I first heard of silicone menstrual cups from a friend who used one while backpacking across Europe, where she knew restroom stops would be few and far between. Initially, ditching tampons in favor of something reusable sounded repulsive, but I was intrigued. After some research and experimentation in the world of alternative, reusable menstrual devices — which includes washable cloth pads, sea sponge tampons and silicone cups — I became a convert.
My initial disdain for these products is by no means unique. Erin Reho-Pelias, owner of natural parenting boutique Zuka Baby (which sells a selection of reusable menstrual products) says the public has a general misconception about reusing personal care items.
"I think our culture has a mental block. We just want to throw it away," Reho-Pelias says. "Cloth pads — you have to clean that; it just freaks people out. They don't realize how easy it is to care for these products and use them."
Reho-Pelias uses Fresh Moon sea sponges as an alternative to tampons. Unlike disposable cotton tampons, the sea sponges have an amorphous shape — similar in appearance to a small loofah. To use, wet the sponge and squeeze out the excess water, then insert into the vagina until it feels like it is in place. You remove the sponge every three to four hours, rinse and re-insert.
"I find that it's much more comfortable," Reho-Pelias says. "Cotton tampons are so dry and absorbent ... having to insert them when you're a few days into your flow is so uncomfortable."
This over-absorbancy can create abrasions in the vaginal walls when tampons are inserted, making the tissue susceptible to the bacteria that causes toxic shock syndrome (TSS). The risk of TSS is lower with cups and sea sponge tampons, and sea sponges also are free of chemicals and synthetic fibers. But Reho-Pelias warns that they are delicate and can tear if not removed gingerly. She disinfects the sponges at the end of her cycle using water and colloidal silver, which kills bacteria. The Fresh Moon website says you also can use baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, tea tree oil or sea salt.
Amanda Devereux, who handles Zuka Baby's blog and social media marketing, is a fan of cloth menstrual pads, and Zuka Baby sells pads by Fuzzi Bunz, a Louisiana-based company. New Orleans native Tereson Dupuy, inventor of Fuzzi Bunz, says the pads grew from the success of her company's cloth diapers. The pads consist of three parts: a polyester polar fleece that wicks away moisture from the skin, a layer (or more than one layer, depending on the style) of absorbent microfiber terry cloth, and a layer of Polyurethane that prevents leaks.
The pad wraps around the underwear and snaps in place, similar to pads with adhesive "wings." It's recommended you carry a "wet bag" — or a reusable, waterproof bag that zips to prevent leaks and odors — to store soiled pads until you can wash them.
"The pads are really absorbent, so a lot of times when I'm going out, I don't have to change it," Devereux says. "I'll put on a fresh pad before I go and I'm set."
Learning to plan ahead is perhaps the most difficult aspect of transitioning to reusable menstrual products.
"With the cloth pads, you have to set yourself up," Reho-Pelias says. "If you don't have a wet bag, if you don't know how you're going to handle it when you're out, that will be frustrating. You just need to have everything you need, and know how you're going to care for them ahead of time."
With the Diva Cup (a reusable silicone cup), which is what I now use, when I want to remove it, I make sure I am in a place where I'll have water to clean it. Luckily, the cup can be kept in place for up to 12 hours because it collects menstrual flow as opposed to absorbing it, so there is no risk of drying out vaginal tissue. It's convenient because I can change at home before work and before I go to sleep.
The Diva Cup took time getting used to: The flexible cup can be tricky to insert at first, a bit of a mess to remove, and the sight of the captured blood can be jarring. But I find using a menstrual cup feels cleaner and more comfortable — and although I spent a steep $40 to buy the Diva Cup, I save money in the long run by not purchasing tampons each month. Plus, I'm minimizing my waste contribution.
"If a method doesn't work, there's more than one," Reho-Pelias says. "Try a few different things, and try them at different times in your cycle or times a day, to find which one is going to be the most comfortable for you."
Switching to a menstrual cup has better acquainted me with my body — seeing what menstrual blood really looks like, struggling with insertion — which has been a weird, but ultimately enlightening, experience.
"It's kind of like a disconnection to our bodies — we think (menstruation) is gross," Reho-Pelias says. "It's part of us, there's nothing wrong with it. It's a perfectly natural thing. If you actually do use (reusable menstrual devices) and connect yourself to what is going on, you're connecting yourself more to your body. And that's always a good thing."
A three-pack of reusable menstrual pads by New Orleans-based company Fuzzi Bunz retails for $11.95 at Zuka Baby (2124 Magazine St., 596-6540; www.zukababy.com).