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The Basics

Periods are confusing. Here are some basic facts to help you understand what a period is, how to manage it, and the different period products available.


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Every month, hormones in a menstruating person’s body cause an egg to mature in the ovaries and be released into the fallopian tube. At this point the egg waits to be fertilized by sperm. If the egg is fertilized it travels to the uterus, where it implants and can grow into a baby. So, what does this have to do with menstruation? Well in order to prepare for this egg, the uterus has to build up a very thick and rich environment to house the growing embryo. If the egg doesn’t get fertilized, then the uterus doesn’t need the layer to support the egg, so it sheds the extra layer causing menstruation. After menstruation, the uterus starts building up again for the release of the next egg, and the process repeats. That is why it is often called the menstrual cycle!


The menstrual cycle occurs due to fluctuations of certain hormones in the body. The main hormones involved are Estrogen (a.k.a. Estradiol), Progesterone, Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH). In order to understand the cycle, it is helpful to think of it in days. Day 1 is the first day of bleeding during menstruation. On day 1, Estrogen and Progesterone levels are both low, which cause FSH levels to increase. FSH causes a follicle in an ovary to start developing. A follicle is a sac that contains an egg. The developing follicle begins to produce Estrogen. At around day 12-14, the Estrogen level peaks, and triggers the production of LH. This sharp spike in LH causes the follicle to burst and release the egg. The ruptured follicle (now called the corpus luteum) continues to produce both Estrogen and Progesterone. However around day 28, once the egg isn’t fertilized, the production of Estrogen and Progesterone drop again, which causes menstruation and the cycle starts over.  The cycle itself can be broken into three phases. The first phases (when the follicle is developing) is called the follicular phase. The second phase is the ovulatory phase, occurs when the egg is released. The third phase is the Luteal phase. This hormone cycle is very complicated and can be difficult to understand at first. The graph above shows the levels of hormones in relation to what the uterine lining is doing throughout the cycle.

These fluctuating hormone levels contribute to Premenstrual Syndrome or PMS. PMS is completely normal, and is just a side-effect of the menstrual cycle. Common symptoms of PMS include: food cravings, mood fluctuations, breast tenderness, acne flare-ups, fatigue, and diarrhea or constipation.


  1. Find the product that is right for you! There are many options out there. It is important to find a few that work best for you. See our section on menstrual products to learn more!

  2. Use a period tracker! A period tracker is a great way to keep track of your menstrual cycle and predict fluctuations in mood, health, and when your period will arrive next. This will help you understand your body, and give you the upper hand when it comes to preparing for your next period! There are many different period trackers available. Some popular ones are Clue and Flo.

  3. Take pain medication like Tylenol/Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen to help manage cramps and period symptoms.

    • Note: Be sure to follow dosage instructions and allergy warnings when using medication.

  4. Heat! Having a hot pack, warm washcloth,  heated blanket, re-heatable rice bag etc is great for managing your cramps. Also, it just feels so good!

  5. Take a bath. Taking a bath, especially with epsom salts or one of those awesome bath bombs can help you relax and help relieve those obnoxious cramps.

  6. Exercise! Exercising releases endorphins, which can help by not only relieving pain, but also helping your mood. It can help level out the swinging emotions caused by hormones.

  7. Self care! Half of the world’s population menstruates. That means you are not alone. It is important to take care of yourself when you are menstruating. If that means taking a nap and eating chocolate, then go for it! If that means practicing yoga, then do that! Whatever is best for you.

  8. Keep being awesome! Just because you are menstruating doesn’t mean that you should have to give up on your normal daily activities. If you aren’t feeling up to it, then that is fine. But if you are feeling good, then do it! Go to school, go to work, go swimming, run that race! You are awesome, and that doesn’t change just because you are menstruating!



There are so many different options for menstrual products out there. When choosing a product, it is important to find one that you are comfortable with. No one product is better than the other. Do what is best for you. Below is a list of menstrual products, what they are, and how they should be used. The guidelines are just suggestions. If you have any questions or concerns, ask your doctor or someone you trust. We also suggest you check out our Global Resources page for more in-depth information on period products and management strategies used in your region of the world.

With all products, it is important to be safe. Each product has its own guidelines for cleaning and use to ensure that you stay healthy. Toxic shock syndrome is a rare, but life threatening condition that can affect anyone, but is often associated with the misuse of menstrual products (especially tampons). It occurs due to toxins released by bacteria. Toxic shock syndrome progresses rapidly and can lead to shock, renal (kidney) failure, and even death. For more information on Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), you can visit the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Like with anything else, it is important to make sure that what you are putting in your body is safe. It can be tempting to use toilet paper or paper towels or rags instead of other period products, especially if your  period catches you off guard. However, these materials can harbor bacteria that can lead to infections. And, paper products can break apart and pieces can be left inside you. Whenever possible, we strongly recommend that you use products specifically designed for managing menstruation. When choosing from these products, we also recommend looking into the ingredients used in making the product. Some period products may contain harmful chemicals. For more information about avoiding harmful ingredients in products, you can visit Women’s Voices For The Earth.

Saftey Suggestion:

With all the following products, it is important to wash your hands before and after changing/inserting them and when possible do so in a clean environment.

