Looking into the growing trend of managing periods with porous objects that are technically animals.
In recent years, cloth pads and menstrual cups have become increasingly popular as environmental alternatives to synthetic pads and tampons. But in the eternal quest to be sustainable, another option has appeared: sea sponges. Also known as moon or jam sponges, a handful of sites and online stores are offering them as a natural way to manage periods.
To use, you pretty much just wash your hands, wet the sponge, and scrunch it up to fit into your vagina. If it feels uncomfortable, you can trim a few millimeters off the edge until it fits. Once in, they feel prickly and a bit irritating, not dissimilar to the first time you used a tampon. The only immediate difference is you don't know how far in it is because there's no string.
The sponges grow on the ocean floor and unlike traditional pads, tampons, and silicon moon cups, they can be composted once they've done their job. Oh, one more thing, sea sponges are technically animals. Enjoy that image.
Many of the people selling and promoting sponges today discovered them from older women. Rachael Hertogs, owner of online reusable menstrual products store Moon Times, started selling menstrual sponges in 2006 but had been using them for years before that. "I discovered them while speaking to an older woman who grew up in Greece, she said all the women there used sponges and so I thought I would give it a try," she told VICE.
Before social media, information on the sponges was harder to find. Obsidian, the owner of reusable menstrual products store Cloth Pad Shop, told VICE, "There were very few websites that mentioned them, and only a couple of online forums and things discussing them, so you really had to look hard to find information."
But as Rachael explains, "Slowly over the years there have been more and more, but I've really noticed a huge increase in the number of dedicated groups on Facebook over the last year or so." Sponges' new audience is largely young women with an interest in promoting more sustainable feminine hygiene products. It's a vocal group, as demonstrated by the recent Twitter campaign #ditchthedisposables. The hashtag was an attempt to pressure large tampon and pad manufacturers to be more environmental and encourage people to try alternative products.
These supporters claim sponges are not only more environmentally friendly, but better for you. UK teen Bree Farmer has emerged as the vlogger face of the movement. She posts videos around periods and reusable menstrual products under the YouTube account Precious Stars Pads. Her channel has over 50,000 subscribers and her video reviewing sea sponges has surpassed 97,000 views. Despite initially being apprehensive, she told VICE, "when I did try them I was quite pleasantly surprised, I think they are easier to get the hang of than (menstrual) cups. And sea sponges also have other minerals in them which some women say help relieve their cramps."
Bree Farmer's review video
Despite this, there is no denying they're more fussy to use than a conveniently pre-wrapped tampon. And the idea of washing, storing, and reusing something that soaks up period blood is still not a wildly popular notion. Bree comments, "People still think this completely natural thing is gross, in fact I thought it was gross before I started using reusable menstrual products. Now I just look at it and think, it's just blood."
While gross is a subjective concept, it's undoubtedly awkward. Even Rachael admits rinsing it can be difficult, especially at work or in a public toilet. "What I recommend is taking a bottle of water so you can rinse your sponge in your toilet cubicle," she says.
While writing this article, I did order a sea sponge to try. It took a fair amount of trimming and wrangling to insert and position it in a way that felt somewhat snug. After it was in, I went to a yoga class armed with two bottles of water (one for drinking, one for rinsing), back-up pads and tampons, and a lot of tissues. To its credit, it held up and I didn't need to remove it until later when I was at home. Although it's worth noting that when I did take it out, the bathroom looked like a set from CSI.
The sponge I used was ordered from the UK, because despite the fanfare online, they aren't TGA (Therapeutic Goods Association) approved in Australia. When I called up Professor Deborah Bateson, Medical Director at Family Planning NSW, to get a medical impression of the sponges, she said they should be used at your own risk. While she commended women for looking for sustainable alternatives to traditional sanitary products, she warned against products that haven't gone through the TGA approval process.
"There are some concerns that sea sponges may have some debris such as grit and sand which could cause scratching and lead to infection. Because the sponges are soft there is potential for bits of the sponge to be left behind in the vagina which could also lead to infection," she continued.
But more concerning than a scratched up vagina is the threat of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Professor Bateson explains, "TSS is related to an overgrowth of bacteria and since sea sponges are being used in this instance to collect menstrual blood, then there is a hypothetical risk of TSS."
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