by Marena Gibson
The menstrual cycle is the natural, monthly series of changes a woman's body undergoes to prepare for a potential pregnancy, and therefore the most important biological process for reproduction and survival of the human race.
Every month, a woman’s uterus builds up a lining of blood and tissue, known as the endometrium, which prepares the body for pregnancy. If a woman becomes pregnant, the fertilized egg will implant itself within this uterine lining, and gestation (pregnancy) begins. During pregnancy, women do not get their periods.
If a woman doesn’t become pregnant, the lining will shed from the walls of the uterus and exit through the vagina. This happens for 3-5 days a month, and is called menstruation, but is more commonly referred to as “having your period.” A period is the 3-5 days during which this shedding process occurs.
Young women start having their periods roughly the same time they go through puberty, between the ages of 9 and 16. Women will continue to have their periods into their 50s, until it stops; this is called menopause.
This is a helpful informational video on menstruation, and uses animations to show what goes on in a woman’s body during her period.
Periods are a natural process that are not only universal to women, but to the human experience: Without periods, there wouldn’t be people!
But the bleeding that accompanies periods poses a logistical problem for women. Releasing blood and tissue from the vagina for up to a week can get in the way of most activities, and free bleeding (having your period without using any feminine hygiene products) is not a realistic option for most women. Not only does it stain clothing, sheets, and anything else we sit on, but the unfortunate social stigma alone makes it all but impossible to free bleed without attracting a ridiculous amount of negative attention. In several cultures, it is considered offensive to hang out any clothing with period stains to dry, and some even shun women until they finish their periods.
Feminine hygiene products have been the go-to answer for the blood and tissue that is shed during periods, but both disposable and reusable options pose significant problems for women, their health, and the environment. But if going without also causes these issues, what's a viable, long-term answer to a problem that women have had to deal with for hundreds of thousands of years since our species existed?
Today’s disposable sanitary products have made it much easier for women to manage their periods. However, like all single-use items, this means that they will ultimately become waste. Here’s a snapshot of the environmental impact of feminine hygiene products:
Cotton Farming & Tampons
The cotton fiber used in tampons contributes to 80% of their environmental impact. How can this be? If you take a closer look, it’s easier to understand the problems it causes:
Feminine hygiene products are a double-edged sword for women when it comes to their health. On one hand, inadequate feminine hygiene resources can lead to health problems; on the other, the chemicals of feminine hygiene products can do the same.
Dioxins are a class of toxic chemicals; according to the EPA, they are the "most potent synthetic carcinogens yet tested". The bleaching process of cotton introduces dioxins into tampons, and although new bleaching methods have been adopted in an attempt to stop this, dioxin is still detected. The concentrations are extremely low--anywhere from undetectable to 1 part in 3 trillion-- but even trace amounts can be a problem, and may adversely affect both the reproductive and immune system. Dioxins bioaccumulate, meaning the levels in your body build up over time, and have been linked to endometriosis.
And yet, going without feminine hygiene products isn't a simple fix. Poor menstrual hygiene can cause reproductive diseases, and has been linked to cervical cancer.
Curious to see how women have dealt with periods and feminine hygiene for the last century? Check out this short video below:
From an early age, women are taught to be ashamed of certain parts of their bodies and bodily functions that go along with them, which includes menstruation.
In middle school, there was nothing more embarrassing than people seeing one of your tampons or pads in your backpack, and girls learned to hide them up their sleeves when going to the bathroom. Leaking through a pad/tampon and staining your pants equated to absolute humiliation, and quickly turned to gossip.
As the years pass, people tend to care less, and the newness wears off. Still, I always feel a tinge of embarrassment when buying tampons or pads, and I have to remind myself that there's nothing to be ashamed of; it's the most natural human bodily function there is, and more than half of the global population experience it. However, women experience it in different ways.
The Importance of Reliable Access to Feminine Hygiene Products
It may sound dramatic, but feminine hygiene products are life-changing.
It has been documented again and again that girls without adequate access to these products miss school during menstruation, and are likely to drop out of school within a few years of having their first periods. And the less education girls have, the more likely they are to marry young, and less likely to earn any independent income.
Inadequate access to feminine hygiene products affects men, too. School isn't the only thing women can't participate in. Take India, for example: Social taboos around periods dictate that women can't visit temples or public places, or cook, or touch the water supply. As discussed in my last post, women bear the majority of water management for their households, and often have to walk several miles to get it. But every month, for anywhere from a few days to a week, a menstruating woman can't fetch water, which means the entire family suffers.