This helps prevent infection and Toxic Shock Syndrome.


Pads are exactly that. They are a pad that sits in your underwear (usually they have a sticky part to attach to your panties). They absorb the menstrual blood after it leaves your body. When they are full, they can be disposed of, and a new one put in place. There are many options to look into when choosing a pad.

  • Absorbency: light, regular, super, overnight, etc. All of these terms describe how much menstrual blood the pad can hold before needing to be changed.

  • With or without wings- This is mostly personal preference. With wings means that there are extra pieces of the pad that wrap around the sides of your panties. This can help prevent leakage and stains.

  • Size- slim, regular, extra long, etc. This refers to how long and wide the pad is. It is important to find a pad that fits you! Having a pad that fits will prevent leaking and promote comfort.

How to clean: Because pads are disposable, you can just dispose of the old one and replace it with a new one.

When to change: Change your pad whenever it gets full. Make sure to change it at least once every 4-6 hours. Not only does this make you more comfortable, but it also prevents odors and bacterial growth.


Tampons are usually made out of cotton, and are inserted into the vagina where they absorb menstrual blood. The string portion of the tampon hangs outside of your body and is used for removal. Tampons also come with different options.

  • Applicators- you can get tampons with plastic applicators, cardboard ones, or no applicator at all. Plastic are usually the best choice for people new to tampons, because they are easy to insert and remove. Cardboard are more environmentally friendly, but are a little more difficult to use. Tampons without applicators are a little more difficult to insert, so they are recommended for those who have experience with tampons.

  • Size/absorbency- slim, regular, super, etc. These refer to the size and absorbance of the tampon. This depends on the person using them, and what fits them best. It also can depend on the rate of flow.

How to clean: Like pads, tampons are disposable and so they can be disposed of after they are used. Then, you can just insert a new one.

When to change: Tampons need to be changed every 4-8 hours. Exact recommendations can often be found on the box or packaging for your tampons. Changing your tampon is an important way to prevent toxic shock syndrome.


Menstrual cups are reusable, and often made of silicone or a similar material. They are used by inserting them into the vagina. They collect (not absorb) menstrual blood for up to 12 hours. Then, they are removed, emptied, cleaned, and reinserted. It is also recommended that at the end of each cycle you boil a menstrual cup for 5-10 minutes with the lid off of the pot. Menstrual cups can be reused for up to 10 years, but if you notice any cracking, chalky residue, or stickiness it’s time to get a new one.

  • Size- Usually what size you want and which style of cup you want depends on if you are sexually active or if you have given birth vaginally before. Most cup options will have a guide on them that can help you decide which size is best for you.

How to clean: It is important to wash your menstrual cup before and after each use. Use warm water and a vagina-safe soap. Many menstrual cup brands will have their own soap you can use, or just find one that is extra gentle. If you have to change your cup and don’t have the supplies to clean it (like in a public restroom) then make sure to dry it off (toilet paper works!) before re-inserting it. Then, just make sure to wash it out as soon as you can

When to change: Change your cup at least once every 12 hours. If you have a heavy flow, you may need to change it more often.


These are exactly like pads, except they are made of fabric and cotton which allows them to be washed and reused.

How to clean: When full, pre-rinse your pad in cold water with a little bit of laundry soap to remove as much blood as possible. Then, wash it the same way you wash your clothes.

When to change: Change your pad whenever it gets full. Make sure to change it at least once every 4-6 hours. Not only does this make you more comfortable, but it also prevents odors and bacterial growth.


These are like pads, except they are smaller and much thinner. These are great for days when periods are light, because they still absorb, but are less bulky. It is also a good idea to wear liners with tampons/menstrual cups. That way, if they leak, the liner will catch it.

  • Size- these come in slim, regular, extra long, extra coverage etc. Like pads, it is important to choose the size that fits your shape the best.

How to clean: Just dispose of the liner when you are done and replace it with a new one.

When to change: If you are wearing a liner for your period, then make sure to change it every 4-8 hours. If you are just wearing it for daily use, then you can change it once every 12 hours.


Sea sponge tampons work just like tampons, except they can be cleaned and reused. They are made from actual sponges harvested from the ocean.

Note: Since they were harvested from the ocean, there is a chance that they contain sand/shells/bacteria/other particles. It is important to make sure you are getting your sponges from a reliable provider, and that they use proper cleaning techniques to prepare them.

How to clean: Clean your sea sponge tampons before using it for the first time, at least once a day, and before storing it again. You can clean it using warm water and very gentle soap. Also, between each use, make sure to rinse your sponge tampon.

When to change: Change your sponge tampon whenever it is full, or at least every 4- 8 hours. This will help prevent Toxic Shock Syndrome.


These are underwear with an extra absorbent crotch built in. They are a lot like reusable pads. They can be washed and reused time and time again.

  • Size - What size you get depends on your panty size. Choose what is best for you!

How to clean: When full, pre-rinse your underwear in cold water with a little bit of laundry soap to remove as much blood as possible. Then, wash them the same way you wash your other clothes.

When to change: Change your underwear whenever they get full. Make sure to change them at least once every 4-6 hours. Not only does this make you more comfortable, but it also prevents odors and bacterial growth.