Post Gazette: When the demands of health call for creative solutions: 5 tools for women

There are too many peaks and pitfalls of health care for women to go at it alone.

These five slightly taboo and partially misunderstood “girl gadgets” — and some expert advice — are meant to guide you toward feeling good, and singing “Who runs the world?” at the top of your lungs in no time.

Menstrual Cups

Menstruation has been the albatross around the waists of women since the beginning of time. Period.

Labeled “unclean,” forced to stay in their huts, shoving vaguely sanitary towels between their legs and whispering “M” to gym teachers to dodge swimming class in high school, that time of the month has a history of pushing women aside.

It took nearly 90 years of sanitary pad production before anyone thought to add an adhesive strip. Tampons have their own set of concerns. And just a few years ago, even those options were dealt a blow when forever chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) were found in both products.

Before retreating to your hut for two to seven days each month, consider a menstrual cup.

Though the design is relatively unchanged since the 1930s, its popularity has only reached targeted Facebook ad potential in the past several years.

“It’s a great option for those who are looking for an alternative to traditional pads and tampons for collecting period blood. They are comfortable, environmentally sustainable and not bulky,” said Grace Ferguson, an Allegheny Health Network Ob/Gyn.

“You can purchase one and use it for up to 10 years with the proper care. It’s easy to learn, and encourages an increased engagement with your body and period flow because you’ll be able to have a more accurate assessment of how heavy or light your flow may be at any given time. It’s also a more affordable option when compared to buying tampons or pads every month.”

It’s far more hands-on than the alternatives, but if that isn’t a turn-off, menstrual cups (priced at around $6 to $50) are easy to forget about. And that’s perfectly safe since they don’t carry the risk of toxic shock syndrome that tampons do.

Finally, we can live up to the commercials and prance through a blooming meadow, all while being good stewards to Mother Earth.


The most common cause for dryness “down there” is menopausal hormone changes, but because of its varied causes, this issue can affect women across their lifespans.

Antihistamines and decongestants — medications that fight allergy and cold symptoms — are culprits. Breastfeeding and birth control can also cause it. Chemotherapy and some cancer-related drugs, as well.

As any woman who’s confronted this issue can attest, it’s far more than an inconvenience.

Lauren Loya, owner and medical director of The Hormone Center in Carnegie, explained that vaginal dryness — when caused by hormone disruption, especially a drop in estrogen — can lead to atrophy, or a thinning of the vaginal walls. The results can be painful intercourse, tearing of the vaginal lining with intercourse, incontinence or leaking urine, and more frequent urinary tract infections.

“Over-the-counter remedies may address the dryness, but typically won’t improve the atrophy,” the physician said. “Some natural remedies include staying hydrated, probiotics (to balance the flora in the vagina), natural lubricants such as coconut oil or olive oil, exercise and pelvic floor exercises or therapy to improve blood flow to the vaginal tissues, and including soy products like tofu, miso, edamame, etc., in the diet.”

When additional lubricants are needed or preferred, “I typically tell my patients to look for products that don’t contain artificial scents or other chemicals that they can’t pronounce.”

With oh-so-pronounceable ingredients like sweet almond oil, avocado oil and lavender oil, I Love My Muff lotion ($20) addresses feminine hydration as Loya recommends, with a brand name that will start — and stop — conversations all day long.

Hormone-releasing IUDs

You may know of IUDs (or intrauterine devices) for their ability to prevent pregnancy, but these T-shaped tools are Swiss Army knives of women’s health.

About 600,000 hysterectomies (removal of all or part of the uterus) are performed in the United States each year, but that number is on a steep downward trend thanks, in part, to those little gadgets called IUDs.

The vast majority of hysterectomies target severe cases of endometriosis, abnormal uterine bleeding and fibroids but, for some, those issues can be addressed with the hormone regulation provided by intrauterine devices.

“I strongly support the use of IUDs for reasons other than birth control. They have value in treating heavy or painful periods and even have value in preventing endometrial cancer,” said Michelle Lois Harvison, chair of OB/GYN at St. Clair Health.

Most women are good candidates for using them, Harvison explains, so long as the shape of the uterus can safely hold the device.

“The great thing about IUDs is that they are quick to insert in the office and, if a patient doesn’t like it, then they are easy to remove in the office,” she said. “If we can avoid a major surgery with inserting an IUD, that is a safer, less invasive option.”

(For those looking for a hormone-free birth control option, the ParaGard IUD — yep, the one made with copper — fits the bill, and boasts a 99% success rate. Just note that the hormone-free version does not offer the same, above-mentioned benefits.)

Cooling Sheets

Even on fall or winter nights, add in a hot flash — menopausal, menstrual, anxiety-induced, pharmaceutical-related or otherwise — and you can kiss ZZZs goodbye.

One weapon is cooling sheets, particularly the Bedsure brand ($44.99 for queen-size beds), which has more than 50,500 Amazon reviews, 86% of which are four or five stars.

With any brand, cooling sheets work their magic through lightweight, breathable and moisture-wicking fabric blends. And they can intentionally keep the thread count low, for even less warmth and moisture entrapment.

It’s not just about being cooler than the flip side of the pillow. Even short-term sleep disruption can lead to increased stress responses, depression and anxiety, as well as deficits in cognition, memory and performance.

Period Panties

Period panties may seem like modern tools for women to experience all four weeks of every month exactly how they choose but, in reality, they’re a millennial upcycle of an age-old practice.

When bleeding straight into your hoop skirt wasn’t preferred, layers of wash-and-reuse rags were chosen instead. Some cultures used (and use, present tense) cloth baby diapers. Others wrap cloth around more absorbent materials, such as cow dung.

A Chinese patent from the late-1980s birthed an elevated version of these homemade helpers, first known as “woman menstruation underpants.”

Now they’re high-tech, with multiple layers of soft and absorbent fabric stitched into the gusset of full-blown underwear in a variety of colors, fabrics and cuts.

With all of those options comes a hefty financial investment, at $6 to $50 per pair. Their absorption varies. At least some brands contain the forever chemicals found in pads and tampons. And changing underwear in the middle of the day does potentially require removing pants and shoes (maybe even in a public bathroom), but there’s also plenty to say in their favor.

Compared to single-use products, these are environmentally friendly since they can be washed and reworn. For those with qualms about inserting tampons or menstrual cups, this alternative is rather hands-off. The underwear offer freedom of movement not always possible with other products and, as many have moisture-wicking materials, you can still feel fresh after all of that grooving.


First Published October 29, 2023, 5:30am