Warning: This post contains explicit descriptions of internal menstrual products and the use thereof, cervical and menstrual fluids, and my sex life. If you are particularly squeamish, or a member of my family, navigate away now.
Although I’m a happy home-made cloth pad user most of the time, I decided to invest in an internal product a couple cycles ago, for the (rare, for me) occasion when a pad is ineffective or inconvenient (swimming and massage come to mind). Because of my pelvic organ prolapses, neither traditional disposable tampons nor menstrual cups, reusable or disposable, work for me; that left, to my knowledge, Sea Pearls1.
And so I ordered some from a friend of mine, Zoom Baby Gear2, and after picking them up I spent nearly an hour giggling at the, as advertised, full-color pamphlet. I’m not sure what I found so amusing about it; maybe the starfish and shells on the cover, the obligatory bisected woman picture (to show insertion), the endorsement from Cleopatra3, or what. Perhaps I’m just not quite as enlightened as I like to think. I did, eventually, get over the giggles, and looked forward to testing them out.
Because it was the end of my period, I didn’t get a chance to try them until nearly a month later. And that is when I experienced Backpocalypse 2010, and about all I can say from that cycle is that 1) at least I didn’t leak while I was collapsed on the floor for nearly two hours then standing up wandering around in agony for another nearly two, and 2) The Man had a hell of a time getting it out for me (back spasm = couldn’t even reach to wipe myself, much less retrieve the sponge), but did, eventually, manage it.
The next month, I finally had them, a period, and the ability to get them in and out unassisted. So, I’ve had one cycle and one day of using these puppies, and finally feel like I can give a decent review.
Yes, you have to touch yourself: getting the Sea Pearl in and taking it out
Let me start by telling you that I’ve used disposable tampons with an applicator all of maybe twice in my life, and I hated it; I used non-applicator tampons throughout high school and for years afterward; I’ve charted my cervical fluid and cervical texture, position, and os width for years; my idea of a brilliant used-book-store find is A New View of a Woman’s Body: A Fully Illustrated Guide4; and I masturbate, rather a lot, including while menstruating. So I’m kinda used to the idea of touching myself, reaching into my genitals, and, when called for, getting my hands pretty darn messy. (Hey, skin cleans up great.) If you are not, consider this an opportunity to discover that our bodies really aren’t as gross as we’ve been led to believe: we can touch them, and survive!
So, the sponge. When dry, it is hard, kind of scratchy, and not at all squishy. But, run it under the tap for a moment, and, as a sponge should, it becomes soft, pliable, and very compressible, which are all very good things when looking to insert it into one’s vagina.
(A note: the sponge should, as the pamphlet says, be inspected5 and cleaned — more on that below — before first use.)
To insert, I get it wet, squeeze out as much water as possible, and compress what had formerly been a perhaps 1″ diameter, 2″ long sponge into the size of a very large pill capsule between my thumb and first two fingers. Sitting on the toilet, or standing up with a leg on the back of the toilet, I then insert it into my vagina; I try to at least get all of it between my vaginal walls at this stage so that it does not expand in the air, although it is not yet in its final place.
Next, I use my forefinger or fore and middle fingers to navigate the compressed (but slightly more expanded now) sponge into place in front of my cervix (which, because of my prolapse and sideways tilt, means it winds up in a sort of crevice high up and off to the right); I find it helpful to bear down slightly while keeping my fingers in place, effectively bringing my cervix to my fingers rather than vice versa: when I relax, the sponge is pulled back up. If necessary, I poke it around a bit more to get it just so, but at this point, I usually find I can’t even feel it anymore, and everything is quite comfortable.
The pictures and instructions have the sponge more in the vaginal canal rather than right in front of the cervix; that doesn’t work for me, since around menstruation — when the ligaments relax and the uterus and cervix usually drop a bit anyway — there’s not a whole lot of vaginal canal to use, and having anything there feels pretty uncomfortable. But it might work better for some to place it there, more like a traditional tampon.
When it comes time to remove it, I find the sponge has expanded (makes sense, since it’s filled with fluid now, right?), has moved/expanded more into the vaginal canal, and I am able to reach it fairly easily between my two fingers to gently pull it out. This can, if my flow has been heavy, squeeze some menstrual fluid out of the sponge, but since I always do this step over the toilet, I don’t find that to be a problem.
Some people, apparently, tie floss or string around the sponge, making it even more like a tampon, and so you only have to pull, rather than reach, to retrieve it. I suppose you could, but I have no desire to do so; either way, unlike a single use tampon you’re going to plop in the toilet, you have to hold the thing to get it to the sink, so your hand’s gonna get messy anyway.
