I’ll admit that many people (and I did it myself too!) when they first come across the idea of reusable sanitary products either think yak or, why on earth would anyone want to use cloth or other alternatives when there is the convenience of disposables that you just throw away! Surely, they must be smelly, unhygienic etc. In addition, we never see anything about them on the TV or rarely in shops so, that’s a sign that they could be seen as pretty unusual and suspect! However, cloth pads are absolutely not as 'off the wall', yak, unhygienic or 'difficult' as they might have seemed at first glance.
Things, as often do, have gone full circle and there has been a huge upsurge in popularity for reusable sanitary items as women become more aware of the impact of disposable products from a cost, health, and environmental perspective. The cloth pads of today are very different from those of earlier generations, not difficult, smelly or yucky to use and care for. Instead, they are comfortable, slim and trim, efficient, even fun. In fact surprisingly, many women who use cloth pads tend to become extremely enthusiastic about them!
Anecdotal too, women have reported a heap of other unexpected benefits, some of which defy explanation e.g. that their periods have become shorter, they don’t bleed as heavily, no longer suffer from cramps or have allergies, irritations, thrush etc. The other pleasing thing of course is that most cloth pad manufacturers are small businesses, often work at home mums (like me), and many of us are keen to support our locals instead of big business.
Most people today are increasingly environmentally aware e.g. most of us will reliably separate out recyclables from the rest of household waste, refuse plastic bags at the supermarket, re-use where possible or, repair something rather than have the waste or expense of buying new. In general, we both take very seriously and, understand the need to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle". There is no escaping the reports regarding our current environmental status e.g. increasing mountains of rubbish consigned to be buried under our precious landscape, levels of pollution, climate change etc. Yet, what about our menstrual products?
The materials used to manufacture most pads and tampons are derived from the petroleum industry and forestry. Most disposables are constructed using a variety of synthetic chemicals or additives and made using a variety of chemical processes e.g., producing plastics, adding fragrances, bleaching wood pulp etc. Disposable pads and tampons come with lots of packaging too e.g. Individual wraps, applicators etc.
It has been estimated that just one woman will likely use an incredible 11 000 sanitary products in a lifetime. According to the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) (www.wen.org.uk ) in the UK alone, more than 3 billion disposable items are bought every year. In 2001, women in the UK spent £370 million on them! The amount of natural resources used and menstrual waste from disposable products around the world must be staggering! An enormous amount of unnecessary items (and money!) that are either incinerated, sent to landfill (with all the long-term issues of potential ground pollution, maintenance etc) or become part of the sewerage system and maybe reappear in rivers and seas.
It is difficult to determine exactly what disposable sanitary products are made of. There appears to be no labelling requirement as to their constituents. But the word appears to be, that the centre of the pads consist of a super absorber – crystals of sodium polyacrylate that are capable of absorbing liquid many times its own weight (turning to a gel) - that’s the bit you can’t see. There doesn’t seem to be a lot that is natural about a sanitary pad. They have a plastic bottom - to prevent leakage and this will usually be made of polypropylene or rayon. The non-woven fabric covering on the pad is a lightweight material which is often polypropylene or rayon. The back has 1 or 2 strips of adhesive covered with a strip of siliconised compound paper. The pads are then packaged in plastic bags or shrink wrapped. There may or may not be fragrances/deodorisers added. There appears too, to be a race to compete between companies to promote the latest technology in menstrual wear – leak lock, four walled protection, built in back up, cleans orb to name a few.
Many women look for alternatives to disposables as a consequence of thrush, sensitivities and allergies to the consitituents of disposable sanitary protection.
If you take a few moments to consider how much you currently spend on disposable products and remember that the average woman will probably menstruate for about 35 to 40 years I’m sure you will appreciate that’s a lot of money thrown away! E.g. Poppy Pads will last for about 5 years (or 100 + washes) and possibly even longer (I've had mine for 6 years and they are still going strong!). We've done a trial washing of a selection of pads and went as far as wash number 100! The pads hadn't been used of course but most of the wear and tear of pads will be due to washing. At wash 100, pads were still in excellent condition albeit a little faded.
You can work out how much you could save for yourself according to how much you currently spend each month if using disposable products but, as an example:
If I spent $10 per month on disposable products over 5 years I would spend $600. If I brought a set of re-usable pads they could cost approx. $150 or less depending which pads or set you choose- a saving of $450! And over 40 years - $3600!!! If you purchased a Mooncup, you could recoup the cost over 6 or so months!
Another consideration is that you’ll always have some protection to hand and never be reliant on getting to the shops because you’ve run out!
Through the ages, women have used different forms of menstrual protection. The Museum of Menstruation (www.mum.org) has some fascinating (honestly!) articles and photos of some early forms of menstrual protection, including knitted pads and menstrual aprons, articles about inventive women and the materials they have used over the centuries - animal fur, plant fibres etc. Most commonly, women used strips of folded old cloth (rags) to catch their menstrual flow, which is why the term "on the rag" is used to refer to menstruation.
The first commercially available American disposable sanitary pads were Lister's Towels created by Johnson & Johnson in 1896. Disposable pads started with nurses using their wood pulp bandages to catch their menstrual flow, creating a pad that was made from easily obtainable materials, and inexpensive enough to throw away after use. Kotex's first advertisement for products made with this wood pulp (Cell cotton) appeared in 1921. Even after disposable pads were commercially available, for several years they were too expensive for many women to afford. When they could be afforded, women were allowed to place money in a box so that they would not have to speak to the shop assistant (too embarrassing, taboo etc!) and then, take a box of Kotex pads from the counter themselves! It took several years for disposable menstrual pads to become commonplace to the point where they are now used throughout the world.
The first of the disposable pads were generally in the form of a cotton wool rectangle covered with an absorbent liner. The liner ends were extended front and back so as to fit through loops in a special girdle or belt worn beneath undergarments. Later an adhesive strip was placed on the bottom of the pad for attachment to panties, and this became a favoured method with women. The belted sanitary napkin quickly became unavailable after the mid-eighties. The ergonomic design and materials used to make pads also changed through the 1980s to today. With earlier materials not being as absorbent and effective, and early pads being up to two centimetres thick, leaks were a major problem. Some variations introduced were quilting of the lining, adding "wings" and reducing the thickness of the pad by utilising products such as sphagnum moss and, polyacrylate superabsorbent gels.
Commercially-made tampons were first sold around 1930s. Tampax were advertised as early as 1939 in Woman magazine. They were slow to catch on and were frowned on in many circles, especially for unmarried girls! However by the 1960s many women had accepted tampons for all the reasons that manufacturers advertised, including their invisibility, their disposability (just flush down the toilet), and greater physical freedom, especially for swimming.
Cloth pads started to make a comeback around the 1970s, with their popularity increasing in the late 80s and early 90s. Some popular reasons why women choose to switch to reusable sanitary protection included comfort, savings over time, environmental impact, and health reasons.
(Source Wikipedia and Power House Museum)