Women have been bleeding forever. Times changed and products evolved as we found better materials for absorbing menstrual blood. However, women still compromise on certain things while choosing a menstrual product. But there are a few points to be considered during selection. Before choosing any menstrual product one must ask these questions to themselves-
- Is it healthy for me?
- Is it hygienic?
- Is it comfortable?
- Is it convenient to use?
- Is it economical?
- Is it eco-friendly?
If any of these questions are answered negatively, women should rethink about their choice. But as we have a habit to compromise or not give enough attention to our health, let us explore the various products available on the basis of contents used in products, and the six criteria listed above.
Disposable sanitary pads
The first disposable pads were designed by Benjamin Franklin. These were made of wood pulp bandages used to stop excessive bleeding on the battlefield. Commercial manufacturers borrowed this idea and the first disposable pads were available for purchase came as early as 1888 – called the Southhall pad. In America, Johnson & Johnson developed their own version in 1896 called Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towel’s for Ladies. Kotex was launched in 1920 by Kimberly-Clark to make use of leftover cellucotton (wood pulp fibre) from World War One bandages. It was highly absorbent and cheap enough to throw away afterwards.
Disposable products started to be produced on a large scale in the 1940s, firstly with belted pads and then in the 1960s, with adhesive-backed pads. In 1990s, absorbent gels were used for the first time in pads.
Until then, women used a variety of materials to collect menstrual fluids. The list of absorbent materials includes animal pelts, mosses, sea sponges, and seaweed along with the usual cotton, wool, rags, and vegetable fibres. Cloth or reusable pads were widely used to collect menstrual blood. In 1970s cloth pads made a comeback as disposable pads were expensive, not eco-friendly, uncomfortable and some women faced health issues too. Later, women shifted to disposable pads due to technological progress in manufacturing, reduced cost, increasing involvement of women in the workplace, and women wearing underwear. Many pad manufacturers came in and these disposable pads quickly spread to every country possible. They became an aspirational product for rural areas. Let us have a broader look at the disposable pads we use.
Let us have a broader look at the disposable pads we use.
The appearance of pad changed over the years from being bulky to thin and now ultrathin, with wings, adhesive, leak-proof layer, etc. With that, the ingredients also changed from cotton to superabsorbent gel, feel-dry non-woven plastic layer, and plastic back-sheet to avoid leaking. Not to mention the packaging for each pad and the fragrances used in pads were also changed. Earlier in this series, articles have explored in detail about the health, environmental and social hazards of disposable sanitary napkins.
Health: If you think of disposable sanitary napkins according to the above given parameters, you will get an answer that they aren’t healthy as they can give you rashes. The upper layer is designed to make women feel dry. Though they are convenient to use, they can be toxic and carcinogenic. ‘Women’s Voices for the Earth’ conducted a research on “Always” sanitary pads (P&G, branded in India as Whisper). The results indicate that both scented and unscented pads emit toxic chemicals, that are carcinogens, and reproductive and developmental toxins. None of these chemicals are disclosed on the product by the manufacturer.
In India, most women using disposables avoid changing pads frequently, for multiple reasons including the cost of pads, no place to change and no place to dispose of the used pads. I have come across women who use one pad for a day and such women are exposed to discomfort, skin infections and rashes posing several health risks.
Hygiene: Pads can lead to bacterial growth if used for a long time. Hence one should change it in every 4-6 hours. Once the soiled pad comes in contact with air, it also emits an odour.
Comfort: They feel soft, dry. They come in a shape and size suitable according to day, night, and physical structure. Also they are leak-proof making woman free of worry of stains on clothes.
Convenience: Though pads are easy to use and seem as a convenient option but actually one has to buy them again and again. Also wrapping and throwing them discreetly is not convenient.
Cost: A person needs 8-10 pads a month which will cost her Rs.80-100 or Rs.900 a year. It means a person has to spend frequently and if there are 2-3 menstruating women in a house, the cost gets doubled or even more depending on person to person.
Eco-friendly: Over several decades we are blissfully unaware of the horrors of disposable pads like Stayfree, Whisper, and thinking that cottony soft pads actually contain cotton. The pads which feels soft like cotton aren’t actually cotton. We remain unaware that pads, when flushed, can bloat and absorb all the water in a drain pipe till the system gets blocked. We are also unaware that polymers used in pads make them non-biodegradable and can take 500-800 years to breakdown.
In few offices and schools, disposable pad vending machines and incinerators have been setup where pads are given at cheap rates but incineration is linked to toxic emissions. This solution is unsustainable hence burning or burying pads is not a good practice. Long-term solution to this could be making switch to healthier, comfortable and eco-friendly alternatives.
There are some healthy, convenient, eco-friendly, and economical alternatives available. Let’s have a look at them.
Washable Pads with synthetic materials
There are some pads which are made from synthetic materials that improve absorbency and are made anti-microbial to control bacterial growth. Saafkins and Safepads are such products.
Saafkins: They come in a packet of two sanitary napkins, made of a superabsorbent material that holds up to 100 ml of liquid. They are leak-proof and can be worn for 12 hours. An adjustable band around the waist holds the pad in place. The pad is made of a quick-drying material which does away with the need to dry it out in the open. The pad is convenient and comes in 2 sizes. It is easy to clean. You just have to hold it under a running tap, press it and squeeze the liquid out, follow with a little bit of soap, and it’s clean. Occasionally you have to soak in water if stains don’t go away. It doesn’t give foul odour. It can work as an excellent night pad. The pads can be reused up to one year which costs Rs.150 per year.
Safepads: They come in a pack of 4 pads per package that includes 3 day pads and 1 long night pad. The fabric is 100% polyester based, top fabric is a soft velvet and the core absorbent material is made of special treated fibrillated high absorbent fibres. The bottom fabric is a mesh jacquard with a Poly-Urethane lamination to make it leakproof. The antimicrobial property of Safepad is due to the use of Silica, Nitrogen and Carbon. It neither contains any harmful or dangerous chemicals, nor does it contain antibiotics. The material is not cotton, but the pad is durable. One pack is enough to manage periods. Safepad will withstand at least 100 washes, i.e. it is reusable up to 4 years. They are claimed to be recyclable.
Synthetic pads are similar to cloth pads in terms of absorbency, comfort, convenience. They aren’t bio-degradable but could be reused for 1-4 years and are claimed to be recyclable.
Disposable biodegradable pads
There are few companies that make eco-friendly pads using banana fibre, bamboo fibre, or water hyacinth such as Saathi, Natracare, Anandi, Jani pad (made of water hyacinth).
Saathi pads are made from banana fibre. They are unbleached and chemical free and are available online in pack of 8 pads for Rs.159.
Jani, which means “leaf” or “sheet”, consists of four layers made from water-hyacinth paper. Each tier is imbued with different characteristics, whether it’s perforated holes to improve absorption or a veneer of beeswax to prevent leakage. Slits on the top layer allow the pad to adapt to the wearer’s body, reducing discomfort.
Natracare pads could be another option if you are looking for organic cotton and plastic-free option. They are claimed to be compostable. They come in a pack of a few pads ranging from Rs.170-Rs.500.
Anandi pads come in a pack of 4 pads in 2 models – compostable and non-compostable pads.
Lets’ look at these pads in terms of the 6 parameters:
Health: In some pads, if there is wood pulp, then bleaching process is involved to make it look white. This releases dioxins in the air. Dioxins are highly toxic and can lead to reproductive and developmental disorders in foetus and endocrine disruption in adults.
Hygiene: They are designed for one-time use. There could be bacterial growth if they are used for a long time when women wear the same pad for a long time to save cost or if they are short of pads.
Comfort: They are similar to disposable pads in terms of softness, leak-proofing and shape.
Convenience: Similar to disposable pads, they will need to be purchased every month. Since they aren’t available everywhere, the issue of availability may arise. It is easy to use like disposable pads that come with wings and adhesive to stick on panties.
Cost: A woman will spend annually Rs.1900 and above (4 pads/ day). This may put economic pressure if there are many menstruating women in the house.
Eco-friendly: In some pads, if there is wood pulp, then bleaching process is involved to make it look white. This releases dioxins in the air. The leak-proof layer with adhesive has to be removed before throwing away, as the last layer being polymer, will remain in landfill and won’t degrade. The remaining part of the pad can be composted, but not all pads are compostable. It’s challenging for urban women without a backyard or terrace to compost pads. Composting could be done on society level or centrally but every woman may not be comfortable to compost her pads. This limits the acceptance of bio-degradable disposable pads. It’s a better alternative to disposable napkins during emergency. Disposable pads, irrespective of bio-degradability, will add tonnes to landfills.
Cloth pads are modern eco-friendly solutions to pads which are completely guilt-free and can spoil you for choice. Unlike disposable pads, they don’t give a foul odour. Washed and dried in the sun, these cloth pads can last several years and are comfortable and hygienic. A woman needs at least 5-6 cloth pads for the whole cycle costing approximately Rs.1200, which is easily recovered as these can be reused for 3-5 years.
Health: It is made of natural cotton fibre, hence, no health risks reported. The fabric is breathable thus avoids rashes and reactions on the skin. They are completely chemical-free hence save from risks which chemicals pose on body.
Hygiene: There is risk of infection and rashes if they are not dried properly. If they are dried before using, they shouldn’t cause any issues.
Comfort: As it’s mostly cotton and in some cases, bamboo fibre, it’s soft and attractive. It comes in a variety of colours and one need not worry about stains being seen while drying. It comes in different shapes, sizes according to comfort, body size and amount of flow it can absorb. Except Uger and Jaioni all pads are leak-proof.
Convenience: They are convenient as once purchased, they can be reused for 2-3 years. The cotton material is durable and if cared properly can stay soft for a long time. They have to be washed and sun-dried. Disposal is not an issue as they degrade like any cotton cloth.
Cost: A woman needs 5-6 pads to manage her periods well. She spends around Rs.1200-1700 for pads that can reused for 3 years. It saves a lot of money compared to disposable pads as one doesn’t have to annually spend Rs.900.
Eco-friendly: As they are made of cotton cloth except the last layer which has poly-urethane coating. It is bio-degradable and saves a woman from burdening the planet with disposable pads. They could be composted and recycled too.
How to choose a cloth pad?
Select what is best for you based on your body size, amount of menstrual flow, personal comfort, and your activities, such as sports where menstrual cups are usually a better option than cloth pads. Reusable cloth pads come in different sizes and levels of absorbency. These can be used for daily discharge, period flow, mild incontinence and postpartum bleeding. Some women use two types of pads, a thicker one for heavy flow days and a thinner one for medium/light flow days. You may want to try out different types to find out which one is best for you. There are 3 models of cloth pads – the one all-in-one model that comes in a shape of pad with beautiful colours and motifs (by Ecofemme, Shomota, Jivika, Jaioni, Namaskriti, Ecoria, Soch, Uger), the foldable model by Ecofemme looks like a thick colourful handkerchief that is folded and used. There are insert pads by Jaioni, Uger and Shomota where a pad has base pad and cloth inserts. Most of the pads are leak-proof, have wings and fasteners to keep the pad in place. For people living in humid or wet areas, foldable and pads with inserts could be a good solution as they dry easily compared to all-in-one pad.
To explore further, use this link hygieneandyou
How to care for them?
Change pads before they get saturated. That may be every few hours, depending on the flow. It is recommended to change pads after 4-6 hours. They need to soak in regular water for 20-30 minutes before washing as that helps to release the clots from layers of pad. Later, they can be washed with soap and dried in the sun. Sun is a natural disinfectant, hence kills bacteria in pads. If sun-drying is not possible, hanging pads outside or in an airy place could be done. Some women do complain that they can’t wash pads in their hectic schedule but there are women who work for 10-12 hours and use cloth pads with ease. Some women have used cloth pads in 30 hours train/flight journeys. If one carries travel pouch, changing pads and storage is not an issue. Then they can be washed once home.
About the author: Rajasi Kulkarni-Diwakar is a child development professional who is also a menstrual health management educator. She is actively involved in the campaign ‘Green the red’ which promotes sustainable menstrual practices.
This article is part of the series for Earth Day and is done in a collaboration with Bhoomi College, a centre for learning for those who wish to take up green paths, as well as those who wish to live with more ecological consciousness and personal fulfilment. The last article in the series of seven will be published on Menstrual Hygiene Day On 28th May.
In these seven weeks, we will cover a variety of topics around menstruation, which are eye-opening, thought-provoking, and will inform readers more about sustainable menstruation options. We urge our readers to stay tuned and participate in this crusade.