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Periods Without Plastic: Part 2 - Reusable Menstrual Pads

How is your plastic free July going? Meanwhile has your time of the month come and gone too? How many pads or tampons did you get through? Last post we talked about cups - now we’re talking about pads. Yep we're talking about being more 'environmenstrual'.

But first let's look at the language around periods.

What words spring to mind? Sanitary towels or napkins? Feminine hygiene products? Femcare?

Have you stopped and question why we're using these words? It wasn't until someone pointed it out to me that it became crystal clear, these words reinforce the taboo around periods. In fact these phrases have been used by the multinational companies, "we use their language to talk about our bodies," points out Chella Quint.

Let's just get this straight

- there is nothing unsanitary about the very ordinary process of menstruation - like any other bodily function.

- periods are not unhygienic and don't require any extra self-care than any other day of the month

- they aren't necessarily feminine either - there are plenty of folks out there who don't identify as feminine but still menstruate.

A post shared by Cass Bliss (@theperiodprince) on

So we won't be using the words; sanitary, hygiene or feminine. We'll use menstruate, periods and blood. There'll be no creepy blue alien liquid around here either.

The language we use can be pervasive and we can internalise them. Quint concludes on "“sanitary” has become unsavoury. It’s time to clean up our act, and start using our own language for our own bodies."

Right - well - glad we've got that straightened out. A lot of us menstruate - and there's a great deal of plastic involved in the products we use. So in this blog post we're tackling reusable menstrual pads.

The plastic in pads

Did you know the average disposable menstrual pad is 90% plastic - as much as 4 plastic bags in your pants!

A quick history run down

Using rags and cloth has been the main method for dealing with blood flow for eons, where the term 'on the rag' in fact comes from. There were all kinds of contraptions, from belts to girdles to hold material in place. All of these 'sanitary napkins' up to this point were reusable.

Disposable menstrual pads emerged in the 1890s by French nurses who "realised disposable cellulose bandages they used on wounded soldiers absorbed blood better than cotton, and started using them during their periods." And crucially, they were cheap enough to throw away. Commercialised by Johnson & Johnson initially, women were reluctant to be seen buying them and so ensued the discretion around the sales and marketing of these products. "Women were allowed to place money in a box so that they would not have to speak to the clerk and take a box of Kotex pads from the counter themselves." and so the menstrual pad dispenser was born.

The adhesive 'napkin' only came arrived in 1973, "Goodbye belts and pins and fuss" ran the ad and by 1980s Always was on the scene and the variety in pads grew exponentially. Reusable menstrual pads however  "made a return in the 70s and grew slowly in popularity in the late 80s and 90s and while previously considered 'alternative' they are now becoming more mainstream.”

Return of the (reusable) pad

Nowadays are a range of brands to choose from, GladRags, Luna Pads, No More Taboo and Honour Your Flow are just a few options out there. Most offer a selection of day pads, night pads and pantyliners at various lengths and absorbency. Some brands have a removable inserts so you can tailor it specific to your needs during your period the rest come as a one piece pad. There is an array of every colour and pattern going to suit your taste, from unicorns to deathly hallows  and animé.

Starter packs can be found for around $50 USD - $100 USD, individual pads from around $12 USD each. It sounds like a lot but 2015 research from the UK suggests that women spend on average around  $17 USD/month, so it can soon become cost effective. Many sites have discounts available for your first purchase so do hunt around.

When it comes to washing the general advice is to put it in your normal wash with dark colours. A 30 degree wash can work just fine. In fact, "as blood is a protein, it can set with heating (like the white of an egg when you cook it), so there is actually a scientific reason to wash low rather than high", reports Honour Your Flow. Other brands suggest a cold pre-wash for the inserts to prevent staining.

Join the Plastic Free Periods movement

This movement is galvanising; in Wales in the UK a postwoman started a petition "calling for manufacturers to stop using plastics in menstrual products", it received more than 100, 000 signatures in two months. There’s still time to sign it here.

Of course you can also make your own as well. With the journey to Zero Waste movement getting more and more popular - you'll find menstrual pad tutorials on Youtube or possibly at a craft class near you!

