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Generally they are made from layers of absorbent natural fibers (such as cotton, bamboo or hemp) which are worn by a woman while she is menstruating, for post-partum bleeding, general daily discharge, urinary incontinence or other times when light to heavy absorbency is required.
After use, they are washed, dried and then reused. When cared for properly, they may last for 5 to 10 years, depending on how often they are used and how they are cared for.
Table of Contents
Other Names for cloth menstrual pads
- Cloth Pads
- Mama Pads
- Mama Cloth
- Moon Pads
- Moon Rags
- Eco San Pro
Through the ages women have used different forms of menstrual protection. Women often used strips of folded old cloth (rags) to catch their menstrual blood, which is why the term "on the rag" is used to refer to menstruation. TheMuseum of Menstruation has articles and photos of some early forms of menstrual protection, including among other things, knitted pads or pieces of sheepskin.
Early disposable pads were used by nurses, and were made by using the inexpensive wood-pulp bandages.
Disposable menstrual pads appear to have been first commercially available from around 1888 with the Southall's pad. Kotex's (whose name comes from "Cotton-like texture") who first advertised in 1921, would appear to be the first commercially viable brand, with other brands prior to that having little success,
Until the birth of disposable pads, women used a variety of sewn or makeshift pads made from a variety of fabrics, often leftover scraps, to collect menstrual blood, although some women have used anything absorbent, including grass, leaves, wood shavings and wool to collect menstrual blood. It is believed that some women did not use anything to collect menstrual blood.
Even after they were commercially available, they were too expensive for many women to afford. another hurdle was that women were embarrassed to purchase them. One solution to this was to allow women to place money into a box (so that the woman would not have to speak to the clerk) and take a box of Kotex pads from the counter themselves. As discussed here. So it took several years for disposable menstrual pads to become commonplace.
Cloth menstrual pads made a comeback around 1970. With the number of cloth pad manufacturers and online communities devoted to this increasing in the 1990s and the early 2000s, they appear to be gaining popularity.
In underdeveloped countries, reusable or makeshift pads are still used to collect menstrual blood. Some women are even using newspaper or toilet paper to form disposable pads from. See africa.
Modern cloth pads are very different to what women used before disposables became the norm. Some styles of cloth menstrual pad have a waterproof layer to help prevent the pad leaking through, in this way they are similar to disposable menstrual pads. Other styles of cloth pad may rely on more layers or cloth, absorbent weaves such as flannelette, or absorbent materials such as hemp and bamboo. Rather than use adhesives to stick the pad to the gusset of your underwear, cloth pads use friction provided by a backing material and/or wings to stay in place.
The majority of commercially available cloth pads are manufactured by WAHM or small businesses. While a few brands can be purchased through some "bricks and mortar" stores (such as health food stores), the majority of them are only available via the Internet.
They are available in a range of lengths and thicknesses, similar to disposable pads, with longer pads for night use and thinner and shorter pads for light use. Some manufacturers will allow the buyer to select the fabrics, shape and size of the pad so that they can be custom made to fit an individual woman and be as efficient as possible. This is known as a custom order. Others have instock pads, which you would buy like any other ready-made product.
Some women make their own cloth menstrual pads. These pads range from folded wash cloths to pads similar to the cloth menstrual pads available commercially.
Types of Cloth Pad
As there are hundreds of cloth pad brands on the market, there is a wide variety of styles, shapes, sizes and fabrics used.
Styles of pad
- Padded Underwear
- Pointed Wings
- Flared Back
- Thong Liners
- Belted Pads
- Fold-Up Pads
Advantages of cloth
- Environmentally friendly, with less solid waste produced and chemicals used in production.
- Using cloth pads is more economical in the long run than buying disposable products.
- No adhesives to attach to the skin (and hair) and cause discomfort.
- Cloth menstrual pads are highly customizable, with many brands offering to custom make any length/size/style/fabric a customer would like.
- Cloth pads are less likely to cause rashes, contact dermatitis, as well as helping women afflicted with certain types of vaginitis, vulvodynia, and recurrent urinary tract infections.
- Empowering women to be more comfortable with menstruation and not treat it as a medical disorder.
- May reduce the length and severity of menstruation and menstrual symptoms (as shown in informal polls such as this)
- Cloth pads reduce the scent of menstrual blood on the cloth pad; as they are more breathable than the average disposable sanitary pads, they carry less odor.
Environmental and economical benefits
If a woman uses an average of 5 disposable pads a day, that works out to be about 35 a month, or 420 a year. If an average woman menstruates from around 12 years until around 40, that's 28 years worth of menstruation (not including time spent pregnant or breastfeeding, where menstruation would stop). Which is around 11,760 pads used in that time, at a cost of around 30c per pad. Multiply that by all the disposable pad wearing women of the world and that is a huge amount of disposable pads that will remain in Landfill for many generations to come. Many cloth pads use Hemp or bamboo as the absorbent core, which uses less water and pesticides to grow than Cotton or Wood pulp. While washing cloth pads does consume water, this is lessened if they are washed in a machine load of other items rather than on their own. They can even be rinsed out in the shower, using water that would normally just run off down the drain. The rinse water (and washing water if a garden friendly Detergent is used) makes a great Fertilizer, so this can be used to water the garden.
