Alternative Hygiene Products for Women

Experts estimate that 20 billion sanitary pads and tampons end up in landfills and sewer systems each year. Not only is the environment paying the price, but women are too. Disposable hygiene products are a continuous expense and some are associated with an increased risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a potentially fatal infection whose incidence is again on the rise. Alternative hygiene products such as reusable cotton pads, menstrual cups and sea sponges are a better choice for both women and the environment.

Toxic Shock Syndrome

TSS is an infection caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, a microorganism commonly found on the skin and in the vagina. When Staphylococcus aureus enter the bloodstream, they release toxins that can cause sudden hypotensive shock, organ failure and death. Although toxic shock syndrome can also be acquired through surgery, burns and open wounds, it primarily affects women using super-absorbent tampons.

Products that are more absorbent than necessary can dry vaginal tissue, leading to small tears or ulcerations that allow bacteria to enter the body. When tampons remain in the vagina too long, they become a favorable environment for bacterial overgrowth, which also increases TSS risk. It is possible for cervical caps, diaphragms and sponges to promote growth of bacteria as well, but the only cases of toxic shock syndrome related to these products developed after they had been left in the body for an unusually long period of time: 30 hours or more.

Reusable Pads

Reusable sanitary pads are soft, comfortable, hypoallergenic and worn outside the body like disposable pads. They range in size and thickness and are available in several colors and patterns. The fabrics used to make reusable pads are usually organic cotton terry cloth, cotton flannel or cotton-hemp blends.

Unlike disposable pads that end up in the trash after they have served their purpose, these products can be washed, dried and reused. Ten dollars is an average price for a reusable menstrual pad and starter kits start at forty dollars for a variety of sizes and absorbencies. These products usually last five years.

Menstrual Cups

Reusable menstrual cups, also known as internal reservoirs, are shaped like a cup with a stem, which makes insertion and removal easy. These cups sit inside the vagina and catch menstrual fluid as it exits the cervix, and can even be worn overnight. The frequency with which the cups need to be emptied depends on the amount of flow, but two or three times per day is recommended.

These products, made of gum rubber or latex-free silicone, come in two different sizes. The smaller size usually fits women under the age of thirty who have never given birth vaginally, and the larger size accommodates women who have had at least one vaginal birth and those over the age of thirty. To disinfect reusable menstrual cups, simply wash them in warm, soapy water. Prices start around thirty dollars and each cup will last ten years or more.

Sea Sponges

Sustainably harvested Atlantic and Mediterranean silk sea sponges are natural alternatives to tampons. They can be trimmed to any size or shape and should be changed every three to six hours as they become saturated. Some women use a pad in addition to a sponge on days of heavy flow to prevent leakage. Because they have no applicator or string, sea sponges can be more difficult to insert and remove than tampons. However, tying a string around the sponge can ease removal and like any new skill, using them becomes easier with practice.

Like tampons, sea sponges are not sterile. They need to be disinfected when not immediately rinsed and reused. Sea sponges can be boiled before their first use to remove any microorganisms, but boiling them repeatedly may cause them to shrink and toughen. For regular but gentle cleansing, tea tree oil solutions remove both odor and microorganisms, including the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria associated with toxic shock syndrome. Hydrogen peroxide can be used as a disinfectant and non-toxic bleaching agent. When well cared for, natural sea sponges will last up to one year and two sea sponges cost only eight dollars.


Reusable cotton menstrual pads:
  • Glad Rags (800-799-4523 or
  • Pandora Pads (888-558-7237 or
  • Many Moons (800-916-4444 or
  • Wemoon (
  • Lunapads (888-590-2299 or
  • Mother of Eden (800-670-1364 or
  • Urban Armor (877-733-0663 or

Menstrual cups:
  • The Keeeper (800-500-0077 or
  • Urban Armor
  • DivaCup (latex-free, 866-444-3482 or

Sea sponges:
  • Jade and Pearl (800-219-9765 or