Most menstruating people would agree that periods are a pain. They can be messy, uncomfortable and leave you feeling drained and downright irritable.
While pads (AKA menstrual pads or sanitary napkins) have been the go-to feminine hygiene products for years (even centuries!), they’re not always the best option.
Whether you’re looking for something sustainable, eco-friendly or simply more comfortable, there are plenty of period product alternatives out there to suit you.
With the help of Robin Giles, a certified obstetrics-gynecology nurse practitioner with Banner -University Medicine, we’ve compiled a list of period products that will make your time of the month much more bearable.
Tampons are the most obvious next option and the easiest to get your hands on. You can often find tampon boxes beside pads in any grocer or pharmacy.
Tampons are a great alternative to pads for athletic activities, especially those with tight-fitting clothing like ballet and gymnastics. You can also swim, shower and bathe with tampons in.
A tampon is a soft, absorbent cotton or rayon-based product that is inserted into the vaginal canal and soaks up menstrual blood. Tampons tend to come inside plastic applicators, but some you insert with your index finger. All tampons have a string attached so they can be easily pulled out.
Like pads, tampons come in many sizes (absorbency) to suit your menstrual flow. This determines how much blood a tampon can absorb. The ratings include the following:
- Light or junior absorbency when your flow is the lightest
- Regular absorbency for most days of your period
- Super absorbent for a heavy flow
- Super plus or ultra-absorbent when you have extra heavy bleeding
Whatever tampon absorbency you choose, you should follow the safety guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“Wash your hands before inserting, never wear your tampon more than eight hours and use the lowest absorbency needed,” Giles said. “Leaving it in longer than recommended can increase your risk for toxic shock syndrome (TSS) and other health concerns.”
Tampon-related TSS is a rare and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection caused by either staphylococcus aureus or streptococcus pyogenes. While it has been historically linked with tampon use, TSS can occur for non-menstrual reasons.
“Signs of TSS to watch out for include chills, fever, rash and hypotension or low blood pressure,” Giles said.
A menstrual cup is a small, funnel-shaped device that is inserted into your vagina and collects menstrual fluid.
“They are positioned in the vagina and catch the blood rather than absorb it like a tampon or pad,” Giles said. “They can hold significantly more fluid than tampons, which means fewer trips to the bathroom.”
Cups come in different sizes and materials, such as latex and silicone rubber. Menstrual cups can be pricey, but because they are reusable, you could save money in the long run. They are also an excellent alternative to tampons if you are environmentally conscious.
Using a menstrual cup can also take some getting used to. Again, there is a learning curve to fitting it properly and removing it cleanly, but it can be very effective.
“Remember to wash your hands before you insert it and remove and rinse the cup out as needed or every four to eight hours,” Giles said.
Like a menstrual cup, a disc is also inserted into the vagina to sit and collect blood. They also take a bit of a learning curve to figure out.
The biggest difference is that discs sit deeper into the vaginal canal (above the cervix). This means you can participate in sexual activities without the mess.
Discs come in different sizes and materials and offer hours of protection. But most discs are not reusable, which means they are not great for the environment and could get expensive to replenish.
Menstrual underwear is a newer alternative and is very convenient for those uncomfortable using tampons, discs or cups.
“It’s like regular underwear but is made with materials that absorb menstrual blood,” Giles said. “They are available in different sizes, colors and styles as well as different absorbencies, such as light, heavy or overnight flow.”
Many period underwear brands can be expensive, but they can be washed, dried and reused, so the cost per use is lower.
Many people who use pads may avoid the pool and beach altogether during their period. However, thanks to period swimwear, they can now feel comfortable in the water.
This type of swimwear looks like a regular swimsuit but contains a hidden lining that helps absorb menstrual fluid and has leak-proof protection. It can also be worn alongside tampons and menstrual cups and discs.
But wait?! What about sea sponges?
You absolutely should NOT use sea sponges. Some people like them because they seem natural, but health care professionals urge people not to use them.
Sometimes sea sponges can have little bits of sand and rock and other particles. You also cannot sterilize them like you can with menstrual cups and discs.
Sea sponges can also increase your risk of TSS because they naturally contain bacteria.
If you’re considering switching pads to another product, there’s no time like the present.
Here’s how to choose the right option for you:
- Talk to your health care provider about alternatives and which might work for you.
- Try using one of the alternatives at home on a light day of your period.
- Double up. Use an alternative with a panty liner or thin pad to avoid leaks.
- Stop using alternatives if you experience side effects.
Talk to your provider if you are concerned about your period and/or have questions about different care products. You can find a Banner Health specialist near you at bannerhealth.com.