Code Red

By | March 6th, 2014 | Issues, Magazine, Sex, Upfront

Reusable menstruation products gaining popularity

That time of the month. The red river. Aunt Flo. Waving the red flag. Surfing the crimson tide. Shark week. The red sea. Opening the flood gates. Leak week. Nature’s monthly gift. Dracula’s teabag. Red house painters. Menstruation.

It’s not something people talk about very often. The workings of a woman’s reproductive organs are often considered taboo. This is one of the reasons that many people are not aware of options for dealing with your period other than mainstream, disposable pads and tampons, according to suppliers of reusable menstrual products.

Women may have heard of products like the DivaCup or reusable pads, but many aren’t aware of options that tend to be more sustainable, easier and healthier for dealing with a period.
Meagan Brockway, customer service representative at GladRags, said there are many bonuses to switching to sustainable and reusable options. GladRags, a company that was “inspired by the simple utility, earth-friendliness and comfort of cloth diapers,” according to their website, offers multiple sustainable menstrual options. The company was founded in Portland, Ore. in 1993 and their most popular items are their reusable cloth pads that you use, wash and reuse.

“Our pads are much more comfortable than their plastic counterparts,” Brockway said. “They’re very absorbent, but they’re not trapping any bacteria in because they’re breathable, because they’re cotton. So they’re a little more hygienic, as long as they’re taken care of.”

The history of using these types of cloth pads and other reusable menstrual products reach back hundreds of years. According to Ecomenses.com and The Museum of Menstruation website, ancient Egyptian women used papyrus and other materials to create early tampons. In Greece, women created tampons made out of lint and wood, according to Lunette.com’s “history of periods.” In the 20th century, women began to use cotton and cloth similar to reusable diapers. Throughout history, many cultures used tons of different materials that they washed and reused for their menstrual cycles, such as animal skins, grass, moss, ash, wool, wood shavings, sheep skins and — still used today — sea sponges.

Gloria Starita is the owner of Jade & Pearl, a Florida-based company offering natural sea sponges as a menstruation alternative based in Florida. Starita discovered the option of sea sponges — or sea “pearls,” as the website advertises — after being diagnosed with cervical dysplasia in the ‘70s and was told she could no longer use tampons. She started researching and discovered that Cleopatra had used sea sponges, and decided to try them.

“I wasn’t trying to sell sponges, but women started to ask me what was I using,” Starita said. “And, of course, if I washed them out in a public bathroom, I would get all sorts of gasps.”

In 1996, Starita began selling her sea pearls and other products on a full-time basis, and her sponge business has blossomed. She said the popularity and awareness of reusable menstrual products is becoming more common, especially as women want to learn more about their body and what goes into it.

“Now all kinds of young women are saying ‘I don’t want to use toxic tampons, I don’t want to pollute the environment any longer, and I want to have something that’s economical, that’s there every month when I need it, something that can last up to a year,’” Starita said.

Sponges, as well as the SoftCup (a flexible, circular soft plastic cup that rests behind the pubic bone) are useful for women who are sexually active and are uncomfortable with sexual interaction while on their period, Starita said, since you can actually have intercourse while wearing one.

“You can have neat mess-free sex and your partner won’t even know you’ve got a sponge in since they’re so soft and comfortable,” she said. “We sell to a lot of sex workers, we sell to the oldest brothel in NYC.”

Sponges can be trimmed down to fit snugly inside a woman’s vagina and need to be changed every three to four hours, depending on your flow, similar to normal tampons and pads, Starita said. Jade & Pearl has sent sea pearls to developing countries and other underprivileged areas where women and girls may not have access to menstrual products, or would build up waste by using disposable products. She also argued that sponges and most other reusable products are much more convenient for women on the go.
“They’re so easy, so comfortable — anyone can use them. Anyone who is comfortable with their own body can use them,” Starita said.

Izzy Demmon, a sophomore at Ithaca College, is a self-proclaimed DivaCup advocate. The DivaCup is one of many different types of menstrual cups, all of which range in size, material and color. Some are made of rubber and are fully biodegradable, but most, like the DivaCup, are made of medical grade silicone and can last for up to five or 10 years if properly cared for. She said many women’s concerns with using a menstrual cup are that they need to look at their own blood and be more comfortable with their own biological functions when using a DivaCup, but that isn’t really a problem.

“One of the things when you use a DivaCup, or any menstrual cup, is you realize how much you don’t bleed,” Demmon said. “I don’t get grossed out by it — it’s not like you’re staring at it. You take it out, you dump it, you clean it.”

With any of the reusable menstrual products, Brockway argued that it’s much easier to get in touch with your own cycle because a woman has to be more aware of how her body works.
“It kind of promotes a better attitude about your period, in using reusables,” she said. “You’re a little more in touch with what’s going on. It becomes a little less of a taboo once you start using reusable products. You’re more involved in the process — you’re not wrapping something up and throwing it away.”

Demmon agreed, saying that using a DivaCup encourages a woman to become more comfortable with herself and her body.

“I think people are afraid to stick their hand up their own vagina to put it in. You have to be comfortable putting your hand up your own vagina, and I think a lot of people get weirded out by that,” she said. “To me, it seems such a small reason to not use something that makes life so much easier.”

Starita said that one of the main reasons reusable options are not more popular is because of some of the commercialization of tampons and pads.

“[Companies] have got it rammed down women’s throats: ‘if you want to be clean and sanitary and wear white pants while you’re menstruating, you’ve got to use our products,’” she said.
But the community surrounding reusable menstrual products is large, diverse and helpful for women interested in making “that time of the month” a little more green. It’s all about finding the community and joining the discussion, Brockway said.

“There’s a lot of support for getting the hang of using the menstrual cup,” she said. “They’re so much better than tampons because they’re collecting rather than absorbing, so they’re much easier on your body. You are kind of a fanatic if you get into it.”

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Samantha Guter is a sophomore journalism major who thinks about Mother Nature even after recieving nature’s monthly gift. Email her at sguter1[at]ithaca.edu

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