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MLA Full: "Periods + Fieldwork." YouTube, uploaded by thebrainscoop, 10 February 2016,
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APA Full: thebrainscoop. (2016, February 10). Periods + Fieldwork [Video]. YouTube.
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For more science knowledge on periods, check out Anna's video on Gross Science!
Field work can be the most exciting part of research science, but unfortunately there aren't a lot of resources for adventurers when it comes to managing your period in oftentimes remote locations, which can lead to a lot of nervousness about your upcoming trip. Never fear! We talked with a number of experienced field scientists in order to compile some tips and tricks to help you plan for the next adventure. Explore on!

Oh, and if you want to know more about polar bears and menstrual odors, read:
B. S. Cushing, 1983. "Responses of polar bears to human menstrual odors,"

Thanks to Crystal Maier, Corrie Moreau, Anna Goldman, Corine Vriesendorp, Sarah Ebel, my Mom, and a cohort of other enthusiastic adventurers for the help and input on this episode!

Come hang out in our Subreddit:
Twitters: @ehmee
Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Editor, Camera, Graphics:
Brandon Brungard

This episode is supported by and filmed on location at:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL

 Intro (0:00)

(Intro music)

Do you menstruate? Do you know somebody who menstruates? If you answered yes to either of those questions, then golly, do we have the video for you.

Fieldwork is a major part of natural history research and exploration, and it's an opportunity that many scientists and students will be granted throughout their course of study and careers. But what if you're going to a really remote place with unpredictable bathroom situations or limited access to basic sanitary conditions?

As a scientist (or even as a hiker, camper, or amateur explorer), you may be unprepared for dealing with some of these scenarios, specifically when it comes to your menstrual cycle. That's why we're bringing you some well-researched solutions provided by the first-hand experiences of seasoned researchers and yours truly. We learned the hard way, so you don't have to.

 Chapter 1: Planning & Before You Go (0:56)

Planning and before you go.

First, consider how long you're going to be away from luxurious things like flush toilets, pharmacies, and privacy. Whether you're prospecting for fossils in Wyoming or searching for frogs in Borneo, you'd be lucky and glad to see a porta-potty. Chances are you might be pooping over a hole in the ground, but I really encourage you to ask your expedition leader or tour guide about the commode accommodations before you go.

Consequently, which menstrual items you decide to bring will be based off of things like your comfort level with various products, your access to clean water, and of the duration of time spent in the field. Are you gonna be gone for two weeks or six months? Whatever you decide on, it's always a good idea to pack what you think you'll need with you before you go. Don't rely on being able to find what you want once you land in another country because it's likely your only option will be buying maxi pads the size of twin mattresses.

It's not uncommon for those factors to cause your period to go out of whack. You might skip it entirely because of poor nutrition or because you contracted parasites from ingesting contaminated food or water. Or the opposite could happen, and you'll just have a period for a month straight. Congratulations, as if you didn't have other things to worry about.

 Chapter 2: Tampons (2:07)


Applicator or digital insertion? Whatever you decide, repeat after me: Leave No Trace. This mantra used by backpackers and Thru-hikers is true for everything we talk about today. Packing out used menstrual products is no worse than packing out your used toilet paper, which also might be required in situations where it's too wet to get a fire hot enough to burn your trash.

Tampons are great because they don't take up a lot of extra space in your bag, and applicator-less or digital insertion tampons (like finger-insertion, not like you insert it with your iPhone) come with even less trash. Compared to the size and the amount of trash in this kind of tampon and it's significant.

For packing out, I recommend bringing additional Ziploc bags and paper sacks or an opaque plastic bag if you're worried about people seeing what you're carrying around. I would also recommend storing your used product bag away from your tent or sleeping area, and in a way that is largely inaccessible from foraging critters as to avoid a situation where odors might attract curious wildlife.

Speaking of wildlife, don't believe the myths that you hear about bears being attracted to your period. They're more interested in your peanut butter. Unless you're in, like, Greenland where there was actually a study published implicating that polar bears are unusually curious about your period smells.

 Chapter 3: Pads (3:21)


I only talked with one person who recommended using pads while conducting field work. They went with the heavy duty nighttime sized ones because they didn't have the option to change out their other products very frequently, and couldn't ensure the cleanliness of their hands while conducting research.

Pads also create a lot of extra trash you'll have to pack out and they can be uncomfortable if you're hiking around and sweating all day.