Most disposable pads are made from bleached Wood pulp, and most have a plastic waterproof layer (if not comprised mainly of plastics) with a plastic coated strip to cover the adhesive. Pads and tampons are usually individually wrapped in plastic and then most of these come packaged in a plastic bag or a plastic wrapped box. Cloth pads can be composted, where most disposable pads cannot be.
Some super absorbent disposable pads may use compounds such as Polymethylacrylate to enhance absorbency. The use of latex, adhesives, fragrances, and plastics in disposable pads can lead to irritations in women with sensitivities to this. Women with sensitive skin/allergies may find cloth pads to be more comfortable against their skin, particularly cloth pads made of undyed organic cotton. Additionally, the plastic barrier of a disposable pad breeds odors, but cloth pads, many of which do not require any waterproof barrier at all, do not smell at all.
Often women feel like menstruation is something embarrassing shameful and something to hide. Disposable sanitary product manufacturers have been known to contribute to this by advertising the advantages of quieter packaging on their products. Women who choose reusable menstrual products often comment on how they feel more relaxed with their menstruation, and some even look forward to it. Being able to choose from a selection of pads, and having something that looks and feels funky and fun can help turning menstruation from the unpleasant to something almost exciting.
Disadvantages of cloth menstrual pads
- Takes time and effort to wash and dry the pads, compared to opening a package and throwing a pad in the bin.
- Can be expensive to purchase initially.
- Usually bulkier than "ultra-thin" disposable pads
- Not as easily available (not stocked in supermarkets, Pharmacies etc.)
- Some women and family members may be uncomfortable with their use.
- Cloth pads can stain.
- Users have more contact with blood.
- Special care may need to be taken if the user has Thrush
- It is generally more socially acceptable ("normal") to use Disposable pads.
Extra Washing and Drying
Because the amount of cloth menstrual pads needed per cycle would be around the same number as disposable pads used, women would need to either buy or make enough cloth pads to last the whole duration of the menstrual cycle and wash at the end, or wash the few pads they have more frequently. This could require daily washing if one's stash is small. If a cloth menstrual pad is washed at night, it may not be dry by the next morning unless a Clothes dryer is used. If not washed with a full load of Laundry, it can waste water to wash cloth pads on their own.
To help prevent staining, cloth menstrual pads should be rinsed or allowed to soak until they are washed. Once staining has occurred it may take sunlight or exposure to chemicals (such as "oxiclean" or hydrogen peroxide) to remove the stain. Many women find stained undergarments or pads to be extremely offputting. If a women has Thrush, the cloth menstrual pads may need to be boiled or sanitised to reduce the chances of transmitting this to other members of the family or reinfecting herself. Cloth menstrual pads with waterproofing, or those made with synthetic or delicate fabrics may require special care instructions (such as not being machine washed or tumble dried).
May be bulkier than Disposables
Because disposable pads may use highly absorbent materials, and liquid absorbing compounds, a cloth menstrual pad of equal absorbency may be bulkier (thicker) than a disposable pad, depending on the fabrics used. This is particularly true of "Ultrathin" disposable styles, which are significantly thinner than other disposable pads and then cloth pads. The addition of a waterproof layer in a cloth menstrual pad can eliminate the need for a thick pad, as the waterproofing allows the blood to spread out through the pad.
More contact with blood
Many women find the concept of dealing with a blood soaked pad to be offputting or even revolting. The idea of washing the soiled pad and then using it again does not appeal to a large number of women. Even if the woman herself is comfortable with the idea of cloth menstrual pads, often family members are not, which can create an uncomfortable situation in the house.
Washing & Care
There is no general need to boil or sanitise cloth menstrual pads. Disposable menstrual products are not sterile, even though they are thought to be as they are wrapped in plastic and are white. While cloth pad use is thought by some to be unsanitary, many women who use disposable pads leak onto clothing, towels or bedding and do not feel the need to boil these items to sanitise them. This is exactly the same blood as you would have on a cloth pad. While women a few generations ago did boil their cloth pads, it is worth remembering that they also did not have effective washing machines and detergents as we do today.
Cloth menstrual pads may be hand or machine washed, and then dried on a clothes line or in a clothes dryer, depending on the instructions from the manufacturer (as different fabrics require different care methods). Some women choose to rinse out their pads in cold water before putting them in the wash with their other clothing, others do not rinse, but put the soiled pads straight into the wash. Some women keep a soaking pot around to keep their pads in until they can wash them. Some women wash their pads with towels and bedding only, others wash with any load of laundry.
Stains are possible, however this is limited if the pads are rinsed out or soaked in cold water straight away. It would seem that allowing the blood to dry increases the chance of the pad staining. Hot water can set a stain, so cold water should be used. Darker coloured fabrics will not show a stain as much as a white fabric would. Drying cloth pads outside on a Clothes line makes use of the sunlight which can help to fade any stain. It also seems that some women's blood is more likely to stain than others. Whether this is a dietary or some other difference is unknown.
If it is necessary to change a cloth menstrual pad away from home, the soiled pads may be placed into a Wet bag, or a Ziplock bag to keep them from drying out, and to contain or prevent odour. They can then be washed when convenient to do so.