People who have periods will dispose of 51 billion non-biodegradable sanitary pads a year – and that’s in first world countries alone. Add in panty liners, incontinence pads, disposable nappies, nursing pads and ‘wet wipes’ of all types and we are heading for a soggy and smelly interment.
In last week’s blog post I mentioned that it can take 500 to 800 years for a mass produced, big-brand, disposable sanitary pad to decompose. Fortunately, just as periods or menstruation-talk are becoming less ‘taboo’, it seems as if the main users – and disposers – of pads are also starting to recognise some of the more sustainable, environmentally friendly options for period management. Check out last week’s post to read up on organic pads, period panties and menstrual cups.
One of the last bastions of period care – with, seemingly, an icky factor even greater than menstrual cups (which are – after all – out of sight and mind for up to 12 hours at a time) are re-usable, washable sanitary pads. Unfortunately, despite Period Pride entering our twitter feeds, our Facebook pages and our Instagram folders – not to mention Tumblr, Whisper, YikYak, You Now and every other social media site in town – the majority of people I spoke to had a fairly succinct reaction to my suggestion that they trial some re-usable pads for me.
“how do you suggest I rinse them in a public bathroom?”
“do I need to grow my armpit hair too?”
According to the many, many makers of reusable (i.e. washable) sanitary pads; there are a myriad of powerful reasons to make the switch. Let’s start with finances – although it might seem a considerable outlay to buy your initial ‘set’ of re-usable pads, with the average period requiring up to 12 pads per cycle, a major selling point is the fact that this initial cost occurs just once every five or more years (estimates for longevity sit at about 300 wears if washed properly). On eBay, sets of 4 or 5, plain coloured, mass produced bamboo cloth pads are selling for around $30. New Moon Pads, established in 1990, ship from the US in bundles of 8 pads for between $68 and $100USD. GladRags claim that 10 cloth pads is equivalent to 600 disposable pads; their kits range in price from $65 to $214USD (for the Deluxe Pad Kit Plus – 17 pads plus carry bag and washing bag). Much closer to home, the very beautifully made and packaged hannahpad Australia (based in Melbourne) are the only locally available pads which I could find which sell in sets. Prices range from about AUD$150 to $250 for 8 – 12 pads. Three and four pad sets cost as little as AUD$38. Mense Sense (cool name huh?) are another local option – home-made by hand, the pads seem to be sold individually and – most importantly from my point of view – like hannahpad they offer a complete teen range which are smaller, slimmer pads for younger, smaller bodies. (Huge thanks to both hannahpad and Mense Sense for providing gorgeous cloth pads to HUSHeducation for display and demonstration purposes).
In Australia, where sanitary products attract GST, a rough estimate (based mostly on tampon use – go figure) states that many women will spend up to $150 dollars a year on pads, tampons and liners. In a nutshell – reusable pads will save you money – in the long term.
Many people who have periods claim that switching to 100% organic, reusable cloth pads considerably reduced not just infections, rashes and general irritation – but also decreased or prevented menstrual cramps. Lunapads.com once did a survey of people switching to cloth pads, and about 50% of users claim that their cramps are either gone or far more bearable than with disposable pads or tampons. Some extrapolate a placebo effect, others wonder if it’s the lack of fibres or chemicals and bleaches, many talk about the increased airflow to the vagina – not found with pads with a plastic layer, and others rave about less drying of the natural moisture within the vagina with cloth pads; most people don’t care how or why – they’re just happy to be pain free.
There is little doubt that re-usable pads are a much healthier option. Along with the convenience of disposable pads, users are paying for a combination of plastics, cotton (usually bleached), synthetic fibres and wood pulp. Add in the pesticides and herbicides from the cotton crops as well as any added fragrances and a vagina (and vulva) are virtually asking for allergic reactions, irritation from friction and a whole lot more. Sure, you might be one of the lucky period people who are always comfortable using disposable products – but many vaginas are pleasantly surprised at the luxury of soft, warm, unbleached, undyed, chemical-free cotton.
For many people considering using washable pads, apart from saving money their biggest reason for switching is saving the environment. We’ve talked about the time it takes disposable products to decompose; but many people haven’t considered the environmental impact of actually manufacturing disposable pads and tampons. Pollution of air and waterways, cutting down trees leading to loss of natural habitats for wildlife and natural resources are all by-products of producing the billions (yes, billions) of disposable sanitary products each year. An ever increasing list of companies are now providing healthier, safer, more sustainable alternatives for period management.
OK; I’m going there – we’re about to discuss one of the biggest ‘cons’ people talk about in the disposable vs reusable debate – the upkeep and care of washable sanitary pads. Let’s be honest here – we’ve all had leaks and stained clothes, sheets and undies in our menstruating life – how are we going to get those pads clean. Each of the makers of cloth pads talk about pretty much the same cleaning routine.
Step one – rinse the pad as soon as practical after removing it. If you’re at home or in a toilet space with a sink in the same area you could do a quick COLD WATER rinse straight away before squeezing dry and rolling up the used pad and placing it in a snap-lock bag (Am I the only one sensing the irony of carrying snaplock bags or plastic lined purses when we’re feeling super clean-and-green for embracing reusable products?) If there are only communal sinks – particularly during the lunch-time bathroom rush I’m guessing that the used pad is just rolled up and tucked away until the period person gets home and does some serious scrubbing.
Step two – after rinsing, each pad needs a good, long soak. Some people suggest rubbing a bit of detergent into the stained area before soaking – others talk about adding peroxide or tea tree oil to the soaking water. Suggested times range for a minimum of three hours to overnight and up to three days. Wemoon actually sell ‘Moonbags’ especially designed to discreetly cover a 2 litre ‘soaking jar’ while hannahpad sell natural washing products on their website.
Steps three and four – supposedly your rinsed and soaked pads are ready to just toss into the washing machine with all your other clothes; some people recommend cold wash, others say hot – I think it depends upon whether your choice of reusable pads have any plastic layers in them – the same applies to line or machine drying – obviously sunshine naturally bleaches and sanitises clothing. All the makers of reusable pads recommend a quick warm iron after they are dry – most probably for comfort – nobody wants wrinkled fabric against their soft bits.
Non-disposable sanitary products are nothing new – in fact people who have periods have been using ‘natural’ products such as moss and bark, sponges (and more recently rags) since the dawn of humankind. Admittedly none were nearly as pretty as the modern day washable pads – their visual appeal really is a drawcard for me. I recently read the term “the culture of concealment’ in terms of menstruation. Maybe as more people with vaginas proudly fly their period flags on the clothes line, as they talk about periods and unashamedly let others know that yes – we bleed; the embarrassment and need for suppression will disappear.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve blogged about organic, disposable pads by Tsuno, menstrual cups – both reusable and disposable, and washable, reusable pads. I’m guessing that the majority of people (in first world countries) will continue to buy, use, and unthinkingly dispose of those thousands of sanitary products in their menstruating lifetime. Ultimately the choice is your own.
Next week I’ll have a look at the history of menstrual management – and try to talk about the topic of ‘free bleeding’.