Isn’t that messy?? Well, yes. Rinsing the menstrual sponge
This bit is the part I find really cool, but also sometimes annoying: I get the sponge from my vagina (or rather, from in my hands sort of floating in the toilet basin) to the sink, and rinse it out. (I have so far been lucky/able to plan it so I am only removing it in a toilet from which I can reach the sink; this stage would be a lot more complex logistics-wise if using a public toilet or one not in reach of a sink, and frankly, I hope I never have to figure out what to do then.) If my flow has been heavy, this has sometimes left drips of bloody fluid along the path it travels through the air, but so far has not landed on anything not easily wiped off.
The cool bit? The sponge usually (except on really heavy flow days) doesn’t look like much; there might be some red bits on the outside, or a brownish tinge around the sides, but it certainly doesn’t look like the movies lead us to believe a blood-soaked sponge should look like. But! When I start rinsing it, out comes all this bright-red water. Almost out of nowhere. I find this fascinatingly cool. (See above statement of midwifery/sex ed geekery.)
The annoying part is that there is almost always a spot on the sponge, I believe where it was pressed against my cervix, which is simply plastered with mucus6. And that stuff does NOT like to come off. I’m getting better at it, and no longer need to run the water for five minutes (!) to get it off; I find a bit of friction, and scraping it with my finger nail, breaks it up enough to let go of the surface of the sponge, and I can get it thoroughly rinsed in a minute or less. I’ve never read a mention of this elsewhere, so I assume it has to do with my placement of the sponge directly against the cervix, but since that’s where I’m gonna keep using it, I’m gonna keep having to deal with it, so I might as well tell y’all about it, right? Right.
After it’s rinsed, you can 1) disinfect it, and then leave it out to dry for later use, 2) set it aside to disinfect later (keeping in mind that the longer after use and before disinfection, the longer bacteria etc have a chance to settle in and multiply), or 3) pop it back in. I’ve done all of these; although I don’t use the sponge as my primary menstrual collection product, I find it easier to rinse and reuse than try to store until I can get home and clean it.
A nice relaxing soak… in vinegar: cleaning the sponge
The Sea Pearl pamphlet lists a number of ways to clean the sponges. They recommend against boiling or using soap, as these break down the sponge more quickly, but have a number of other suggestions, all of which come down to soaking in a disinfecting solution of some kind. Suggestions include baking soda, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, tea tree oil, sea salt, and colloidal silver.7 I’ve so far only used apple cider vinegar (since I have it in the bathroom for my hair anyway), and it seems to be highly effective, leaving no odors and only one spot of discoloration.
ETA: I just tried a hydrogen peroxide soak (about 1:4 H2O2 to water), leaving it in for, ah, about two hours (I was watching Doctor Who and got distracted…), and it not only got clean, it got clean, and is now the same color it was when I first bought it. No more stains whatsoever. I would recommend very thoroughly rinsing afterward, as the same reason H2O2 is an effective disinfectant makes it rather harsh on living tissue.
The sponge requires slightly more attention than disposable tampons (though there’s no risk of clogging the toilet *cough*), and a different sort of attention than cloth pads, but overall I find it quite easy to care for.
Yeah, but does it work?
Yeah, it really does work. Other than slight spotting that comes from putting it in when my vagina already has menstrual fluid in it (and thus it continues to work its way out), I haven’t had any leaks or failures from the sponge. It expands to fill the space given it, so there’s little chance of a leak past, and I haven’t yet “overfilled” it. What I do find is that when it starts to get full, I start to feel it — and that prompts me to take it out, rinse, and reuse or return to primary pad use. It’s not uncomfortable, unlike a full tampon used to be (I used side-expanding ones, and those things had some edges!), but it is there, and nags at me until I do something about it.
Because I don’t use the sponge regularly, and haven’t used it overnight ever, I haven’t had a chance to test out the claims that it’s fine to leave in during penetrative sex, and I don’t really see that happening soon. I do think it would be fine, though. My main concern would be if the sponge was already “full” — I’d worry both about leaking (from compression) and being more in the way (from having already expanded). There’s also the cleaning issue; if cervical mucus is tough to clean off, how much more so the abundant mucus of ejaculation? But, it’s good to know the option is there, unlike with disposable tampons or a reusable menstrual cup.
FDA, TSS, and pollution, oh my!
(You can calm down, those are three different topics.)
Now, what does the FDA8 have to say about this? Way back in 1980 (the year before I was born!),
twelve “menstrual sponges” were examined by the University of Iowa Laboratory and found to contain sand, grit, bacteria, and various other materials. The sponges were voluntarily recalled by the distributor.
