, triple-wrapped it in toilet paper and hoped your father never noticed. You didn't talk about it unless you were sick to the point that you were debilitated."
The pads' colorful patterns bring an aspect of fun to her cycle, Eve says. "I went to a bead store and picked some fancy stones to make a bracelet to wear while I was bleeding," she says, explaining that such activities are positive diversions from cramps and fatigue. Other women, according to Eve, water their plants with their menstrual blood (gathered from the soaked pads) and even use their blood to make artwork.
Eve calls these acts "empowering," and says they help women "cope" with menstruation. While there's nothing inherently wrong with these methods of dealing, most women would just call them gross. Although few may find it necessary to do more with their blood than flush it, Kellogg says women do need to get over their stereotypes of female bodily functions.
Chambers doesn't recommend anything so radical as blood art, but she does say that emptying menstrual blood puts women in better contact with their bodies and overall health. "It's a really good indicator if you're having a problem," she says. "Some women I've talked to, they'll use the Keeper, they'll empty it three or four times a day and it's like totally full. I tell them that's not normal; you've got to talk to a doctor."
Dr. Cristina Muñoz, an assistant professor of OB/GYN at Duke University, agrees that the Keeper can be useful for women who are bleeding excessively, but adds that these cases are rare. "There are people who are so anemic they just hemorrhage. For them, [the Keeper] might be useful to get an idea that they really are bleeding large amounts so they'll have an idea that they need to replace all that iron."
Proponents of reusable tactics also point to toxic-shock syndrome, a bacterial disease associated with tampon use, and the presence of chlorine bleaches, rayon and cancer-causing dioxins (which form in wood pulp during the bleaching process) in tampons as reasons to switch to nondisposable products. Web sites like S.P.O.T. and many of the sites selling alternative products devote themselves to educating women on the dangers of tampons.
The problem is, most doctors agree there's no serious danger at all.
"The vast majority of people who use tampons correctly don't get toxic-shock syndrome," Muñoz says. And although there are no recorded cases of women getting toxic-shock from alternative products, including bleach-free disposable tampons, Muñoz says the tiny percentage of women who use such products could account for the lack of cases.
As for the claim that chemicals found in disposable products are harmful to women, Muñoz says there simply isn't data to support or disprove such claims. "We don't know if those chemicals are risk factors," she says. "When they complain about rayons and dioxins, which are bleach byproducts, the theory sounds very good. They say use natural tampons that are made without bleach, or maybe all cotton instead of with rayon. But they basically have no data."
Elaine Plummer, a spokeswoman for Procter and Gamble, Tampax's corporate parent, expresses outrage at claims that tampons are dangerous. "I'm a little bit appalled when they're making that type of a statement. They're not basing it on good science. There are a lot of people I work with who assess the product for safety." The American Cancer Society backs up Plummer.
Muñoz does say there's no medical reason why women shouldn't try alternatives. She even recommends alternative products, including bleach-free tampons, to women with severe allergies or chronic vulvar pain.
With no overwhelming medical arguments against disposable tampons and pads, it's unlikely that many women will be eager to switch from mainstream products to reusable items. Even environmental and financial arguments fall apart under scrutiny. Tampons biodegrade when flushed, so the only waste comes from the packaging and applicators -- all of which is recyclable, especially if you use cardboard rather than plastic applicators. (Some products, like O.B., are applicator free.) The onetime purchase of the Keeper or cotton pads might seem like a smart financial choice at first, but working women may find it impossible to invisibly scrub or soak their menstrual devices at the office.
"Women just don't want to have to soak things overnight, wash them the next day -- they basically want menstruation to be as invisible as possible, which I guess I can understand," says Harry Finley, founder of the Museum of Menstruation, located in Hyattsville, Md. (Finley has documented the history of menstruation paraphernalia and advertising in his museum, which he created after noticing the different ways menstrual hygiene products were advertised from country to country during a 13-year stay in Germany.)
Indeed, the disposable products -- tampons in particular -- that flooded the market after World War I were viewed by women as liberating them from burdensome, often nondisposable, pads.
Reusable products "are a tough sell to mainstream women," Finley notes. Francine Chambers, despite all her optimism over the Keeper, agrees that the market for her product is small. "Let's face it. Selling the Keeper is not going to make anybody rich. You only need one." Not to mention, the market for alternative products is so small that few stores sell them and few women have even heard of them. (Almost all marketing and sales are now done over the Web, where the cost of advertising to a large audience is minimal.)
Lorie Kellogg, the Keeper convert from Los Angeles, says nobody she's told about the product has been interested in trying it. "I try to share the information, but people have these 'ick' walls that you can't get past," she says.
But Chambers says she's not bothered by lack of interest. "I'm not really in it for the money," she says of her business selling the Keeper. "Why does everything have to be about money? Sure it's nice to make a profit, but where are people's consciences?"

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

MORE FROM Jenn Shreve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Health Love And Sex Sex