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Published March 21, 2012, 11:30 PM

Green hygiene: Some women making the switch to natural, reusable feminine products

FARGO - Sitting at the sewing machine in her Fargo home, Kristen Rheault finishes the seams on part of an at-home project she started two years ago. Beside her, a stack of brightly colored fabrics, including a pink fleece with which Rheault is experimenting, are pinned and ready to be stitched.

By: Heidi Shaffer, INFORUM

FARGO - Sitting at the sewing machine in her Fargo home, Kristen Rheault finishes the seams on part of an at-home project she started two years ago.

Beside her, a stack of brightly colored fabrics, including a pink fleece with which Rheault is experimenting, are pinned and ready to be stitched.

The 27-year-old admits she’s a little excited for these, the latest addition to her handmade, reusable maxi pad stash.

“I find that I like to make new ones every once in a while, not because they don’t last but because I like the variety of it,” she says.

A number of products that take the place of conventional maxi pads and tampons are gaining popularity among select groups of women looking for a natural or reusable solution to a monthly reality.

Rheault’s homemade maxi pad journey started as she was looking for more environmentally sound options.

“I was looking into different types of feminine products that were made from natural-based resources,” she says. “I started to think about the amount of waste I was producing.”

Kelly Economon, a 30-year-old who lives in Fargo, started using the Keeper Cup, a reusable silicone or latex product meant to replace tampons, in 2008. The menstrual cup was a practical necessity while Economon worked to build walking trails in the Montana wilderness.

“If you’re in bear country, dealing with anything that produces a smell – food, lotion, used pads or tampons – you have to string it up in a tree,” she says. “So it was quite a hassle to have pads or tampons.”

Now back in Fargo, Economon has continued using her Keeper Cup for both convenience and money-saving reasons.

“I just liked them. I feel like my periods weren’t as long; I felt like my cramps weren’t as bad,” she says.

Both Rheault and Economon admit these alternative methods are a bit “out there” for most women in our area.

“No one in Fargo seems to be too interested in it,” Economon says. “When I was in Montana, I was surrounded by all sorts of hippie types … the culture here is a little different.”

When Rheault made her first fabric maxi pad, even her closest female friends weren’t too sure.

She photographed her first finished product and emailed it to her sister with the message, “Did you know some people make their own maxi pads?”

The response was less than enthused.

“That is the hippie-dippiest thing I’ve ever heard,” her sister wrote.

“Her response was a response I think most women would have,” Rheault says.

Dr. Jordan Coauette, an OBGYN at Sanford Health in Fargo, said she’s never had a patient ask about alternative or eco-friendly feminine hygiene products.

“I really don’t know what I would even recommend,” Coauette says.

Both Economon and Rheault say they’ve experienced health benefits – in the form of shorter periods or less severe cramping – as a result of their methods.

Dr. Coauette says all-natural products made with no bleaches or out of organic cotton could be beneficial for women who are sensitive to dyes and synthetics.

How they work

Alternative or reusable maxi pads and tampons aren’t much different than conventional period protection, but there is a learning curve and some extra hassle, Rheault said.

Rheault found a template online for her maxi pads and has changed the design over time to fit her needs. She’s found that an adhesive isn’t necessary, but she’s experimented with snaps and wings.

“I’ve never had one come out of place or fall out or tumble down a pant leg. They tend to stay put,” she says.

Rheault packs a waterproof bag in her purse and an extra pad when she’s out of the house. On longer trips from home or vacation, she regresses back to an all-natural, store-bought tampon for protection.

Rheault keeps a bucket of cold water under her home vanity, where she places used pads, but never for longer than a few hours “because there’s a definite ick factor.” She washes laundry daily during her period, she says.

“If I didn’t feel like these pads washed clean or felt clean, I wouldn’t use it,” she says. “Because I definitely like to feel tidy like every commercial says.”

Some may find the practice extreme, and Rheault says there are times when convenience trumps environmental concerns.

Her husband, Gabe Rheault, likens it to other environmentally conscious practices, such as bicycle commuting.

“I bike to work all the time, but if it’s raining sometimes I’ll go, ‘Meh, I’ll just drive,’ ” he says. “For some people they think it’s extreme, but some days it’s extreme for us, too, so we just opt out.”

Menstrual cups were first developed in the 1930s but later decreased in popularity in favor of cotton, paper and synthetic disposable products.

“Not every woman can afford a hybrid car nor easily convert their home to solar power. Yet, by choosing to use a menstrual cup … any woman is able to make an environmentally responsible choice each month,” writes Carinne Chambers, one of the founders of Diva Cup, a popular menstrual cup.

Chambers compares making the switch to a menstrual cup to swapping out canvas totes for plastic shopping bags.

Besides, “most tampons and pads contain surfactants, adhesives and additives. To us that sounds like a bunch of stuff you don’t want near – or inside! – your body,” the Diva Cup makers say.

For Economon, using a Keeper Cup is more about convenience than the environment.

“I just do it because it’s what I’m used to,” Economon says. “I don’t think I ever want to put another cotton tampon in me again.”

A menstrual cup is inserted in much the same way as a tampon and is meant to be emptied when you go to the bathroom. Economon encourages and practices studious hand washing before and after it’s replaced.

She said it takes a few cycles to get accustomed to using it, but now it feels perfectly natural.

At the end of her cycle, Economon sterilizes the cup by boiling it for five minutes in vinegar. Then, the Keeper Cup, which costs about $25 and has lasted Economon four years, goes back in its pouch until the next month.

Rheault admits that alternative period protection isn’t for every woman, but that society is getting closer to accept “outside of the box” solutions.

“I think that women are doing a much better job of having a relationship with their menstrual cycle,” Rheault says.


Pads stack up

Do the math. The average woman will have her menstrual period 41 years of her life. If she averages four tampons or pads each day for five days a month, that’s almost 10,000 period products in a lifetime.

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