Periods and Menstrual Care
Author: Sunny Rodgers, ACS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARI SAPERSTEIN
Throughout history, women have had to be inventive when it came to sanitary products. In ancient Rome, women created makeshift tampons from wool. Japanese women fashioned tampons from rolls of paper. As early as the 10th-century women used rags or folded strips of cloth to staunch menstrual blood until Lister’s Towels were launched in 1897 by Johnson & Johnson.
In the United States, disposable sanitary napkins were first created in military hospitals from bandages used to absorb blood. When nurses started to purpose these napkins during their periods, Kimberly, Clark and Co. began to market them as mass-produced menstrual sanitary pads in 1920. Kimberly-Clark’s marketing agency, Charles F.W. Nichols Company, suggested changing the product name to Kotex, short for “cotton textile”. Kotex launched a series of public advertisements in 1921 promoting their products as helping to guard against “emergencies.”
In 1946, Kotex partnered with Walt Disney to create a short film entitled, The Story of Menstruation. Considered progressive for the time, the film covered how to track a menstrual cycle (and how correct posture could affect a good attitude about periods.) Apparently, this was the first time “vagina” was heard in a film.
From 1994 to 1998, some of the aforementioned items were housed in the Museum of Menstruation in Maryland (run by a 50-year old bachelor in his basement!) Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a Medical Division that includes a collection of menstrual products.
The Tampon Tax
According to research by the National Center for Health Research, the average American female is estimated to use over 16,000 tampons.
Tampons and other sanitary products used to manage menstrual flow have a value-added tax added to their purchase price. This is also known as "period poverty.” Proponents of tampon tax exemption believe that sanitary products are a basic necessity and should be made tax exempt.
According to PolitiFact, Viagra, an erectile dysfunction medication, is only taxed in Illinois, while Rogaine, a hair growth product, is exempt from taxes in eight states. Neither of these products is a monthly necessity.
Global protests have taken place in visible manners, such as a November 2015 protest where women wore white jeans on their periods in front of the Parliament building to protest the U.K.'s tampon tax.
How Can You Help?
Another great resource is the Menstrual Health Hub, a global organization that creates partnerships to promote worldwide menstrual health, provide education, and ways to make menstruation matter.
Sanitary Products & Intimate Care Options
Traditionally, sanitary products have consisted of pads, panty liners, and tampons. According to Well and Good, there are six harmful ingredients that are often found in mass-produced sanitary products – Rayon, Dioxin (a chemical result of chlorine processing), Non-organic Cotton, Fragrance, Chlorine, and BPA’s (a chemical found in some plastic items). However, menstrual cups and menstrual discs, as well as all-natural products made from organic unbleached cotton are becoming more popular as consumers strive to find healthier options.
The environmental impact of disposable sanitary products is also something to keep in mind. The Green Lantern found that the average menstruating American throws out approximately 250 to 300 lbs. of used menstrual pads, tampons, and applicators during a lifetime of menstrual cycles.
Menstrual Cups are gaining popularity because they don't contain chemicals, bleaches or fibers that can cause sensitivity or allergic reactions. These soft, bell-shaped cups made of flexible rubber, latex or silicone can be reused after a thorough cleaning— AND— they can be worn during sex play, making the experience less messy if desired.
Cleaning Menstrual Cups
Step 1: Clean Your Cups
Prior to use, menstrual cups need to be thoroughly cleaned. When using silicone menstrual cups, manufacturers recommend submerging cups in an open pot of clean, boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Deep cleaning with boiling water is suggested for before and after each cycle.
Step 2: Wash Your Hands
Prior to insertion, thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and a mild, fragrance-free soap.
Step 3: Insertion
For first-time users, it is recommended to wear your menstrual cup during the day to become comfortable with positioning, insertion, and removal prior to wearing it overnight.
For bell-shaped menstrual cups, use both hands and position the stem pointing downward. Flatten the cup and fold the sides of the cup together to form a “U” shape. Or, for a smaller insertion surface, place a finger on the top rim of the cup and press it down into the center of the inside base to form a triangle.
Once folded, hold firmly in the folded position with one hand.
Get into a comfortable position for insertion and mindfully relax your vaginal muscles.
Very gently separate your labia with your free hand and insert your menstrual cup into your vaginal canal. Take care to direct it toward your tailbone and not directly towards your cervix.
Cups have a tendency to open before completely inserted. This is normal.
Continue to insert towards your tailbone (at the base of your spine) until the menstrual cup stem is even with the vaginal opening and is not protruding.
Do not push the tip of the stem further than a ½ inch into the vaginal canal because this will hinder removal and may cause leakage.
Step 4: Customize Your Fit
Once your menstrual cup is inserted in the proper position, it is important to rotate the cup 360 degrees to ensure that it’s completely open and placement is secure. This aids in a more comfortable and effective fit.
The Keela Cup is available for pre-order. Using a patented pull-string loop, the Keela Cup was created with disabled people in mind. Their marketing is intentionally gender-neutral, making this a cup that can be utilized by everyone.
JIMMYJANE recently started an entire Intimate + Care collection that includes reusable silicone menstrual cups.
Menstrual Discs, such as FLEX, are soft, flexible, disposable cups that resemble a diaphragm.
Both menstrual cups and discs are designed to collect menstrual fluid for disposal later rather than absorb it. Some people prefer menstrual cups and discs because they can be safely worn up to 12 hours.
According to 1 Million Women, up to 20 tampons are used per cycle equaling 240 tampons a year. If a box of 18 tampons costs roughly $4, that’s $52 per year that can be reduced by using reusable products.
Sea Sponges, such as Sea Pearls, are sustainably harvested and free of toxins. Like menstrual cups, sea sponges can also be worn during sex play. As a bonus, sea sponges are also fully biodegradable when you’re done using them.
100% Organic Cotton Tampons, like those by Sustain and LOLA, are healthier alternatives to mass-produced, bleached counterparts. According to the National Center for Health Research’s report on Tampon Safety, although the FDA requires tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels in finished products; results are not available to the public. Why take risks with your health? When using insertable sanitary products, choose healthy options.
Reusable Tampons are cloth tampons that can be washed and reused. Honour Your Flow offers 100% organic cotton tampons in three sizes. The site Born to Love shares instructions on how to use baby socks to create your own reusable tampons.
All of these options are definitely things to keep in mind for your health, the environment, and for your wallet. Huffington Post estimates that the lifetime cost per person having a period racks up to $18,173.36—which doesn’t even account for chocolate and cramp relief products!
Period Side Effects:
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health states that over 90% of women exhibit some type of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Not all period side effects are common. Research by Adams State College found that a persons’ voice changes during their period. A study by the University of Hertfordshire established that people are more likely to go shopping ten days prior to their period. Who knew there was a science behind emotional purchases!
Some of the most common symptoms that can accompany periods:
- Yeast Infections
- Canker Sores
- Joint Pain
- Mood Swings
- Sensitivity to Allergens
- Increased sex drive
- Back pain
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report that over half of people who menstruate have some level of pain from period cramps for 1-2 days every cycle. There are natural alternatives for relieving uncomfortable period symptoms.
7 Tips to Help with Period Pain:
1. Five Seasons Healing shares that Peppermint and Ginger Tea specifically support menstruation and can help ease period cramps.
2. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health research shows that Reducing Fat & Increasing Healthy Vegetables can ease the intensity of PMS and cramps.
3. Research shows that taking Magnesium Supplements can ease cramps by helping to regulate nerve and muscle functions.
4. As reported in Female Orgasms 101, Orgasms release pain-relieving endorphins that can help relieve period aches.
6. Aromatic Essential Oils – specifically lavender, clary sage or marjoram – can be massaged onto your stomach to ease menstrual cramps, according to gynecological research.
7. Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) — an herb known for its’ ability to relax conditions involving muscle spasms and tension (such as menstrual cramps and low back pain.) Try Vitanica Menstrual Support Vegetarian Capsules.
Do You Have Questions About Your Period?
Tampax offers an Ask The Expert feature on their website where period experts can provide answers.
LOOM, a reproductive health center in Los Angeles, has a Period Coaching Program that helps teach people about period concerns, including hormonal change awareness, how to track cycles, and natural alternatives for period pain management.