Maybe you've stayed faithful to your trusty tampons or pads ever since Aunt Flow's first visit. Still, it'd be hard not to notice the hype around reusable feminine hygiene products—menstrual cups, period underwear, reusable tampons—that's all over the Internet (and even the subway).
But are they up to par with your tampon? Before you go with the flow for another month, get the facts on these other options.
1. Menstrual Cups
Though menstrual cups are quietly gaining popularity, they’re hardly a new idea. The first commercially viable cup was patented in 1937—but wasn’t an overnight hit.
“Because you have to be so 'vagina-friendly' and a little more bold to use it, I don’t think it’s really caught on,” says Sherry Ross, M.D., an OB/GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. In other words, you have to be comfortable inserting your fingers into your vagina more so than you do with a tampon. (If you're familiar with using a diaphragm for contraception, inserting a menstrual cup is very similar.)
Ross admits cups can be a little messier and more challenging at first to insert than a tampon, but in the end, “it’s a really sensible way of collecting blood during your period.”
A few of the perks: Using cups can be less expensive than using tampons (since you’re not constantly buying replacements), it’s more environmentally friendly (since you’re not tossing paper and cellulose), and it’s less maintenance (you need to change a cup only every 10 to 12 hours).
Plus, when inserted correctly, menstrual cups have a very low chance of leakage, says Raquel Dardik, M.D., an OB/GYN for Langone Medical Center in New York City. They are also "very safe and very sanitary," Dardik says. One brand, The DivaCup, makes its product with medical-grade silicon, which doesn’t hold bacteria, she says, lowering your risk for issues such as a yeast infection or toxic shock syndrome. (Though it turns out your risk of TSS is relatively low to begin with.)
And with the wide selection available today (in addition to DivaCup, there's The Keeper, Mooncup, Shecup, Softcup, Yuuki, and Lunette, just to name a few) and a variety of sizes (depending on whether or not you've given birth), you can take your pick. While the reviews are mixed—read here and here for first-person accounts—overall, once you get the hang of it, the results seem to be positive.
Docs agree: Go for it.
2. Period Undies
There’s less selection and research available on these, but the only real risk with period underwear seems to be leakage. Thinx may be the most recognized, but a recent Kickstarter for a new company called Padkix proves there’s growing interest.
Donning these undies is probably fine, Dardik says. Like a reusable pad, they're "safe and external." While Thinx talks up the thin coating of antimicrobial silver on its underwear, that's basically marketing jargon. Dardik says that since these are external pads, they don't need to be antimicrobial. (And there's nothing inherently unsanitary about menstruation.)
But a few big questions remain: Are period undies more comfortable than wearing a pad? What if your period is heavy or you’re clotting? Thinx says it has that covered (though suggests using a tampon in conjunction if you have a heavier flow). And a first-person account indicates you’re not "sitting in blood" all day. Still, Ross says they are probably best for someone with a lighter period.
Docs agree: Give it a shot, especially if you have lighter periods.
3. Reusable Tampons
Here’s where things get a little trickier. We found lots of reusable knit tampons (typically made from organic cotton, bamboo cloth, or hemp) on the Internet—but none mass-produced by a company. Meaning (surprise!): There’s not a lot of reliable information or research.
"The issue I have with a crochet tampon is there's no way to make sure there's not a huge nest of bacteria growing on it,” Dardik says. If you’re looking into these tampons because you're concerned about alleged asbestos, dioxins, or bleach in store-bought brands, know that's also bogus. Dardik says there’s no hard science to indicate the big brands—Tampax, Playtex, Kotex—are harmful when used correctly.
Another strike against reusable tampons: Ross says that you don’t know how often you need to replace them, while Dardik noted that your washing machine doesn’t get hot enough to sterilize anything—and you’re definitely not sterilizing it if you’re washing by hand. Bottom line: “I don’t think there’s enough information on the record for these yet,” Ross says.
Docs agree: Check with your own doc first or skip entirely.