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Menstruation is the monthly shedding of the lining of the uterus



Menstruation is the monthly shedding of the lining of the uterus (the womb) and is released through the vagina. Most bleeding lasts between 3 and 5 days, although anywhere between 2 and 7 days is still considered normal. The average woman will have about 500 periods in her life, beginning around the age of 11/12 (though there is evidence to suggest that bleeding is commencing earlier than this) until about 50 years of age (though menopause can start and finish anywhere up to 10 years either side of this time). Menses (or bleeding) is supposedly what changes us from a girl into a woman. The average blood loss during menstruation is 35 millilitres. Some women have pain from cramps at this time, also known to as dysmenorrhea, which is caused by the contractions of the uterine muscle, as it expels the endometrial blood. An average women could potentially use around 11,000 throwaway pads or tampons in her lifetime.


Before the 19C (the pre-industrial era) a variety of materials were used for menstrual fluids - animal pelts, mosses (did you see the episode of 'The Victorian Farm'? Moss is extremely absorbent they say!), grasses, sea sponges and seaweed, believe it or not. In native cultures, these materials continue to be used today. Manufacturing textiles began several thousand years ago, cloth became an option for menstrual use. Among the poorer members of society old rags were often used - this is the origin of the term "on the rag". Once mass manufacturing of textiles and garments became possible, as well as "more modern" laundering methods, manufactured cloth pads became available (mid 1800 to about 1940) and my own Father remembers the strips of cloth that his Mother and sister used, hanging on the line in Dublin in the 1940's. Also popular were underwear with built in sanitary pads, which were not unlike adult sized nappies (needless to say, these gems are no longer manufactured). Washable pads and sea sponges have been re-discovered and menstrual cups were a wonderful innovation. The Keeper was the first to be manufactured in 1987 in latex rubber and several other companies followed suit making them in silicone rubber. Women are having increasing concerns about health and awareness of environmental issues related to disposable products. Materials for the internal collection of fluids ("tampons") are believed to have been used for several thousand years. There is evidence that ancient societies used tampon-like fibres for contraception and the same types of devices may have been used to collect menstrual fluid. Sea sponges have been in use by coastal societies for thousands of years and were often used by prostitutes, as it meant they could continue working all through the month. The modern tampon was developed in the early 1900s and remains the most popular disposable menstrual product today.

Disposable Menstrual Products

Disposable products started to be made in the 1940s, starting first with belted pads as there were none of the non-gummy adhesives available that today are used to "keep pads in place". The unbelted pad appeared in the late 1960s with the development of adhesives that that would not leave behind a gummy mess on underwear. The belted pad's image of being "grandma's pad" doomed it and it faded from the market in the late 1960s. Interestingly, the belted washable pad has made a comeback in the last few years and is popular for those women on heavier days or post-partum. Disposable products are usually made of wood fibre, although cotton fibre has been used for some products. The use of absorbent gels has become more common in the 1990s as it followed the trend of disposable nappies.

Disposable tampons are made of a blend of rayon (a biodegradable fibre derived from cellulose) or rayon & cotton. The organic ones are made from 100% pure cotton. Inserting cotton into your vagina absorbs all moisture, blood and all your natural fluids that are there for a purpose. Drying out the vagina alters the pH levels and makes you more likely to suffer from infections. The most serious of these is TSS ( Toxic Shock Syndrome). Toxic Shock Syndrome develops when the common bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, produce a toxin which is absorbed into the bloodstream. The toxin rapidly overwhelms the immune system and attacks the major organs, leading to kidney failure, collapse of the lungs and in severe cases, cardiac arrest. Alarmingly, half of all known cases of Toxic Shock are women using TAMPONS. Aunt Flo (from The Jam Sponge) said "I checked with Tampon Alert the charity below, that exposes the dangers of TSS (Toxic Shock Syndrome) and they said "We have no evidence of sponges causing TSS. All known cases of menstrual TSS have been in association with tampons containing man-made fibre and in recent years this means RAYON."


