Women have been using pads of cloth or simply folds of fabric to catch their menstrual blood for many, many years, but specially designed pads have only started to gain interest in the last couple of years. I can imagine some readers might think “Eurgh”, and that’s a normal first reaction. I think some people still envisage tatty rags and having to boil-wash things, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth.
WHAT ARE CLOTH PADS?
Cloth sanitary pads (CSP) are, as the name suggests, menstrual pads made from cloth that are washed after use. They’re a much greener, more eco-friendly version of their disposable counterparts and can be used for up to 10 years or more.
WHY USE PADS INSTEAD OF TAMPONS?
Many women feel more comfortable wearing pads than something that is internal. They find it eases their blood flow. Cloth pads do not contain toxic chemicals that can irritate the body. They simply sit inside your underwear and collect the menstrual flow as it leaves your body. Tampons contain toxic chemicals such as dioxins (which are left behind after the bleaching process). Many women assume tampons are sterile, but they’re not. They have all sorts on their surface, such as dust and bacteria. And they absorb not only menstrual flow but also natural moisture from the vagina and its walls. That’s why so many women report vaginal dryness and itching when using tampons. There’s also a risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS has flu-like symptoms and it can be fatal, so for me it makes sense to use pads instead of tampons.
WHY USE CLOTH PADS?
On average a woman will throw away around 15,000 disposable pads during her menstruating lifetime. That’s a fair amount of money spent on something that simply gets thrown into the bin. Using cloth pads works out much cheaper. They do need a little investment to get going, but you can easily spread the cost by buying a couple per month. Overall, they’ll save you money. Not only that, but think about how many disposable pads end up in the ocean or landfill, eventually washing up on our beaches or killing wildlife. In 2013, the Marine Conservation Society collected 1,291 pads/panty liners and 428 tampons along 96.67km of beaches surveyed during the Big Beach Clean-up.
Disposable pads also contain chemicals that can be toxic to your body, such as styrene, chloromethane, chloroethane, chloroform and acetone. These are carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, neurotoxins and irritants. The composition of disposable pads is not stated on the packaging, so you simply have no idea what you’re using. Cloth pads contain no chemicals or hidden ingredients, and many are made with organic cotton.
DO YOU FIND DISPOSABLE PADS COMFORTABLE?
I don’t. All that sweaty, hot plastic is a breeding ground for bacteria, often causing thrush. And the ‘wings’ often come unstuck – or stick to you, providing an unwanted ‘wax’ – leading to lack of coverage, meaning that your flow can go off the pad.
In contrast, cloth pads are often constructed from materials such as organic bamboo velour and organic cotton, which are highly breathable, so you’ll be much cooler. The wings tend to have snaps that popper together underneath the gusset of your underwear for a secure fit that won’t budge. There are many brands on the market these days, all with their own shapes. They can measure anywhere from about 15cm to about 50cm in length, to fit women of all shapes, sizes and needs. So, depending on your flow pattern, whether you bleed to the front, side, middle or back, and the length you want, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll find something to suit you.
I know some women hate the sight of blood, so the idea of using cloth can seem daunting, but there is a solution: black pads! You won’t be able to see the blood on them at all. If you don’t like the thought of washing them, there’s a solution for that too: not unlike wrapping a disposable pad in its wrapper and putting it in the bin, you simply fold the soiled cloth pad in half and put it in a wet bag. When it comes to washing, just unzip the bag, place it in the washing machine drum, and set the machine going. As the drum turns, the pads will come out of the bag and be washed. You don’t so much as need to look at or touch soiled pads.
If you’re not fussed by blood, there’s a whole world out there of pretty prints and beautiful hand-dyed fabrics to choose from.
HOW MANY WILL I NEED?
You will need around 15–20 pads depending on your flow and how often you change. If you find yourself getting low, you can always wash them mid-period. Washing is very easy, and there’s no boil-washing involved. Just pop them in the machine, add your detergent (but no fabric conditioner), wash them on a cool setting, and then give them a separate rinse before hanging them to dry.
I believe there are very good reasons to make the switch: a more comfortable period, no toxic chemicals, saving money and, most importantly, saving our planet. I recommend you try a cloth pad. I think you’ll wonder why you didn’t switch sooner.
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Tamsin Hopkins is mum to a 2-year-old and is the creator of the Eco Fluffy Mama blog. She is passionate about women’s menstrual health and the impact our throw-away culture has on the environment. She regularly reviews reusable menstrual products, and offers advice on their use to women across the world. (Accurate at the time this issue went to print).
First published in Issue 39 (Spring 2015) of JUNO: