I like to think I know my fair share about alternative period hygiene. I've edited plenty of pieces about why menstrual cups are great, I can rattle off the names of all the alternative menstrual products out there, and I've even written about the risks of the chemicals that are in non-organic, bleached tampons. So you'd think my period game would be on fleek.
But you'd be wrong.
Every month is a sortied affair for me — even though I love using the app Period Tracker, it still manages to catch me by surprise every time, and I end up scrambling to the nearest store to grab a box of organic tampons. While I've been feeling pretty proud of myself ever since I made the switch to menstrual products that aren't doused in bleach and pesticides, I know that no matter what kind of tampon I use, the environmental impact is real. The average woman produces a total of 62,415 pounds of garbage from menstrual products over her lifetime, and will spend over $18,000 buying them. Since I want to create less waste, I knew it was time to give a menstrual cup, sponge, or any of the many other reusable options out there a try.
But I put it off — because honestly, I was scared. Scared that a cup might mess with my IUD by accidentally making me pull at the string (highly unlikely, and though my OBGYN said it shouldn't be a problem, you should exercise extra caution). Scared that I'd open myself up to more risks of vaginal infection by using reusable products (also unlikely if you clean them correctly). But most of all, I was squeamish about putting my fingers too far up in myself — it's the same reason I've been avoiding checking that my IUD string is in the right place every month, the way I know I should.
Since that last aversion has confused me and challenged my identity as a supposedly body-positive feminist, I decided it was time to confront it.
I would try a different alternative menstrual product on each day of my period: my usual organic tampons, THINX period underwear, the SoftCup, a good old-fashioned maxi pad, a menstrual cup, and the sea sponge. All these products aim to be more environmentally friendly, and several of them would let me confront my fear of getting up close and personal with my cervix and blood. By the end, I hoped to learn which choice was really best for me.
Day 1: Maxim Organic Tampons
I was caught off-guard, since my period started a full week ahead of the projected start date. So I just grabbed my usual Maxim organic tampons, and decided I could buy the other products later.
Cost: $8.49 for a box of 16
Pros: Easy to use, organic cotton without all the bad stuff, you can't feel them in you
Cons: Still creates landfill waste (even cardboard applicators can't be recycled!), you need to remember to change and buy them, trying to use a cardboard applicator after a shower is annoying
Day 2: Nothing
On day two, my very early, light period disappeared. Vanished. I assumed that maybe Day 1 had been a false spotting alarm, but oh, was I wrong.
Day 3: The SoftCup
On day three, my period came back with a vengeance. I decided to buy a box of SoftCups, the disposable menstrual cups.
I read the instructions on how to fold the SoftCup in half, and stuck it in me easily. (The manual warned that there was a learning curve, and to try to start using it on lighter days of your period at first, but I'd already made my period bed.) I was pleased to find that it wasn't difficult to insert the SoftCup. It was a lot like using an o.b. tampon, and once I got it in, I couldn't even feel it; the cup was even less noticeable than a tampon.
I felt smug knowing that I could put something besides a tampon and a penis in myself. My happiness was stifled, however, when I went to the bathroom and saw that I was leaking. A lot.
I pulled the SoftCup out of myself — which (this time) wasn't too hard — and man, the blood was all over my hand. It felt both satisfying and messy to come head-to-head with my period blood and interior vag more than I ever had with a tampon, and to see that I wasn't grossed out by it much at all. Actually, I just felt badass, like I was going to go kill Bill or something.
I put a new SoftCup in, and I'm not sure if I wasn't putting it in well each time, if my flow was too heavy, or if it was just the product, but I ended up leaking so much that I needed to use a pad underneath, just for backup.
Cost: $19.50 for a box of 14
Pros: Potentially less wasteful than pads and tampons, easy intro to getting comfortable with the idea of sticking new things up into yourself
Cons: Leaked, hard to take out (more on that in a sec)
Day 4: THINX Underwear
The Hiphugger model I was using claims to be able to hold two tampons' worth of blood, so I expected I'd at least feel like I was wearing a pad. But I slipped them on, and they felt ... awesome. Sexy, even (and nowhere near as big as they look in the picture). I didn't feel like I was wearing a pad or even a pantyliner — more like something between seamless underwear and a very comfy swimsuit bottom. I felt protected, and like myself, without that pad-diaper feeling. I would have taken a picture of myself wearing them, but I wouldn't want to break the Internet, so here's a model wearing them.
My flow was still heavy, but as I wore them for nearly 24 hours (including sleeping in them), I was amazed that they did not once leak, smell (unless I put my nose up to the inside of the crotch directly), or start to feel too wet (though it did feel slightly wetter than wearing a tampon — the feeling was closer to maybe how you'd feel wearing a pantyliner on a spotting day). I could have kept wearing them even longer, if it wasn't so unhygienic.
When I rinsed them out in the sink (what you're supposed to do before throwing them in the wash) I saw that yes, indeed, I had been bleeding a lot. Definitely at least two tampons worth. But it had all been absorbed — what was this sorcery?! I went online and immediately ordered myself another pair. I plan to use THINX when I sleep, or for those light flow days when I feel too dry to stick something up my junk, but still need protection.
Cost: $34 for Hiphugger model (other lighter-flow models retail for less)
Pros: Easy, cute and comfy, they worked even on my heaviest flow day, no hassle, totally reusable, they donate a pack of reusable pads to charity when you buy a pair
Cons: Limited smell if you wear them a while, some slight wetness (again, if you wear them for a long-ass time)
Leakage: Not a drop
After THINX, I felt gross wearing a pad. Not only did I have a cold, but I also felt like I was wearing a wet diaper, since my flow was still heavy. Even though the Maxim Pad works well, I just don't like pads much, so I decided to take it off and put another SoftCup in. A few hours in, though, the cup was leaking again, and I decided it was time to take it out.