  • The bacteria in the vagina is usually harmless
  • Although the exact micro-biological reason for toxin production has not been established, it only happens in association with a tampon
  • It could be because the tampon introduces oxygen into the vagina
  • However, the tampon provides a surface for the bacteria to colonise
  • It is known that higher absorbency tampons containing man-made fibre (ie: rayon) are the highest risk
  • Also, CONTINUOUS use of tampons during a period increases the risk

More information of TSS is available onTampon Alert Tampon Alert was set up formally in March 1993. It aims to raise awareness of the possibility of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome during tampon use and to offer support to women who have survived and to bereaved families. It was the sudden death of Alice Kilvert on 26 November 1991 in Manchester (UK) from tampon-related TSS that caused her family and friends to take this action. Alice was only 15 years old when she died. Have a hankie ready.

Several different types of sponge devices have been used in the 1900s including manufactured sponges (in the mid 1900) and natural sea sponges. There is a manufactured sponge tampon on the market, which is pink foam, but I cannot find what it is made of (I have searched the manufacture's website). With the known dangers of disposable tampons with man-made fibres, these man-made sponges are probably best avoided. Sea sponges are available in bleached and unbleached form. One of Florida's leading wholesalers of sea sponges told me that their bleached sponges are washed in a solution of washing soda, to clean them and a side effect is that they are bleached of colour. This undoubtedly makes them more attractive to the customer but remnants of a diluted solution of washing soda should, I think, be avoided internally. Unbleached sea sponges are the natural choice and women can be in charge of sterilizing their own tampons.

Cleaning instructions for sea sponges -

Immerse in a cup of boiling water for one minute (no longer). Customers also report soaking in a solution of Colloidal Silver (I use this method).

Some people recommend adding the following after the water has cooled slightly -

  • 1 tbsp baking soda
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • Few drops of tea tree oil (Tea Tree oil has been shown to inhibit 60 strains of bacteria, including staphlococcus aureus)

There are significant cost benefits from using Sea Sponges, menstrual cups or washable pads -

Compare the costs* - (in no particular order)

  • Tampons - On average a woman using a brand name tampon will spend around 3.60 (tampax @ Tescos 9.5.09) per menstrual cycle and over 12 months, the cost would amount to approx. 43.20
  • Towels - On average a woman using a brand name sanitary towel will spend around 6.80 per menstrual cycle (always normal with wings x14 @ Tescos 9.5.09 1.70ea) and over 12 months, the cost would amount to approx. 81.60
  • Organic Tampons - On average a woman using organic cotton tampons will spend around 7.37 per menstrual cycle (natracare regular tampons 7.37 for 3 packs x16 Aurovita 9.5.09) and over 12 months, the cost would amount to approx. 88.44
  • Sea Sponges - Sea Sponges cost approximately 5.00 each (between 4 & 6) and will last between 4m-a year (the small pored sponges will last longer in my experience) and the average women will spend only between 6 to 8 each year!
  • Menstrual Cups - Cups retail between 15 & 20 and will last for approximately 10 years. This means they will cost 15p per month, 1.75 per year

*Cost is based on retail estimation


See Here -

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Brand Name Tampons
Brand Name Sanitary Towels
Organic Tampons
Sea Sponges
Menstrual Cups

Per Month


Per Year








Environmental -

Half the population of the planet has periods. In the UK alone we buy more than three billion disposable sanitary product items every year; in 2001 we spent 370 million on them. It all adds up to a massive number of items every year, which end up incinerated but mostly in landfill (or worse- re-appearing in our seas and rivers!)

Did You Know? The average woman uses approximately 11,000 disposable pads and tampons, the equivalent of 600 pounds of paper and cotton throughout her lifetime menstrual cycle. It takes more than six months for a tampon to biodegrade (though personally I would say more), whilst a plastic coated sanitary towel (with gel to make it more absorbent) lasts indefinitely. An estimated 8 billion bleached pads and tampons end up in UK sewage systems each year. 70% per cent of blockages in the sewage system are caused by sanitary waste. It's really scary stuff.