 Chapter 4: Menstrual Cups (3:44)

Menstrual cups.

Menstrual cups are a highly recommended option for many in the field and hikers for a few reasons. They create zero extra trash you need to cart around, they're comfortable and discreet if you're familiar with using one ahead of time, and they take up virtually no space in your bag.

You can theoretically wear a cup like this one for twelve hours at a time, and only need to empty it twice a day. If it's your first time using a menstrual cup, I'd recommend ordering it a few months ahead of your trip so you have time to practice and be comfortable with its use.

In order to keep it clean, remove your cup with clean hands and rinse it with unscented soap and water, if available. If your water is limited, and you won't have enough to rinse out the soap, then just use water. And if you're concerned about water purity, this might not be a good option for you. To completely sanitize your menstrual cup, boil it at the end of your period, and you can even use spoons or tongs to suspend it in the center of a boiling pot so as to not melt the silicone.

If it seems weird to you to use the camp cooking supplies to sterilize your menstrual cup, just think about it this way: you just completed your first period on an expedition and there is virtually nothing that can stop you now.

 Chapter 5: Birth Control (4:48)

Birth control.

While I'm not a medical doctor, and this in no way constitutes as medical advice, another popular option has to do with either starting new or altering your current birth control before the trip. For those taking the pill, some researchers will skip the placebos entirely and prolong their hormonal treatment to make it through their field trip sans period.

Intrauterine devices, or IUDs, are also a good option to consider as they have the tendency to decrease the severity or even stop your period entirely. With that being said, you must talk to your doctor to see if that's a good idea and that you're making a decision that is both healthy and safe for you.

 Chapter 6: Cramps & Discomfort (5:23)

Cramps and discomfort.

Cramps and general menstrual discomfort can put a huge damper on the excitement and novelty of doing awesome fieldwork, but preparedness in this case is key. Bringing ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or any kind of anti-inflammatory with you is definitely recommended to help take the edge off.

If you like using a heated blanket or electric pad at home, you can always look for one of these air-activated heat wraps before you go. You'll have to pack it out with you but they're relatively small and can make a world of difference.

Or if you've got an extra plastic water bottle that can take some heat, fill it with hot water, wrap it in an old shirt, and curl up until you feel better. It's okay to take a break.

 Chapter 7: Staying Clean (6:00)

But what if I feel dirty all of the time?

It's true that you're going to have to spend more time than it takes you to hop in and out of the shower at home to feel remotely clean while in the field, but it'll be worth it for your health. Yeast infections can be a problem in areas where humidity is high and hygiene is less than stellar. Thankfully, there's a prescription to help with this kind of thing, so again, talk with your doctor to see if that's a good option for you.

And another thing: while I typically don't recommend using it over regular soap and water, a bottle of hand sanitizer can go a long way in the field. Make sure when you're inserting or removing products, or touching areas around your vagina that your hands are always clean. Also, unscented bathroom wipes can be incredibly helpful when you don't have access to a hot shower. They don't take up too much space, and you can pack them out with your other used products.

If you've got some extra cash, then quick-drying camping underwear can be really helpful. The upside is that they're made of nylon and spandex, which means you can wash them with just a bit of soap and water and they dry in a few hours. Cotton underwear can take eons to dry in damp, tropical environments, and they also run the chance of growing mold if they don't dry entirely. The downside of synthetic underwear is that after a while, they sort of feel like you're wearing a plastic bag, which takes a little getting used to. They're also expensive, like $14 a pair. A couple of pairs can go a long way, but again, this is an instance in which you should always want something clean and dry. So pack extras, whatever you choose.

 Chapter 8: Whatever Happens, Happens (7:19)

And whatever happens, happens.

Lastly, remember that whatever happens, don't feel embarrassed by any mishaps. Be honest and upfront with your expedition leader about your situation. If you're in a remote field site for long enough, your business becomes everyone else's anyway. And, as one researcher told me, a little period leakage is nothing compared to the explosive diarrhea that keeps sending your lab-mates sprinting to the woods every five minutes.

Happy exploring.

 End Screen (7:45)

(Outro music)

(Gross Science clip: Seeing as this week's Valentines Day, I thought what better way to celebrate than by answering three surprising questions about periods in honor of the tens of millions of women who'll have theirs that day.)
It still has brains on it.