There are lots of types of reusable menstrual products. Most common is the humble pad, in an array of colors and fabrics and absorbencies. But for women who don’t like the diaper-y feeling, there are options that go up there. Most common is the cup, usually the DivaCup or Luna Cup, a silicon vessel that surrounds the cervix and collects menstrual blood. Then there’s the sea sponge, which works like a tampon, but's a natural sponge. Menstrual panties have recently become popular: underwear that itself absorbs blood. Personally, I’m a longtime DivaCup user. So I was a bit out of my element when I tried the lesser-discussed menstrual option: I tried reusable tampons on my period.
I wanted to try using what was probably one of the first menstrual solution beyond the pad. According to the History of Natural Menstrual Products, "Sponges and cotton wadding were used as tampons in Europe in the 17 century." Tampons, they claim, have been used for thousands of years, from the ancient Egyptians to the Romans.
Reusable tampons, I found, are generally purchased on Etsy at a great, affordable price. The ones I looked at came in yarn and flannel. Both are pieces of fabric with an attached string that you somehow roll or fold and insert, much like an OB tampon. Flannel ones seem to roll in one direction and come in various absorbencies depending on your flow. Yarn tampons come in various absorbencies as well, but leave the folding and rolling up to the user.
Of course, I got my period on vacation.
I wanted to spend one full menstrual cycle — no cheating — using only reusable tampons. I've tried reusable pads and cups, and I reasoned that reusable tampons were the last frontier of menstrual product for me to try out. I wanted to figure out how they felt, if they were right for me, and what they were like since there isn't an abundance of information about them online.
Day 1: The Hotel
Is that? Yes, yes it is. Crap. That’s pretty much the thought of every woman when her period arrives, and it’s definitely the one I had. I’d only brought along these tampons as a precautionary measure; I wasn’t due for another 10 days. But God and my wonky cycle combined to condemn me to the dreaded vacation period. In a beach house. With my in-laws. This would get interesting.
I found the tampon and examined it. Several long rows of crocheted yarn in various colors, to make it pretty, and a long string attached to the end. The whole thing was about 2 by 6 inches. These would be really, really, really easy to sew. I supposedly had the ultra ones, because I have ultra-strength periods. So I sat on the toilet and tried some folding. Finally, I settled on rolling on the long side, leaving the string dangling.
My mother-in-law would lose it if she knew I was washing out my period blood in her sink.
I spread my legs for the insert. And ow! Normal tampons suck up moisture. This thing, however, felt like it was a sponge for vaginal fluid. I finally got it up there, using two fingers to insert and my thumb to get it up by my cervix. Once in, I couldn’t feel it. I didn’t know how this thing would work, so I put in a light day pad.
It lasted from about 9:30-3:30 on a light day before blood hit the pad. All in all, that's not terrible.
Night 1: The Blood Cometh
We got to the beach house, and I had to wash the tampon. The seller helpfully included instructions: You could soak them in vinegar and then wash them in a machine, but that seemed like a terrible idea to me because the strings would get tangled. So I was stuck washing them with soap in the sink. And I couldn't help but think about how I was touching my own menstrual blood. This didn't bother me, but it would bother practically everyone else on the planet. I had to lock the door and wait until no one was likely to use the downstairs bathroom. My usual routine was rinse, rinse, rinse the blood out, soap it, scrub, and rinse, rinse, rinse till the water ran clean. Then I had to sit it on something to dry, which meant I had to sneak them back up to my bedroom. My mother-in-law would lose it if she knew I was washing out my period blood in her sink, which was annoying.
But sure enough, I bled through both of them in about two hours.
I knew I’d have a heavy night, so I stacked two tampons: basically, rolled them up together, which is safe to do. Luckily I used a pad as well, because I woke up in the middle of the night filling it. So I had to remove two tampons, insert two tampons, this time rolled and inserted separately (ow! They were so dry!) and had to, in the middle of the night, wash the others. This would be easier if I were at home and could soak in vinegar until the morning. Midnight tampon washing sucks. I bled through those two as well by the morning. And for the record, this isn't so much a comment on the tampons ability to soak up blood as it is a comment on how much I bleed the first night of my period.
