Recently, an acquaintance of mine decided to hire a “period coach” to get a handle on her painful cramps. (Yes, in LA, that’s a thing.) She’d tried everything to no avail — adjusting her diet, switching birth control, getting off birth control, massaging her stomach with essential oils — when her coach suggested something mind-blowingly simple: Stop using tampons.
It seemed too easy. After all, how could a teeny tiny tampon cause so much cramping — especially when it’s the preferred method of period control for the majority of American women? But the girl gave it a go, and lo and behold: Her cramps significantly improved.
It turns out, this isn’t that strange. The uterus is basically a giant muscle that expands and contracts like any other. Inserting a tampon gives the cervix (the lower part of your uterus) something to “grab” onto, and thus, you may experience some tension cramping. Plus, your body was designed to release menstrual blood in a continuous flow, so some believe that “plugging it up” with a tampon interrupts this natural cycle in ways that can become physically uncomfortable.
To be clear, this is not the norm. Most people can use tampons and feel totally fine! But if you’ve been dealing with unbearable cramps and can’t seem to figure out why, exploring other menstrual product options is a good place to start. Ahead, your definitive guide to what to use while you’re on your period.
Pads are kind of an old-school method for absorbing menstrual blood; and since they’re made of cloth and plastic and adhere to your underwear, they can feel a little diaper-esque. That being said, the fact that pads let your body “free flow” is a definite plus. They won’t affect your cramp levels at all.
The menstrual cup has been around for a while, but only recently has it seen a surge in popularity. This plastic device is pretty self-explanatory — it’s essentially a small cup that you insert into the vagina to collect blood. But unlike a tampon, a menstrual cup doesn’t require the uterus to work to hold it in place. Instead, the wide end of the cup expands against the walls of the vagina, so it shouldn’t contribute to cramping.
One cup can hold about eight hours of flow; it’s reusable and therefore eco-friendly.
Things can get a little messy, since this device isn’t the easiest to remove.
Sponges have emerged as a non-toxic, eco-friendly alternative to tampons. These natural sea sponges absorb blood in the same way and are similarly-shaped — the main difference is that when you remove the sponge, you “ring out” the blood and re-insert. (It’s recommended to do this every four to eight hours.) While it’s a natural and sustainable method, you may experience some cramping with sponges if your system is sensitive.
Attention, anyone with a light to medium flow: Period underwear (like options from Thinx and Dear Kate) may be your new Holy Grail. These undies feature absorbent material at the crotch and backside to collect menstrual blood and keep it from leaking. If nothing else, a product like this is a great form of protection to use in addition to your tampon, pad, cup, or sponge.
It’s worth noting that all four of these tampon alternatives offer another distinct advantage: They won’t fill your body with harmful or toxic chemicals.
Carcinogenic (aka, cancer-causing) materials like dioxin and glyphosate are found in up to 85% of tampons, and besides that fact that your vaginal walls are permeable so tampon toxins can make their way into your bloodstream, these materials have also been linked to more severe cramps. If you do decide to stick with tampons, make sure the brand you choose is organic, unbleached, and made with 100 percent cotton.
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