I squatted over the toilet ... but I couldn't get it out. Every time I tried to grip around the SoftCup edges, it seemed to slip out of my grasp. I started clenching up and getting frustrated and nervous, with that awful, stomach-flip feeling you get when something's in you that you don't want to be there. After attempting to pull it out and failing for 10 minutes, I started getting really freaked out, and called my boyfriend in the bathroom. Sh*t was about to get real.
"I think you're going to need to pull this out of me." He nodded like a surgeon, washed his hands, and got it out on the first try. "That wasn't so hard," he said matter-of-factly. I balanced my urges to propose to him on the spot and smack him, and settled on "See, that's true love." He washed my blood off his hands, and I have to say, it was kind of romantic.
Still, I was frustrated to have such concrete proof that I was more comfortable with him having his fingers up in me than I was using my own. My resolve deepened to find the DivaCup and break the fear once and for all.
Cost: $18.06 for a box of 10 (pricey because they are organic and unbleached, but you can find them for less online)
Pad Pros: Easy, absorbant
Pad Cons: Smell, diaper/wet feeling
Pad Leakage? Some at night
Day 6: DivaCup
Finally feeling well enough to go into work, I headed to the nearby Whole Foods pharmacy in the morning and picked up the DivaCup I'd been dreaming about trying for days, but hadn't been able to procure at my local Brooklyn pharmacy. After my SoftCup experience, I wasn't scared — the worst had already happened, and I'd survived.
I read Bustle's tips for inserting it the first time, skimmed the instructions, and wet the rim of the cup in my office bathroom. I then folded the cup into what Bustle's Gabrielle Moss calls "the grinning clown," pulled aside my labia with one hand, and put it in with the other. At first, I could feel it, so I reinserted it again, pushing the tip of the cup a little further in so that it was "even with my labia," as the instructions said. I couldn't feel it at all. Like, less-than-a-tampon couldn't feel it. I was ecstatic.
When I needed to poop later that morning, I decided to try going with it in, something you shouldn't (and usually can't) do with a tampon. While I did feel it in there, when I was done going to the bathroom, I simply washed my hands, went back into the stall, and pushed the tip back in, and couldn't feel it again.
I mostly forgot I was wearing it all day, which is fine, since you can leave it in up to 12 hours. When I got home, I was nervous about taking it out because of my SoftCup fiasco, but found this was much, much easier. Since the cup is shaped like a mini funnel, you simply squat and push like you're pooping, and then pull the tip out. Easy, and no great mess. I took mine out in the shower, and washed it out there — though cold water is recommended for washing in general. I found it oddly satisfying to see how much of the cup I'd filled up. I put it back in and slept with it comfortably all night.
Cost: $35 bucks for the cup and $12 for the DivaCup wash.
Pros: Can't feel it, can be reused for up to 10 years, great for the enviornment, relatively easy to insert, easy to remove, can be worn up to 12 hours on super light or heavy days
Cons: If you're in a place where it would be hard to wash your hands or get to a bathroom to clean it once a day, that would be a problem, but other than that, can't find one
Day 7: The Sponge
These are apparently all the rage in Europe, and are made of real sea sponges — as in, sea sponges harvested from the m*therf%cking ocean. They can be reused for three to six months.
I followed the instructions for cleaning the sponge for the first time, soaking it and checking for "hard surfaces." When there weren't any, I soaked it in the DivaCup wash, and then wrung it out.
Then I tried to push it up me. It was clear that since this was a "medium day"-size sponge, and I was now on one of the light, final days of my period, this wasn't going to happen comfortably. The instructions said I could trim the sponge to my ideal size by cutting along the perimeter, so I did, cutting it into a tampon-like rocket shape.
It was easier to stick up in me, for sure, but it definitely felt like having a sponge in me. I can see how I probably botched this by waiting to use it 'til my flow was so light and cutting it myself, but I was not a huge fan (though I may give another try during my next period). After about three hours, I felt too aware of it and uncomfortable, so I took it out and just went back to the DivaCup.
Pros: Reusable for three to six months, great for the environment, truly all-natural
Cons: Felt exactly like having a sponge in me, has to be changed every three to six hours, has to be washed carefully and often
Leakage: No, but my flow was light
As you might have guessed, I'll be using a menstrual cup during the day, and the occasional pair of THINX panties from now on. I love that they will create less waste, and feel even easier to use and less noticeable than tampons. That said, I'm sure that I'll still use organic tampons and panty liners whenever I'm caught without the cup.
What humbled me about this experience was how much time, money, and paper I've wasted by being afraid of trying these new products. Specifically, I'm troubled by the fact that at nearly 28 years old, I'm still sometimes uncomfortable on a visceral level with feeling deep in myself, or of something getting stuck in me. I got an IUD six months ago, and I know that I'm supposed to be checking the string after every period to make sure it's still in the right place. I haven't been. Something about it has kept making my stomach churn, making me feel queasy.
I don't want there to be any parts of my body I'm afraid to touch, or that my partner feels more comfortable accessing than I do. Using these products — even the SoftCup — helped me combat that fear. I felt more empowered as a result; especially feeling just how strong my vaginal walls are. Like, no wonder I've been intimidated by them. They will cut a bitch.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go see a cervix about a string.
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Images: Kenny Suleimanagich, Rachel Krantz/Bustle