For an even more DIY version check out Sustainably Vegan's video on her Zero Spend Year: https://youtu.be/aDPl5kSka60

Hear directly from users

But what about hearing from those who've been using them - over to Tiffany and Elaine.

Tiffany, 31, is new to the world of reusable menstrual pads. She shares her views after 6 months of plastic free periods.

What made you first curious about trying reusable pads? 

Part of it was comfort – the plastic used by Always would rub against my sensitive skin, so I was frequently left with rashes or just feeling a bit less clean than I wanted to. It was to the point where I would sometimes forgo wearing pads and just let it happen while I slept, because my skin felt so dry and itchy. I was also becoming much more conscious of my environmental impact – trying to find ways throughout my life to rely less on plastics, become greener, and generally lead a more natural, healthy lifestyle that was also good for the planet. That set me on the path to finding alternatives. A friend had switched to organic materials, so I reached out to her and found out she was using a menstrual cup. I wasn’t quite ready for that step, so I did some online research about organic and cotton menstrual products. Through a series of articles, I kept seeing glowing reviews about GladRags, so I ordered them!

I have been using them for 6 months now, they are so durable and comfortable. I can adjust the level of padding to my needs (I use the Night Pads which come with two inserts for heavier flows). I learned all about the pads and how to care from them from the inserts provided in my shipment, and the online shop had everything I need for cleaning and travel.

What's it like compared to what you were using it for?

So comfortable and durable. I have a huge stash of them now in all sorts of colors, and they have lasted six months already. I expect them to last much longer. It’s pretty much like treating your towels – the better you care for them, the longer they will last. I also just pop them in the bucket I bought from GladRags with their recommended sanitizer for a half hour, then into the washing machine with some soap and softener (it says not to use softener, but I find it doesn’t hurt and makes it more comfortable!), and then hang dry. I absolutely love how easy it is to ‘clean up’ after myself now, and the joy of not throwing anything in the trash during that time of the month is wonderful!

What would you say to someone who was thinking about trying it?

Go for it! It never hurts to try something new, and for a relatively small investment, you can buy one or two pads (or one of GladRags’ sets they sell so you can try different fits). Eventually, you’ll find the fit, colors, and products for you (whether GladRags or something else). Also, don’t be scared about the price tag. I spent quite a few hundred dollars getting my ‘stash’ of GladRags set up, but now I spend absolutely nothing besides laundry soap on my period! It’s a great long-term investment, and you have to think about it that way: you’re investing in your health, yourself, and the environment. (And your future wallet!)

Elaine, 49, used to use ordinary disposable pads but has been passionate about waste reduction for years now. She was very keen to share her story with others.

What made you first curious about trying reusable pads?

I used cloth nappies on my son.  Also, cost and being able to reuse. I used pads initially, then bought a menstrual cup.  I find I now am back to using cloth pads as for me they are more comfortable. Important things to me included environment, my health and wellbeing and cost.  

What product are you using now?

Currently a mixture of pads.  I have some old Pleasure Puss ones which I have had for a number of years (https://www.pleasurepuss.com.au/) and I am currently also using some Honour Your Flow ones (http://www.honouryourflow.co.uk/). I do like that there are an increasing range of high-quality work at home mum companies evolving to make pads these days and these companies are also thinking about issues such as heavier flow (particularly in menopause) and also incontinence as well.

What's it like compared to what you were using it for? 

Much more comfortable.  No risk of ‘involuntary bikini wax’ from the sticky strips on the back of paper pads!  They can easily be folded in on themselves to carry about and to take home to wash. I usually wash mine with washable cloths and similar things.  Users can soak them then wash them which means that they can easily be washed at cool temperatures. I then line dry them. They are very easy to care for.

What would you say to someone who was thinking about trying it?

Go ahead!  If your period experiences are anything like mine have been, you will already have had to wash out blood stained underwear, clothing and bedding, so slinging a few pads in the wash will be no hassle at all.  

Have a look at the various sites and buy a couple that you like the look of.  There is nothing to lose!

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