When it comes to that time of the month, tampons are the go-to option for most. They’re small, comfortable, and easy to use. But they’re not without their drawbacks. Many contain chemicals which, though present in harmless quantities, many people are still uncomfortable about putting in their body. There’s an environmental concern too: According to a 2017 Stanford Magazine article, around 7 billion single-use tampons are thrown away each year in the US alone.
Environmental factors aside, tampons just aren’t always practical when you’re traveling: They’re difficult and sometimes impossible to find in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and much of East Asia — and it’s not always feasible (or comfortable) to wear a pad or stuff your backpack with a year’s supply of bulky boxes. There’s also toxic shock syndrome to worry about: You can safely wear a tampon for four to eight hours, which doesn’t work when you’re stuck on a 12-hour night bus or spending all day on a remote beach.
From yoga pants to menstrual cups and period thongs, there are a whole load of surprisingly effective (not to mention environmentally friendly) options out there. They won’t all be perfect for everyone, but when backpack space and budget is at a premium, here are 10 genius tampon alternatives to take traveling with you.
1. Period pants and boyshorts
There are a huge range of comfortable, effective, and downright sexy designs to choose from, not to mention several brands producing boyshort, brief, and boxer options for trans men and gender nonconforming women. Check out Lunapads for some excellent products.
Because you’ll (hopefully) pack underwear to take traveling with you, swapping a few of your regulars out for some of these means you don’t lose any of that precious backpack space to period-related paraphernalia. They’re also super easy to use (just wear them as you would normal underwear), they don’t need to be sterilized before use (just pop them in the wash when you’re done), and they’re non-disposable, which is better for the environment. These are also a great option for those days toward the end of your cycle when you’re not spotting enough to wear anything heavy-duty, but still enough to cause problems without a pantyliner.
Now the downsides. Certain styles can feel bulky and warm, so if you’re traveling in a hotter country, opt for thong designs, or wear under loose-fitting clothing. They’re also pretty expensive (around $30 each), and realistically, you’ll need at least two pairs on rotation. That said, once you have them, provided you take care of them, they should last for years.
2. Period sponges
There are two different types of period sponges: synthetic and natural. Menstrual sea sponges are an all-natural alternative to tampons and when properly cared for, should last up to six months. So if you’re on the road for a year, that means you’ll only need to pack two, which, considering they’re tiny, squishy, cheap, and biodegradable, ticks all the boxes when it comes to traveling must-haves. But — and it’s a big one — they are potentially dangerous. Many have been tested and found to contain grit, bacteria, and mold which can disrupt the ph levels inside your vagina or give you toxic shock syndrome, and there are currently no FDA-approved brands on the market. Getting any kind of ailment abroad can really put a damper on the experience, so our advice is to not risk it until a gynecologist and government-approved version hits the market.
Synthetic sponges, such as the German-made Beppy sponge, don’t have the all-natural, reusable credentials but they are non-toxic and specifically designed for your vagina, which means you’re not putting yourself at undue risk. A major benefit is you can wear them during sex.
3. Menstrual cup
This is essentially a small, flexible cup made of silicone or latex that you fold up then insert into your vagina. Once it’s in place, it springs open to form a watertight seal and collects your period blood for 8-12 hours (depending on how heavy your flow is). When you’re ready to change it, simply pull it out (there’s a little stem on the bottom you can grab), empty the contents in the loo or sink, then wash the cup and reinsert it. When your period’s over, sterilize the cup and store it in an airtight container for your next use.
It’s perfect for travel because you can strut around in a bikini without worrying about those telltale little white strings poking out. It also holds more than a traditional tampon, so you can wear it for longer (up to 12 hours, as opposed to the four to eight hours recommended for tampons), which is great news if you’re on the beach all day and might not have access to bathrooms or bins. It’s good for your wallet and the environment: You can buy one for around $20. Check out the range at Mooncup. Once you have it, it’s reusable and should last anywhere between two and 10 years — perfect for when you’re traveling on a shoestring budget or on an unpredictable income.
Removal can also be messy, especially on your first few tries — so it’s a good idea to try it out before you travel. You should always wash your hands with sanitizer when inserting and removing it, and in countries where the water isn’t safe to drink, you should clean it using sterilized water before reinserting. It’s also a good idea to bring a spare, just in case you find yourself in a situation where you can’t clean it but still need to wear something; wrap the used one up in an airtight bag or container and thoroughly clean it before your next use.
