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Menstruation: It’s a bloody business

We do it every month, for years, and years of our lives. Yet why is the subject of periods, so bloody taboo? Jo Chadwick has been looking into the rise of environmentally feminine hygiene and shares with us her experience of ditching the tampons and towels in favour of period pants.

A BLOODY HISTORY

So before we start, let’s take a quick look at the history of the tampon as we know it. I say ‘as we know it’ because there are records as early as the Egyptians that suggest that women would wrap bundles of papyrus and use them as a makeshift plug. The Romans are said to have used small sticks of wood with wool wrapped around them, but for the most part, it was bundles of material of some description forming a liner. That was until 1929 when Dr. Earle Haas first invented an (applicator) tampon. This tightly bound strip of absorbent cotton was attached to a string facilitating ease of removal, it came with an applicator tube that extended to push the cotton swab into place. Patented by 1931, it wasn’t until 1949 that the Tampax started gaining global reach. And when you think about that simple design, it was a lot more environmentally friendly than today. Not only that, it was only a couple of generations ago. Yes, the applicator tampon was invented at the beginning of the age of television, and became popular in a post-war society, where freedom mattered so much. Tampons were the advertisers’ dream, a stunning brief to demonstrate freedom. And that’s exactly what I, and many like me, grew up thinking. We could swim, horse ride, wear tight clothing, be carefree…

A BLOODY NIGHTMARE

Today, eight million tampons are thrown away every day in the UK alone. Every tampon that’s thrown away heads to landfill where it takes around six months to decompose. And that’s just the tampons. The wrappers, plastic applicators, and pads (which incidentally can contain as much as 90% plastic) actually take up to 500 years to decompose. Now that is shocking. With the average number of menstruating years being 38, per person and 16 pieces of feminine hygiene used per cycle, you don’t even need to do the maths to know that this figure is astonishing.

A BLOODY STATE

Us women spend an average of 52 days a year bleeding. That’s 52 days with our handbags filled with tampons, pads or liners. Or in my case, all three. I started my period at 14. Around about the same age as most of my friends. Today, an increasing number of girls are starting their physical journey into womanhood before they’re even ten. And when I hit puberty it was in the day of thick pads, whereas today the streamlined, teensy, barely-there pads which absorb heaps of blood, keep you dry are the first purchases of the pubescent teenager. Little, discreet pads. Filled with chemicals and plastics.

In my day, we couldn’t wait to be allowed to use tampons. Today, however, that too is different. More younger women than ever are opting to stick with pads for longer. Why wouldn’t they? They’re non-invasive, hold heaps of blood, and there’s far less of a performance. What’s more, they rarely leak. But they also are terrible for the planet.

And because we are all getting a whole lot more environmentally savvy, there is a massive rise in period products giving us even more options than ever before. From menstrual cups, to reusable pads, period pants to menstrual sponges. Four totally new options, that frankly five years ago I would never, have ever, have entertained.

Now at 47, I’ve been assuming menopause was coming for me for the past five years following the family pattern. But no. Instead, for the past seven years since the birth of my third child, they’ve become heavier, more painful and (as when I was a teen) totally irregular. And when they come… boy do I know it. Yes, I’ve been in meetings and had to rush, been in conferences sitting at the front of the room, walk gingerly past everyone and head for the bathroom to find I’d ‘flooded’ my jeans. I’ve been forced to wash knickers in toilets, throw pairs away in sanitary bins, buy jeans halfway through the day, and not make it to meetings because I’ve leaked en route. The time of the month for me is hell. Period.

My first journey into the world of period pants were Carole Smilie’s Pretty Clever Pants, marketed for ‘life’s little leaks’. These knickers essentially had a fine latex panel between the double layers of cotton, and a wider gusset. Presto, no little surprises when used with your usual hygiene products. I’ve got to say, I loved these as a concept – although the latex did make me feel a little sweaty. Anyhow, that was me, made secure, and far less prone to accidents. So long as I wore them for the whole week when I was ‘expecting’. And then the latex just got too much.

So the journey continued, I went to various trade fairs and looked at resuable pads in pretty patterns and nice colours. But I looked at them and knew that knowing me, they’d slip, I’d still leak and I didn’t want to look at blood-soaked patterned pads or leave them to soak in the sink or pop something so obvious into the wash and on the line with my three boys and husband around. And actually, the prospect of resuable pads just didn’t appeal. I could imagine they’d slip, and I’d have all the same side leaking accident that I have with pads, only if I threw these away, I’d be then wasting a lot of money. Also, for me, the now organic and chem free pads you can buy do the trick – well, as long as you don’t mind the blood staying on the surface relatively speaking.

Then there is the Menstrual Cup – something 5 years ago I thought was a joke when someone told me about it. Now, I’ve seen an increasing number of brands with various size and shape menstrual cups and they intrigue me. But for me, I’ve too vivid an imagination, and all I can see is the moment I’m at a work do, or out with friends and go to empty it, pull it out and spray the cubicle with my menstrual blood. Gross, I know, but I also know that I am a total clutz. And I’m looking for a simple, easy and importantly foolproof solution to my needs.

A BLOODY MIRACLE

And then, I saw Ruby Raut, the CEO and Founder of WUKA Period Wear. WUKA – sounds like cooker – stands for Wake Up Kick Ass and that’s exactly what Ruby is going for. She doesn’t want people to be held back once a month, or feel down, sluggish or out of pocket. Period poverty is a prevalent problem in the UK – with 49 percent of girls having missed a day of school due to periods and 10% women aged 14 to 21 not able to afford period products. That’s terrible. Young girls are rolling up socks, stuffing knickers with loo roll. There is a norm, that needs to be disrupted. Not only for these girls – who would need a set of period knickers, and that, would be that. There’s a norm to use pads, and chuck them in the bin, or in some cases people still flush them down loos. If you’re free-flow bleeding though, that is the norm, why not do it into something reusable? It’s hardly a stretch from a pad.

THE BLOODY TRUTH

OK, so I promised gore, and detail and to answer all the uncomfortable questions, so here goes. the pants are comfy. Comfy but padded. I actually quite like the padding, you feel secure, safe. And it takes around five minutes before you don’t even notice them. The cut is interesting, wider in the gusset – so no space to leak from down the sides. The padding comes up the front, and back (but not all the way). This means that whatever type of bleeder you are, you’re covered. As long as the pants fit. I made the early schoolgirl error of wearing a ‘light’ pair, that were a big baggy, at night. Well, let’s just say, the white bed sheets have never been the same again. Mistake made. I learned, and I am telling you… these knickers fit to size. Don’t go baggy. Baggy is not in the plan!

Freeflow. OK, it’s a very interesting concept. I’ve used tampons for years, and over the past 7 tampons with back up pads. My blood (don’t read the next paragraph if you get grossed out) is sometimes red, sometimes browny red, sometimes clotted, sometimes thick. My period lasts around 7 days. With the normal bleed and the after bleed, and the brown gunk that then likes to appear whenever. No more. Now in my second cycle of using WUKA, my blood is red as red can be, more even in texture, more even in tone, and the brown (old trapped blood), seems to be minimal.

A BLOODY MESS

So let’s move on to the dirty business. Because obviously, it is. The ‘heavy’ pants will hold around 4 tampons of blood. And no it doesn’t feel like you’re carrying a bucket in your knickers when it’s full. The WUKA pants are made with layers of clever fabric.

The outside is soft and stretchy Lenzing® MicroModal fabric that is CO2 neutral and 3.5x softer than fine cotton. Now the Lenzing part of this is important. The patented modal from the original makers has a number of properties you won’t find in cheap alternatives. Now is not the time to go into it, but if you have a quick google, you’ll read the evidence yourself. Combined with a superabsorbent hi-tech fabric and a breathable moisture barrier these pants are ace. The blood soaks through the outer layer – much like a modern-day pad, and into the middle layers. A layer of latex beneath stops the blood fro emerging at the other end. Honestly, it feels like wearing a pad that doesn’t budge. However, whereas with a pad if it’s filling you’d change it in the day, with the pants, if you are out, you’re unlikely to take them off and keep them in your handbag. Though you could, in a sealed bag (but please not a plastic one).

So let’s assume you wear one pair all day. There’s one thing to get used to as far as I’m concerned and that’s if you are at any point, when the pants are filling, going to spend more than a minute or so on the loo – or with your pants down. At this point, the wet, becomes cold, and pulling them back up is a feeling you won’t love. Though that feeling lasts for seconds.

The second big hurdle. Cleaning your period pants. So the end of the day has come. You’re getting undressed to jump in the bath or shower and you have a pair of knickers that need cleaning. You can pop them straight in the machine, on a 30º or 40º wash without fabric conditioner, and then air or line dry. Or, you can handwash in the sink, wring out and line dry / air dry. DON’T put them on a hot rad… remember there is latex in one of the layers.

So, gruesome… washing your knickers by hand in the sink is not for the faint-hearted. The tiniest bit of blood goes a long way, especially when diluted in water, so you can imagine it takes a while for the water to run clear, and the knickers to be wrung out, washed etc. Now I am particularly squeamish, and I was wincing a lot for the first cycle choosing to hand wash. I’m used to it now, and while it’s not pretty, it is natural, and I do feel like at least I am not putting pads and tampons in little plastic bags then into the bin – where it stays for one week before collection! Kind of way grosser a thought. Even grosser when you think about the fact that it goes from the bin to a plant, from a plant to landfill, and then sits there, slowly decomposing and entering back into the soil.

A BLOODY BRILLIANT FEELING

So, nuts, bolts, and the total truth. It’s a journey, a little step to live more frugally each month, to live less wastefully, to live with more care for the planet, and also for my body. Most of all this journey is an exciting one, where actually I feel freer. I’m in control. I have no need to buy a heap of stuff I don’t need, have one less consumable that’s being sold to me, one less distress purchase to be made every month. It’s not for everyone, I know that, but if you’ve got to the end of this read, and fancy trying it out for yourself, we are recruiting now for 5 trialists who are ready to take the plunge and give it a go. Want in? Sign up now at http://bit.ly/WUKAxMBPE

 

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