3 Alternative to commercial sanitary napkins

There is no need to Whisper: Alternatives to disposable sanitary napkins.

With three multinational companies dominating the market for menstrual hygiene, most women in India are still unaware that there are other safe options for menstrual protection than disposable sanitary napkins, as these are not always readily available in retail shops. Women need to be informed about their options to better manage their menstrual cycle—rather than being managed by it. Women can now make choices in alignment with deeper values of care for our bodies, the earth and each other.


Three environment-friendly alternatives to sanitary pads

1. Non-commercial disposable sanitary napkins

  • In recent years, India has seen a spurt of small-scale manufacturers producing largely biodegradable disposable napkins, made mostly of wood pulp.
  • They are not entirely biodegradable but the plastic content is less than that of commercial sanitary napkins.
  • In terms of human health, however, these napkins still contain dioxins due to a chlorine-bleach process and other toxic chemicals associated with the manufacturing wood pulp.
  • Many self-help groups of women make such cheap disposable sanitary napkins, but reportedly these napkins tend to get lumpy on usage and not comfortable.
  • Non-commercial disposable sanitary napkins have the same challenges around disposal as commercial napkins.


2. Insertion devices:

Due to socio-cultural norms, insertion devices such as tampons and menstrual cups are not popular in many cultures, including that of India.

2 a. Tampons

  • Tampons are disposable, but because of their much smaller size, are more eco-friendly than commercial sanitary napkins.
  • Tampons are inserted into the body, and absorb the menstrual flow. They are popular for they allow for greater freedom of movement and for sports such as swimming.
  • In the eighties, there was a huge risk of the toxic shock syndrome with tampon usage. At present, the risk of the toxic shock syndrome, has been greatly reduced due to new manufacturing protocols, but it cannot be entirely ruled out.
  • Tampons can cause dryness and minute lacerations of the vaginal walls.
  • Market penetration of insertion devices in Asia is only 3% as opposed to 70% in North America.
  • Tampons are also more expensive than sanitary napkins.

2 b. Menstrual cups

  • Menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina to collect the menstrual flow. When full, the cup is pulled out, emptied and rinse it. It can then be re-used immediately.
  • Menstrual cups have a capacity roughly 3 times greater than a super absorbent tampon and can be safely worn up to 12 hours.
  • There are two types of menstrual cups: Disposable cups and Reusable cups.

Disposable cups

Disposable cups are made of out polyethylene (a plastic polymer) but their environmental impact is less than that of commercial sanitary napkins.

Reusable cups

  • Reusable cups are cups made of natural latex (rubber) or silicone. Healthwise, cups made of medical grade silicone are the best.
  • As it can be washed and immediately reused, 1 cup is sufficient for a full cycle.
  • With proper care, a single menstrual cup can last for 10 years or more.
  • Reusable cups don’t contain any chemicals, bleaches, or fibers that could cause sensitivity or allergic reactions. They are regarded as the best option for personal health and environmental and social justice.


3. Cloth pads

Cloth by itself is not unhygienic, but practices around the use of cloth can be unhygienic. Most women use old rags for menstrual protection, but due to the prevalence of certain superstitions, the cloth that they use is not hygienically cared for.

  • Cloth for menstrual protection is perfectly safe when washed carefully, dried in the sun and stored in a clean place.
  • Cloth was the most prevalent method of menstrual protection before the advent of disposable pads in the late 19th century.
  • The Stockholm Environmental Institute, an independent research organization, now recommends “re-introducing reusable menstrual products,” including cloth pads.
  • Women worldwide are switching back to cloth as a healthier alternative.
Advantages Disadvantages
While less convenient than disposables, cloth pads are still convenient as they can be cleaned in the washing machine. Cloth pads are generally more time-consuming for the user due to the need to wash, dry, and care for the pads.
Fewer chemicals are used in the cloth compared to disposable menstrual products. Cloth pads are less likely to cause rashes and contact dermatitis. Washing reusable cloth pads requires access to clean water, detergents, and sunlight/air flow for drying—resources that are not always available to the poor.*
In the long term, cloth pads are less expensive. Higher up-front costs than disposable pads.
Environmentally friendly. Do not contribute to the landfill as they are reusable. Do not contain plastic packaging.
Generally made of natural materials that can be composted.

*One organization, Goonj produces highly affordable and hygienic disposable cloth pads for rural and urban poor women.

Cloth pads and menstrual cups availability in India
Cloth pads and menstrual cups availability in India