Period Product Musings

menstruation Dec 29, 2020

Even though I’ve been traveling down the period products aisle at grocery stores for the last, oh, 31 years, I still sometimes get turned around. 

Maybe this has happened to you before too. 

You meant to buy a regular pack of pads with wings but when you open it up you discover they’re actually 3 feet long and tickle your belly button or crawl up the small of your back when you stick them in your undies.  You look at that *unhelpful* outline on the package wondering where you went wrong. 

Shouldn’t there be a graphic scale for us to follow kind of like they do at the bottom of maps? 

But don’t ask us to estimate inches here, right?! 

Give us a reference point we can relate to.  For example, this pad is the size of 3 lipsticks end to end, or 2 iPhone 8s (yes I’m still in the dark ages), or the size of a King Size Hershey’s bar which we know you placed into the cart along with your pads.

(Did you know our craving for chocolate during our periods maybe our bodies searching for some extra magnesium?  Just try to shoot for the dark chocolate, friends! You’re welcome for this little nugget or should I say nougat….just a bit of chocolate humor for you!)

Or what about the packages that list that helpful “drip” chart trying to tell us how absorbent they are?

What does this even mean? 

This pad will hold 4 “drips worth” of period blood but if you want 8 “drips worth” then head to the end of the aisle where the adult diapers are stocked???? 

I’m confused.  And if we’re confused, think about the poor tweens and teens who are getting their period for the first time.  

I thought it could be helpful to put pen to paper (or I guess fingers to keys in this instance) to spell out the myriad of choices we have these days.

Let’s start with the 2 different categories of menstrual products. 

There are products that are worn on the outside of the body to collect your menstrual blood (pads and period underwear), and there are products such as tampons and cups that are inserted into your vagina to collect blood from the inside.

Menstrual Pads and Period Underwear

Pads can be disposable or reusable (soaked and washed in the laundry after each use to be worn again).  Disposable pads come in all shapes and sizes, with or without wings (the protective strips on the side to help minimize leakage), and of varying absorbency levels. They usually contain an adhesive backing to stick into the crotch part of your underwear. 

Reusable pads are often made of soft cotton flannel, terrycloth, or organic cotton and can be found with a myriad of fun patterns and designs.  They come with snaps to snap around and under the crotch part of your undies and can also be found in a variety of lengths and absorbency levels, often with the option to add extra inserts based on your period flow.  They can be transferred to a “wet bag” until you’re ready to soak them in cold water before washing them in the laundry and then either tossing them in the dryer or hanging them to dry until their next use. 

Pads are a great option if you are looking for an external way to manage your monthly bleeding, and they are very easy to use; however, they are not an option for swimming or participating in certain sports that require costumes and uniforms that may show a bulky pad underneath. 

In that case, period underwear and swimsuits may be a better option if you are looking for a more discrete, external method to manage your monthly cycle.  Most period underwear can hold about 2 tampons worth of blood in the crotch part of the undies, but they are usually less absorbent than disposable pads so maybe a better option for lighter days, as a back-up for heavier days when using another collection method, or for younger teens with unpredictable cycles as a “just in case” method.  There is also period swimwear that operates under a similar pretense in that period blood is captured in special moisture-wicking fabric and is usually best for lighter period days or use with another collection method (tampons or cups) on heavier days.  

Pads and period underwear should be changed when they feel more wet than dry, at least every 4 hours, or each time you go to the bathroom.

Tampons and Menstrual Cups

Tampons and menstrual cups are products that are inserted into your vagina to collect period blood as it leaves the cervix before it even reaches the outside of the body. 

Tampons contain bundles of absorbent material and come in different sizes (light, regular, super, and super plus).  These bundles can be inserted into your vagina using an applicator (plastic or cardboard) or without an applicator and using your fingers only.  If you are new to using a tampon, it’s easier to start with the smallest size tampon and a plastic applicator. 

Empty your bladder first so your muscles are relaxed.  Remember there are THREE openings in your vulva.  The urethra is way too small to fit a tampon.  The anus may fit a tampon BUT you will know right away you have inserted it into the wrong hole. 

Remove it, THROW IT AWAY, and try again! 

Tampons go into the vagina (the middle “hole”).  Use your thumb and middle finger to hold the tampon, insert it all the way into the vagina, angling it mostly horizontal towards your tailbone, and then use your pointer finger to push the plunger and release the bundle of absorbent material into the vagina.  The only remaining part visible will be the string that is used to remove the tampon.  The plastic applicator is then thrown away. 

Tampons should be removed every 4 hours or more or each time you go to the bathroom.  To remove the tampon, consider emptying your bladder first to completely relax the muscles.  Then gently pull the string downward as you relax until the bundle of absorbent material comes out which you can wrap and toss in the garbage.

Once you’ve mastered tampons, you might want to try a reusable internal collection device called a menstrual cup.  These are folded and inserted into the vagina with your fingers, and they sit right underneath your cervix and can catch your period blood for up to 10-12 hours depending on flow. 

To remove, gently insert a finger into your vagina to “break the seal”, gently relax and bear down slightly to work the cup towards the vaginal opening, remove the cup with your fingers, dump the blood in the toilet, and then wash thoroughly with warm water and mild soap.  Cups can be re-inserted and then sanitized (boiled in a pot of water) between cycles.

Reusable pads, period underwear, and menstrual cups are more cost-effective in the long run, more eco-friendly, and can be made of fibers and materials that may be friendlier to your vulva.  But they do require a few extra steps to maintaining so some women will choose another method especially if traveling or not close to home.

As you can see, when it comes to period products, we have a LOT of choices. 

This doesn’t even account for choices about scented and unscented products or synthetic vs organic fibers. 

So the next time you are wandering down the period product aisle or ordering online, remember we are voting with our dollar, and our lady parts deserve better! When possible, choose unscented and organic products to protect the delicate vulvar and vaginal area, and don’t be afraid to experiment with a new method!

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