Compare them to real nappies -

According to the Real Nappy Campaign, if Henry VIII had worn disposable nappies, they would only just be STARTING to biodegrade. That's 500 years so far and they are not gone yet!!! Not to scare you here, but over 7 million disposable nappies are put into landfill EVERY SINGLE DAY in the UK!

Convenience -

For some of us, considering using reusable menstrual products can sometimes be scary to start with (though for Mother's who use real nappies on their babies, it's often is a natural step), but once you start, it quickly begins to feel 'the norm' See how these women felt -

  • Menstrual Cup review on theHippy Shopper
  • Sea Sponge review (Gross is Relative (why I would never use disposable tampons again))! Epinions
  • Cloth Pad review


Top Tips

  • For Menstrual Cups - Change and empty cups in the shower morning and night. Use a washable pad with them as well initially, until you trust them, 'til you know you cycle and how much you bleed and know they will not leak.
  • For Sponge Tampons - Change and empty sponges in the shower morning and night. Use 2 sponges on heavy days. Use a washable pad with them as well initially, until you trust them 'til you know you cycle and how much you bleed and  know they will not leak.
  • For Cloth Pads - Soak you pads in a small bucket or jar, filled with cold water at home. Get hold of some special bags or purses, for your handbag (1 for clean pads, 1 for used). Keep some washable wipes and wipe solution in your bag too, for freshening up when out and about. Wash together with your pads. Wash your cloth pads every 2 days at the minimum, wash on a short cold cycle, then top up the machine with other washing and wash on a regular cycle (30/40C)

Terry WipesJersey WipesWipe Solution


The washable way really is the easy way.  One you get into it, it's simple, saves you money, is better for your body and you will be doing your bit for the planet. You really can't lose!


Interesting stuff....

Subtle Signals Keep Menstrual Clocks in Sync (taken from the New Scientist website)

THE menstrual cycles of women who live together often become synchronised. Now researchers in Chicago have proved that it's the pheromones secreted by women which do the trick.

Insect attractants are the most common known pheromones. For instance, the compound bombykol secreted by the female silk moth can bring a male fluttering toward her. To look for human pheromones, Kathleen Stern and Martha McClintock of Chicago University placed absorbent pads under the arms of nine women. They stored the pads in alcohol until the phase of each woman's ovulatory cycle could be precisely determined.

They then exposed a second group of women to the compounds by wiping their upper lips with the same pad daily for several days. The pads all smelt alike, since body secretions carry no scent prior to bacterial growth. "All they could smell was the alcohol," says McClintock.

Over several months, the researchers monitored each woman for the surge of luteinising hormone which occurs just before ovulation. They report in this week's Nature (vol 392, p 177) that pads from women who had not ovulated accelerated the sniffer's ovulation, shortening the cycle, while secretions from post-ovulatory women lengthened it. Computer simulations showed that these effects would in most cases achieve menstrual synchrony.

George Preti, who studies the chemistry of human secretions at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says McClintock's data look solid. "I'm glad she has finally confirmed people's suspicions with good experimental evidence," he says.


And finally......

Menstrual Hygiene: Breaking the Silence  from the charity Water Aid - Find out what menstruation is like for women in third world countries - Girls, we have it EASY!

Further reading -

Wikipedia article on menstruation. Very interesting, with a certain amount of detail
Wikipedia article on cloth menstrual pads, including a history of, current use etc
Wikipedia article on menstrual cups, including a history, description, sizing, safety etc
WEN (Women's Environmental Network) guide to cloth pads

 Cloth Menstrual Pad Database


Wiki page on washing your cloth pads
Discover the rich history of menstruation and women's health on this Web site - MUM for short - devoted to menstruation and selected topics of women's health!
Menstruation (Period or Menstrual Cycle) Technical, but interesting
Knowing Your Menstrual Cycle, incl Your menstrual cycle explained physical changes, charting your cycle, calculating your fertility, special circumstances, resources and links

Essential Menstrual Products for the 21st Century