But women in developing countries often don't have any money to spare for feminine hygiene products if they want to have enough to purchase food. This leads to women using whatever they can: Sand, sawdust, leaves, ash, and unwashed rags previously used for menstruation can be used. On top of this, it is frowned upon for women who use cloths or rags to dry them in the sun, and so they aren't properly cleaned. Proper cleaning is also an issue in areas where water is scarce, and none can be sacrificed for washing a reusable sanitary cloth.
One Man, One Mission, Several Obstacles
When Arunachalam Muruganantham discovered that his wife, Shanthi, had been hiding her makeshift sanitary napkins from him, he was shocked by their unhygienic condition. But in the poor region of southern India where he lived, this is not uncommon-- across the entire country, only about 12% of women use proper sanitary pads, and the rate is lower for rural communities.
He wanted to help the women of his village. First he tried buying a cotton pad for his wife, but it turns out that the price of a sanitary napkin was 40 times that of the same amount of cotton it was made from. He started making his own, and asked women to test them, but society got in the way.
Even with affordable, reusable pads, women in India are discouraged from proper cleaning and drying of them, and sufficient hygiene is not attained. Feminine hygiene itself is a taboo topic, so much so that Muruganantham was ousted from his village and accused of being a pervert, or perhaps having a sexual disease; even his wife and mother shunned him.
Still he trudged on, and eventually built that revolutionized feminine hygiene in his country. Its benefits were enormous:
Following his triumph, about 5 years after leaving home, his family and village welcomed him back, and was even thanked for the difference it had made in the lives of their girls and women.
For a more in-depth look at his story, you can read a BBC article on him here, or watch his own TED talk on the subject here.
THE SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION
How can we address these issues? Luckily, women are increasingly gaining access not only to feminine hygiene products, but to sustainable feminine hygiene products, which kills two birds with one stone.
Though Muruganantham didn't set out to make pads with sustainability in mind, the efficiency and practicality required for the success of his project all but required it. But after considering the multitude of problems associated with feminine hygiene, it's easy to see why sustainability is not just important for better products, it is a natural outcome of the effort to create them.
Days for Girls
Days for Girls is a non-profit that is dedicated to bringing feminine hygiene products to girls and women around the world to improve their lives, and enable them to stay in school. Here's their mission:
"Days for Girls envisions a world where menstruation is no longer a source of shame and taboo. Through volunteers, through enterprises, and through public and private partnerships, Days for Girls is working to shift how women and girls see themselves and are seen by their communities. We offer girls and women with new life choices and spur narrative change, through providing sustainable hygiene solutions, health education, and income-generation opportunities."
Days for Girls tackles feminine hygiene issues with several factors in mind, and are able to change lives with a simple, sustainable cloth pad. The results are threefold: girls stay in school and have better futures; they can work and make their own cloth pads to sell and earn independent income; and their use of long-lasting cloth pads both diverts waste from landfills and reduces the environmental impacts associated with production of pads and tampons. Their massive network of volunteers, equipped with instructions on how to easily make these hygiene kits, will help ensure the long-term success of the program. There are seven chapters of volunteers in New Jersey alone!
Spotlight: Zero Waste Bathroom Kits
I'm excited to share one of Zoom Out Mycology's latest developments! Carefully selected products from environmentally responsible businesses have been assembled in our new Zero Waste Bathroom Sustainability Kits. We take the guesswork out of practicing responsible consumerism, meaning less stress for you while still knowing that you're doing your part for the planet. Our kit provides toothbrushes, sponges, conditioner, face wash, soap, toothpaste, and more; everything you need for your daily bathroom routine. It also includes feminine hygiene products if you choose this option.
The feminine hygiene products in our kit come from GladRags. They are sustainable, reusable cloth pads made from cotton; despite the environmental impact made by using cotton, the reusability and lifetime of these pads more than offset this, because they last for 5 years. The GladRags company also donates profits to UnTabooed, a non-profit committed to "breaking the taboo surrounding menstruation by providing menstrual health education and reusable menstrual products to menstruators in need, and promoting the conversation among people everywhere".
*Note: Some of these items are contained in plastic for safety purposes. However, all plastic used is recycled plastic that was manufactured by companies who actively contribute to the environment and participate in community development.
Office on Women's Health, US Department of Health and Human Services
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
United Nations Girls' Education Initiative
Days for Girls International
Lunapads. "Why Switch? Environment."
Endometriosis Association: "Endometriosis & Dioxins." (2009)
Venema, Vibeke. "The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary." March 4, 2014. BBC News.
Ted@ Bangalore. Arunachalam Muruganantham: "How I started a sanitary napkin revolution!" May 2012.
Mazgaj, M., Yaramenka, K., & Malovana, O. (2006). Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Sanitary Pads and Tampons. Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm.
Our Environmental Science blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle!