Sanitary Products: Here’s what you need to know.
The average woman has periods for 30-40 years of her life. At one a month, that’s 360-480 periods in a lifetime. And if you use disposable sanitary products to manage your period, that’s 10,000-12,000 products used and thrown away.
It’s a lot of hassle over a lifetime, but there’s also a lot that can be done to make them more manageable. One of the best things you can do is find a sanitary product that works best for your body, your lifestyle, and your periods – finding the right one can take a load off your shoulders and make your life a lot simpler.
In Australia, there are two main types of period products – pads and tampons. There are plenty of other options available (like period undies, menstrual cups, menstrual sponges, and more), but most women are likely to choose one of these two.
On this page, we’ll take a deep dive into the pros and cons of the two most popular options, and take a brief look at a few popular reusable options. Woman-to-woman, let’s talk period management and figure out which option is best for you.
Pads – the upsides
Chances are that you’ve used pads at some point. They’re easy to find in your local supermarket, they can be used straight after you’ve given birth, and most women use them when they’re having their first few periods.
Pads come in a wide range of absorbencies and shapes suitable for almost everyone: everything from extra-long shapes with wings, to ultra-thin options designed to be as invisible as possible. Most women use a few different shapes and styles to cater to their heavier and lighter days.
Pads are also super easy to use – all you have to do is stick them on the inside of your underwear and you’re good to go. And as long as you practice good hygiene and change them regularly (at least every 4 hours), there’s not much risk of getting an infection.
The main downside of pads is that they’re prone to moving around. Even the ones with wings can crinkle and fold with movement, which can cause leakage and make them uncomfortable to wear. And, as they’re a single-use option, you’ll need to keep buying them each time you run out. Over the course of your lifetime, that works out to a lot of money spent and waste products created.
Since they’re backed by a piece of (thin) plastic, they’re not very breathable and can create an ideal environment for bacteria to grow. As a result, they can start to smell if you don’t change them regularly. They also may not be the best option for women with some vulval conditions.
What about reusable pads?
Reusable pads are a multi-use alternative to your average disposable pads. Instead of using an adhesive strip, they usually attach to your underwear with press studs or Velcro. You can buy them online or make them yourself, but most places that carry disposable pads won’t readily stock them.
Since they’re reusable, you won’t need to keep buying new ones with each period (although you will need to replace them every 2-3 years to keep them hygienic). They also reduce the amount of cotton and plastic you throw away, making them an eco-friendlier option.
The downside is that they tend to be bulkier than your average disposable pad, which isn’t great if you’re worried about being discreet. Most of them also need to be washed by hand.
Other than that, they come with all the pros and cons of a regular pad. They move around about the same amount, and you’ll need to change them regularly to stop smells and bacteria from developing.
Tampons – the upsides
Across the world, tampons are the second most commonly used menstrual product (right after pads). They’re discreet and convenient to slip into a pocket. When they’re inserted correctly, they don’t move around or slip, and most women don’t feel them at all. And since they’re worn inside of you, and absorb blood before it leaves your body, you can use tampons while you’re swimming.
Unlike pads, they don’t trap fluid close to your skin. This makes them a suitable option for women who are prone to irritation, or suffer from vulval conditions.
Although it can take a little practice to get right, most women don’t find inserting a tampon to be too difficult. If it’s the application process that’s bothering you, styles that come with plastic applicators are readily available.
Downsides of tampons
Although tampons come in a wide range of styles, and absorbencies to suit almost anyone, the variety can make choosing the right one a bit confusing. Luckily, since tampons are cheap and single-use, you can experiment, and find one that’s right for you.
Another downside is that tampons are single use. You’ll have to keep buying them year after year, which can add up in both cost and waste products.
And, although they’re commonly used around the world, women from some cultures and backgrounds aren’t comfortable with using them for a variety of reasons.
What about TSS?
Tampons use is also associated with toxic shock syndrome (or TSS), which is similar to a staph infection in your vagina. Although it’s a possibility when you use tampons, it’s rare, and it’s easy to decrease your chance of developing it.
To do so, make sure to only use the tampon with the lowest absorbency appropriate for your flow, and never leave a tampon in for more than 4-6 hours. This helps to reduce bacterial growth, and prevents things from getting too dry.
The other options out there
We’ve covered the two most common period products, but there’s a few more options that are quickly becoming popular. Let’s take a quick look at the other options out there…
Absorbent underwear (period undies)
Period undies are similar to reusable pads. They both work by absorbing blood into a fabric core, and they need to be cared for and washed in much the same way. The difference is that with period undies, you wear them just like regular underwear, and change the whole pair when they’re full. There’s nothing to stick on or remove.
Brands like Thinx and Modibodi advertise that they can hold up to two tampons worth of fluid in a single pair. Depending on your flow, that could mean that you don’t have to change them at all during the day.
Experimenting to find your ideal fit and absorbency level can be expensive (period undies can cost $24-$65 per pair), but many women find it’s worth it. And having a reusable option on hand can save a lot of money and waste over the course of a lifetime, even if they’re a little more expensive starting out.
Menstrual cups work similarly to tampons. They’re inserted inside the vagina and catch period blood before it leaves your body. The difference is that they’re reusable, they don’t dry out the vagina, and they can be worn for much longer than a tampon – up to 12 hours before needing to be emptied. Like other reusable period products, you’ll still need to replace your menstrual cup every 2-3 years for hygiene reasons.
The main concern of menstrual cups is that they can be a little difficult to insert and use, especially the first few times. You may need to do some experimenting to work out which fold technique works best for you. You may also need to try a few styles and shapes before you find your ideal fit, but most brands will provide a sizing guide to help you find the right one.
As long as you insert them with clean hands and take care to wash, remove, and store them carefully, menstrual cups are a safe and eco-friendly option for managing your period. But if you aren’t committed to storing them correctly and cleaning them regularly, a disposable option may still be the best for you.
Not sure what’s best for you?
There’s no shame in not finding what works for you straight away.
If you aren’t sure if a period product is suitable for you (especially if you’ve had issues with products in the past, or if you have an existing gynaecological issue), it’s best to talk to your GP. They can provide product recommendations, guidance for usage, and let you know which option will work best for you, they can also refer you to Northside Gynaecology for more serious issues.
To book an appointment with one of Northside Gynaecology’s all-female team members, click here.