4. Yoga pants
Period bloat can make you feel like nothing fits, so wearing comfy clothing is a must. These pants, from Dear Kate, feature a form-fitting gusset that catches drips while you hike, work out, do yoga, or lounge around. Most designs are made of a swimsuit-like material, so they’re cool to wear and quick to dry. The downside is, they’re reportedly not always entirely leak-proof, especially if your flow is heavier — so they’re better for the lighter days if you want to wear them with nothing at all, or for teaming up with another method of period protection for extra security on heavy days when you’re worried about drips.
Quality varies, so do your research before you purchase. Some reportedly have a bulky gusset that looks a bit camel toe-y, which doesn’t do much for your confidence when trying to be as discreet as possible. Other options are pretty pricey — think $100 or thereabouts. But, as with the other period wearables, once you have them, they’ll last you a long time and save you having to wear pantyliners while working out.
When it comes to changing and cleaning, just pop them in the wash with the rest of your clothes. If you’re worried about the blood situation, you may want to give the gusset a rinse in the sink or shower before you put them with the rest of your laundry.
5. Cloth pads for panties and boxers
These work in exactly the same way as pads and pantyliners, except they’re reusable which is better for the environment, they take up less space in your luggage than hundreds of their disposable counterparts, and once you’ve made that initial payment, you shouldn’t have to fork out for pads for years to come — perfect if you’re on a budget or liable to have months where you’re short on cash. They also come in an array of colors and designs, including gender-neutral options for trans men and non-feminine women who want to move away from the pink and flowery branding featured on most sanitary products on the market.
To clean, just chuck lightly used pads in with the rest of your laundry and dry before wear. At the end of heavy flow days, separate the insert from the exterior fabric and soak in cold, clean water before adding to your regular washing.
6. Sterile gauze
This is more for when you’re on an extremely tight budget or can’t find sanitary items anywhere. Simply fold it into multiple layers and pop it in your panties or boxers. It’s safe and sterile, but it does need to be changed more quickly than a regular pad or tampon.
7. Reusable menstrual disk
This operates in much the same way as a menstrucal cup, with one major difference: You can wear it during sex. It’s a lot smaller (it looks a little like a contraceptive diaphragm or unopened condom) and is designed to sit a little further back. Once it’s in place, you can enjoy leak-free traveling (provided it’s inserted properly) and period sex without the mess for up to 12 hours. The major drawback to the disc is the removal process: While relatively easy to take out, it can be messier than a menstrual cup, so your best option is to try it out a few times before you go and just to be safe, and remove it in the shower if possible. As with the menstrual cup, make sure you use sterile water to clean it and store it in an airtight container or ziplock bag. It’s also a good idea to buy a couple, just in case you need to change it and you don’t have access to sanitation facilities. Ziggy Cup is currently the only reusable version on the market.
8. Eco-friendly tampons and reusable applicators
Eco-friendly tampons are an alternative to traditional supermarket brands, which can be somewhat limited if you’re looking for something that doesn’t contain chemicals or come wrapped in plastic.
If you’re someone who needs an applicator, then check out DAME Products’ reusable version that was created to help minimize the amount of plastic waste in the ocean. It comes in gender-neutral green and is made from medical-grade silicone, so it’s safe for your body and you’re doing your part in protecting the environment. Tampons that come with single-use applicators are bulkier than non-applicator versions, so if you opt for this reusable version, you’ll also save precious backpack space. Another major travel benefit is that it’s self-sanitizing, so all you need to do is rinse it (use sterilized water if the tap water isn’t drinkable), dry it, and store it away for next time.
9. Period swimsuits
Swimming is really the only time you absolutely can’t wear a pad, so this is a great option if you know you’ll be traveling in a place where tampons aren’t the norm or you know you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the sea. Simply wear pads with your daywear, then change into this when it’s time to take a dip. There are a range of brands and styles to choose from (Modibod and Ruby Love have the biggest selection), but they all feature absorbent gussets that are designed to be discreet so you don’t feel like you’re wearing a nappy. As with everything, quality can vary, so be sure to try a few out before you commit to one to take traveling.
In terms of cleaning, wash it as you would your normal clothes. If your flow is heavy, it’s a good idea to rinse it out as much as possible before putting it in with the rest of your laundry. And it sounds obvious, but remember to clean it after every use.
Gynecologist Alex Hooi created the Tampliner after finding out many women find the combination of tampons and liners during their periods insufficient and wasteful. While these won’t save you space in your luggage (nor will you be able to find them easily outside of the UK or US), they are an alternative for those who have particularly heavy flows and are worried about leakages. So what exactly is it? It’s essentially a pantyliner with a special membrane that operates as both a way to insert tampons safely and as a replacement for pads. It’s also made of organic biodegradable cotton, so it won’t clog up a landfill after you bin it.