Day 2: Heavy Day
The tampons I’d washed had dried by about 9 a.m. the next morning, which was good because I had a limited supply and was terrified I’d run out. I put in two more and wore a pad just in case. I’d figured by now that the best way to use two of them was to roll and insert both separately. I still managed to get them in so I didn’t feel them, and up against my cervix. But sure enough, I bled through both of them in about two hours.
And with two tampons, you’re doing a lot of washing, which is a giant pain in the ass. It hurt to put the two in, because I was getting dry, dry, dry down there. Every tampon came out soaked — not just in blood, but in vaginal fluid. I wore a pad, and kept wearing one until the heavy part of my period slowed down.
To be honest, I was really missing just dumping and rinsing my Diva Cup by now.
Night 2 Into Day 3: Lessening Flow, Thank You Jesus
I put in two more tampons in before putting the kids to bed, but still wore a pad just in case. And finally, I didn’t bleed through! I felt like doing a dance. But as relieved as I was, getting up to wash the reusable tampons out in the morning was still a pain. Not only do you have to go through the whole rigamarole of it, but I felt the need to hide it from everyone, because well, you're washing and tampons and blood. Most people don't deal well with that, and my mother-in-law is a germaphobic. It was annoying to have to hide my products and solutions from everyone, like it was somehow shameful or disgusting. And I felt like I couldn't even talk about it in front of people, because my brother-in-law once bitched me out for using the word “placenta.” I hated this. I think menstruation is natural and normal, and that there's no reason you shouldn't discuss it. Maybe not with my 65-year-old father-in-law, but no one should be disgusted by it. But living in a beach house with numerous people you're already trying not to piss off, you have to make concessions.
I kept worrying people would bang on the bathroom door and I’d have to explain why I was taking longer to wash my hands than my three children.
My husband, however, had plenty to say about it. “If this was what being a woman meant, everyone would hate it. Little girls would cry when you told them they had to shove tea cozies up their hoo-ha every month.” He was referring only to the tampons, and I laughed — because he was right.
On day three I left a double in with no pad — I was getting confident! I was also going down to the beach, and didn’t want to showcase the pad underneath my bikini bottoms. I kept that up for the rest of the day without any leaks, thankfully. As usual, washing was a pain in the ass, and I was still living in terror that my mother-in-law would bang on the bathroom door.
Night 3 Into Day 4: Getting More Confident
Finally, we were down to only needing to use one tampon again! And it was becoming hard to tell, with the color of the yarn, where the blood is. Because I was on to the lighter side of my flow, I wasn't soaking the tampons anymore, so when I went to wash them, I needed to specifically target the blood, or they wouldn't get clean. And that proved to be a real pain, even if I was washing only one tampon, which I was super grateful for.
The tampons needed about six hours to dry, if you wring them out (and I was wringing them out). Once reused, they’re a little bit crunchy, and you need to work them a little bit with your hands before they’re soft enough to insert, which still, even four days into this experiment, was like the fire of the desert, because oh my gosh am I dry from these things. I’m not used to regular tampons, so maybe that could've been part of the problem, but at least those things come with an applicator.
Night 4 Into Day 5: Almost Done
I used a a single tampon for most of the day until it became clear that my period had officially left the building. And even though there was next to no blood flow, the little tampon-bullet was so heavy with vaginal fluid that it nearly fell out. I washed that last tampon, left it to dry, and bagged up everything else. Thank little baby Jesus we’re finished with these. I hated how dry they made me feel, though I now trusted them to catch all the blood.
I’d be tempted to use these on light days, despite the fire crotch, because they are easy to get in and out, and washing one of them doesn’t take very long. You also get to feel like a super-superior hippie earth mama when you’re using crocheted-yarn tampons. But to be honest, I wouldn't recommend these to anyone with a heavy flow, nor would I use them on heavy days — they just aren’t absorbent enough, even the ultras. Maybe if you shelled out for some really nice, really expensive flannel tampons the experience would be different, but you still wouldn’t have an applicator, and I'd worry they might still leave you feeling super dry.
I felt a lot more comfortable with menstrual blood after this experiment, and that's definitely saying something because I thought I was comfortable with it before. There's nothing like rubbing and squeezing it out of cotton yarn to dim any sense of disgust. I also found myself more annoyed at people who weren't as comfortable with periods. A woman's period isn't shameful, and shouldn't be treated that way. I shouldn't have had to hide this experiment from my family for the sake of peace, love, and understanding. Because, in the end, that's what reusable tampons are all about: saving the environment.