Reusable menstrual products growing in popularity

Teens and women are opting to use products that are better for the environment and less expensive in the long run

Reusable menstrual products

Photo Credit: Canva

Sanitary products have come a long way since women were enveloped in waterproof aprons under their dresses or wore cumbersome girdles and belts. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century, options have been limited to disposable panty liners, thick pads, and tampons.

But there has been a shift in the last couple of decades, with reusable and plastic-free products becoming increasingly accessible, giving women more options for their bodies and wallets.

On average, Canadian girls will start their first menstrual cycle between 11 and 14. By the time menopause hits, they will have had approximately 450 periods. That involves the use of many sanitary products, especially considering that globally, over half of the female population is of reproductive age.

The products on the market include eco-friendly pads, cups, and period underwear — some designed specifically for tweens and teens — and even period swimwear.

Many Montreal women who use these products say they are effective, better for the environment and cheaper to use in the long run.

Various products for different needs

The three most common kinds of products — cloth pads, cups, and period underwear — can take some getting used to, especially for tweens and teens, and preferences can be influenced by comfort, price, and activities.

Today’s cloth pads are very different from the strips of cloth and rags used a century ago. Made to be used and then washed, modern pads are softer, have increased absorbency and moisture-resistant layers, and come in a variety of styles, shapes, and sizes. Some are a single pad that is placed inside underwear, while others include underwear and absorbent pad inserts that you can wash and even double up on for heavier days. Improved fasteners on wraparound styles include snaps or Velcro, ensuring they’re easy to use for young teens and stay put during vigorous activity.

Another popular option is cups or discs, which are made using soft, pliable medical-grade silicone and are inserted like a tampon to hold the flow. Held in place internally by suction or by their shape, cups and discs generally hold between two to four tampons worth of blood and can be used when swimming and exercising. Using a menstrual cup can take some practice and women have to be somewhere where they can remove, empty and wash the cup. Some people prefer to double up and use a cup and a reusable pad for extra protection.

With an absorbent layer in the gusset, all-in-one period underwear can be used alone or as a backup to another product. Tweens and teens may opt to wear a pair in conjunction with a pad or cup if they are worried about leakage.

And for those who don’t want to use tampons or cups but want to continue swimming while menstruating, period swimwear is another option. With built-in layered absorbency than can hold up to two tampons worth of blood and leak-proof technology, the swimwear can be worn alone or used with additional pads for extra protection.

Major companies such as Cora are expanding their range of products.  The company’s reusable products are growing 75 percent year-over-year at retail locations and are now driving a quarter of the brand’s growth. The Perfect Fit Disc, its version of a menstrual cup that was introduced in 2021, is now the fastest-growing reusable disc in the category. Other brands offering similar products include Knix, nixit, The Eco Woman, Aisle (formerly Lunapads), and illum.

Cheaper and environmentally friendly

Canada eliminated the tax on menstrual products in 2015, but the monthly cost for throwaway items can be out of reach for homeless, low-income, and marginalized women. A 2019 study by Plan International Canada found that 34 percent of women and girls in Canada have had to regularly or occasionally sacrifice something else within their budget to afford menstrual products.

The lack of access to menstrual products (sometime referred to as period poverty), can lead to poor menstrual hygiene, decreased participation in school (or dropping out), and can contribute to a poor quality of life. Worldwide, organizations such as The Cup Foundation, AFRIpads, Plan International Canada, and Days for Girls are offering sustainable menstrual products to underprivileged girls, and some Canadian municipalities offer grants for these products.

AFRIpads. Credit: Plan International Canada

The upfront costs of reusable products is more expensive than buying disposables (a pair of period underwear costs around $30), but with the average Canadian woman spending approximately $6,000 during their lifetime on these products, buying reusable ones can lead to long-term savings.

Additionally, a 2021 report by the United Nations Environment Program found that reusable products have significantly lower environmental impact relative to single-use products. When cared for properly, reusable period pads can last for years, and a menstrual cup, almost a decade.

After using the same brand for more than a decade, Allison from Pointe-Claire is thinking about trying one of the newer styles now available.  “When I got the DivaCup it was one of only a few options,” she said. “But I think that there are some that may better fit my body and cervix. So I think that it’s time to explore other options. With reusable products, I love the ease of use and that there is no waste or bleach. I switched after having my first kid and never looked back.”

Many teens are using these products

Considering the number of products used in a lifetime, exploring alternatives seems a good option, and making the change comes down to personal preference, convenience, and cost.

Shannon from the West Island has learned some valuable lessons since her tween started using reusable pads and underwear. Three menstrual cycles in, they’ve found that reusable pads and underwear are not enough to last a full day of school and sports and require using a backup cup or tampon.

“Having somewhere to put a pair of soiled underwear while at school isn’t a real option so we needed a new plan for those heavy days,” she says.  Shannon also says that washing the pads or underwear is not necessarily something a tween can do independently and that a cup isn’t a foolproof or viable solution for young girls just starting out.

“But as an adult, I find [the cup] to be much more comfortable than any other period solution I have tried. In conjunction with a reusable pad I feel comfortable, clean, and dry, and confident my choices are environmentally responsible.”

Another Montreal mom Marie-Eve and her 14-year-old daughter have both tried washable pads and underwear from a few different companies and say comfort, reducing waste, and easy maintenance are all appealing factors. Marie-Eve says she likes the wide choice of styles, fabrics, designs, and materials that are now available from local companies such as Öko Créations and Mme L’Ovary.

“I hesitated for years before making the switch and I am so happy I did,” she says. “I tell everyone to take the plunge. My daughter started with reusable products right away and has never used disposable ones. When I was ready to try them out, I bought $100 worth of products and was fully reimbursed by my city’s grant program.”

If you’re thinking about making a change from single-use items, check with your city to see if they offer financial aid for reusable products.