(As the pamphlet points out, Sea Pearls, just like single-use tampons, are not sterile, and — unlike single-use tampons — might have minor debris and thus should be inspected and cleaned before use.) I have read in many places that their sale is, because of this, “technically illegal”, but what the FDA actually says is:
Sea sponges labeled as “menstrual sponges,” “hygienic sponges,” or “sanitary sponges,” intended for use as menstrual tampons, are regarded as significant risk devices requiring premarket approval under Section 515.
I have been unable to discover whether Jade & Pearl has obtained such or not.
Does this scare me away from their use? No, not at all. At the risk of sounding conspiracy-theorist, the businesses with money to spend are, in general, the ones who get products approved by the FDA. The disposable tampon and pad industry have lot of money; sponge harvesters and distributors, not so much. While this doesn’t make sponge sellers “good” and disposable menstrual product manufacturers “bad”, it does make me take any promotion of the ones with more money, and defamation of the ones with less, with a grain — haha — of salt.
As for TSS9, I have found reference to one confirmed case of TSS due to menstrual sponge use, in 1980 (compare this to “more than 800 cases and 38 deaths” in the USA in 1980 from tampon use). TSS risk from tampon use, primarily found during the era of using hydrogels in tampons (the same super-absorbent polymers still used in abundance today in disposable diapers), is caused by microscopic wounds created in the vagina’s mucosal walls when they get too dry (and then are roughed up by friction, such as the removal of a tampon), allowing a common bacteria, usually Staphylococcus aureus, to enter the bloodstream. The Jade & Pearl Sea Pearl pamphlet reads “Rest assured that Sea Pearls sea sponge tampons do not have the same drying effects as single use tampons.”
I, however, am not completely sure: the sponge is absorbent, though not greedily the way a tampon is (consider: the sponge is inserted when damp; a cotton or rayon tampon when dry), and at the end of my period, when there is not so much menstrual fluid, but my vaginal and cervical fluids haven’t yet geared up in anticipation of ovulation, I find the sponge more sticky, as it were, to remove. Do I think, therefore, I am at high risk of toxic shock? No, certainly not. Definitely no more so than using a conventional tampon (whose risk is already quite low), and, based on comparative feel alone (and worth what you paid for it), probably less.
A concern that some people have raised which I find more compelling than TSS is pollution, and the potential of toxic chemicals embedded within the structure of the sponge. Sea sponges are (very simple) sea creatures; they grow wild in the ocean, and although they are quite low on the food chain (as opposed to, say, tuna, or swordfish), they still spend their entire life-cycle soaked in the oceans we have made nigh-unlivable. How much of that gets absorbed in the matrix we use as a sponge? And how much of that then gets absorbed into our bloodstream via our highly permeable vaginal membranes? Could it possibly be worse than the dioxin-traced tampons millions of people use every day? I have no idea. But it’s something to think about.
But… a sea sponge?? A conclusion
Totally, a sea sponge. Granted I can’t compare it to a menstrual cup, single-use tampons haven’t been comfortable for me for years, and I’m still gonna stay loyal to my cloth pads for most of my menstrual needs, but for when I want to really get my gluts worked on, or long for a dip in the hot tub, or simply want a back-up? Sea sponge, all the way. They are soft, comfortable, easy to use, effective, and fit my body like no other internal device I’ve tried. I’m definitely going to keep them around.
Your turn: Have you ever used a menstrual sponge, and what did/do you think of them? What internal menstrual products have you used? Do you have any questions or concerns about the use of sea sponges as a reusable tampon? Might you now take a second look at those strange lumpy things you’ve seen in the health food store?
- Jade & Pearl Sea Pearls are the only menstrual sponges I have been able to locate, although several sources say you can buy cosmetic sea sponges and re-purpose them for menstruation. ↩
- Disclosure: I received no compensation for this review from Zoom Baby Gear nor any other company or entity, and paid full retail price for my Sea Pearls, though I did receive $1 off my wet bag in the same purchase. ↩
- OK, the exact quote is “Actually Cleopatra used sea sponges as tampons.” How exactly do we know this? ↩
- My love for this book cannot be overstated: it perfectly appeals to my midwifery/reproduction, feminist history, and sex ed geekery. ↩
- For debris or bits of sand or shell; I found none. ↩
- I’m normally a big fan of saying cervical fluid rather than cervical mucus; after all, we say seminal fluid not seminal mucus, although it’s almost exactly the same stuff! (Except for the sperm, of course.) But this? Mucus. ↩
- I would personally recommend against using tea tree oil, as it has estrogen mimicking/endocrine disrupting properties, and I’m not sure I want any extra estrogen pressed against my mucus membranes for hours. ↩
- The Food and Drug Administration of the United States of America ↩
- Toxic Shock Syndrome ↩