There are plenty of reasons to loathe tampons. They can be pricey and wasteful, and other environmental concerns about what convention hygiene products contain, like petrochemicals and GMO cotton, have been raised in recent years.
So it was only a matter of time before alternative options entered the market. Not ready to make the switch? There are any number of reasons you may decide to stick with the traditional tampon. That’s OK.
“Anything that you’re going to use for your period is a personal preference,” says Aspen Laneman, M.D., an OB-GYN with the Institute for Women’s Health, San Antonio. “There’s no single answer that’s right for everybody.” But if you're not totally happy with your current option, we think you might want to give at least one of these a try.
Read on to learn about five tampon substitutes and see if any are right for you.
1. Menstrual Cups
Menstrual cups, such as the DivaCup, are probably the most mainstream of tampon alternatives, says Carrie Sopata, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia. With these products, the rubber or silicone cup is folded and inserted into the vagina.
As it unfolds, the cup forms a seal with the walls of the vagina to catch blood, Sopata explains. You’re then free to go about the day as usual and empty, wash and reinsert the cup 12 hours later — a task you’ll likely want to do from the comfort of your home bathroom, Laneman says.
“It’s hard to change them out in a public restroom,” she says, “but since you don’t have to change them out more than twice a day, it’s fine.”
Not only does the cup offer an alternative to tampons, but many women actually prefer it. A 2011 study published in the journal Canadian Family Physician found menstrual cup users ranked the method higher than their peers who strictly used tampons for three cycles. About 90 percent of the cup users who had previously used tampons said they would keep using the cup and would recommend it to other women.
But don’t be motivated to make the switch out of fear of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), the life-threatening condition commonly attributed to high-absorbency tampons. A 2015 case study published in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology reported a 37-year-old woman developed TSS after the first time she used a menstrual cup, supporting the idea that TSS is not exclusive to tampon users.
“There are lots of reasons toxic shock occurs, and tampons are not the only reason,” Sopata says. In fact, fewer than half of TSS incidences are linked to tampons.
So what’s to blame? According to a 2011 study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, a bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus. The spreading of the bacteria can be the result of skin infections, surgery, childbirth and, yes, tampons or menstrual cups.
2. Menstrual Sponges
Here’s how they work: Sea sponges grown naturally in the ocean are used like a tampon. “You take a dry or not very wet sponge and push it into the vagina,” Sopata says. “As blood comes down from the cervix, it expands and creates a barrier between the inside of the vagina and the outside, much like a tampon does.”
Users report a comfort level that rivals that of tampons, though the sponges require a bit more maintenance. When you take one out, you’ll need to rinse and disinfect it before inserting it again. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a couple sponges in rotation, so you always have one on hand while the other dries, Sopata says.
3. Period Underwear
Any woman who’s lived in fear of having her period blood leak onto her pants might be uneasy about period underwear. However, these are designed to be leak free. The idea is an absorbent material (like the one used by the popular period underwear brand Thinx) catches the blood like a pad would, but without the added bulkiness.
“The nice thing about it is they’re antimicrobial, and even though they’re super absorbent, they’re not going to increase your risk of infection on the outside of the vagina or the vulva,” Sopata says. Women report period underwear feels comfortable and dry and doesn’t give off a bad odor, she says.
Another bonus: The most heavy-duty Thinx style can hold as much liquid as two tampons. Translation: long-lasting support — and confidence that your stain-free white pants will remain that way.
4. Knitted Tampons
Like tampons but don’t like the cost of restocking your supply every month? Hand-knitted tampons offer a way to cut expenses and deliver a more eco-friendly approach to menstrual care. But you may decide the downside — the fact that reusable tampons are more prone to causing infection — outweighs these benefits.
“Anytime you’re putting anything into the vagina you are introducing a risk of infection,” Sopata says. “Something like a homemade tampon could be hard to clean.”
While the vagina is filled with natural bacteria, inserting a tampon that’s been used — no matter how many times you try to disinfect it — could cause bacteria to multiply and spawn infections, Laneman says.
5. Reusable Pads
Each year, women around the world use more than 12 billion sanitary napkins and disposable tampons. That’s equal to 250 to 300 pounds of waste over the course of a woman’s life. For the eco-chick who’s looking for a nondisposable option that’s safer than the handmade tampons, reusable (and sometimes really cute!) maxi pads could be the answer.
Cloth pads, such as those from GladRags, are inserted in a holder and then placed along the lining of your undies just like a traditional pad. You change it once it’s become saturated, which could be two hours or six, depending on the heaviness of your flow.
Then you take the pad off as you would with a standard drugstore variety. But rather than tossing the used pad into the wastebasket, these can be washed and worn again and again. The GladRag team recommends soaking them in cold water followed by a spin in the washing machine in between uses.
One major pro to the reusable pads is that you won’t run into the same bacterial issues you would with a reusable tampon because you’re not inserting anything into the vagina, Laneman says. But many women could be turned off by the cons, which include messiness associated with washing the pads and the same comfort issues that lead many women to tampons in the first place.
What Do YOU Think?
Hey, ladies! Tell us what you think. Do you use traditional tampons or pads? Have you ever tried any of the above alternatives? What did you think? Are there other alternatives out there that you’d recommend? After reading, which option would you be most willing to try? Share your thoughts, suggestions and questions in the comments section below!