By Kathy Walkling, Founder, EcoFemme Cloth pads
This article, based on a talk, provides an understanding of what’s going on in our bodies each month along with a short history of the development of the fem care industry and alternatives for the future.
Menstruation didn’t happen as frequently for women around the world prior to the 20th century. Women began menstruating later, they had a lot less to eat, and they had more children which meant longer spans of time without menstruation and people, frankly, died earlier. So when they did get their monthly visitor, many women just used any old rag to absorb their blood or simply bled freely, sometimes into designated black panties. Recorded evidence in ancient Egypt says women used papyrus and grasses to catch menstrual flow.
The Kimberly-Clark Corporation made the first commercial sanitary napkins from leftover bandages after WWI. Apparently American nurses in France found that the cellulose (which comes from trees, not cotton plants) wrappings made for very absorbent menstrual pads, and were fairly cheap, so they could throw them away. Kotex’s first advertisement for products made with this wood pulp (cellu-cotton) appeared in 1921. Several of the first disposable pad manufacturers were also manufacturers of bandages, which could give an indication of what these products were like.
Disposable products started to be produced on a large scale in the 1940’s firstly with belted pads and then in the 1960s with adhesive-backed pads. The 1990s saw the use of absorbent gels built into pads.
Until then, women were resourceful and creative in the materials they used to collect menstrual fluids. The list of absorbent materials is really quite endless and 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. Even after disposable pads were commercially available, for several years they were too expensive for many women to afford.
This shift came about in response to many trends – development of technological processes in manufacturing, greater value on efficiency, increasing involvement of women in the workplace, even women wearing underwear.
So…what’s in a pad?
As you already know, the basic sanitary napkin has changed appearance quite a lot – thin, more sophisticated, wings, leak proof layers etc. Let’s break down the basic features of a disposable sanitary napkin:
- Top layer – “comfort dry” RT for a fresh dry feeling – The permeable top layer is made of polypropylene. Even though it feels cottony, it’s actually plastic.
- Padding – “leak lock” RT system dual layer design for quick absorption – the padding made mostly from wood pulp mixed with SAP (super absorbent polymers to enhance absorption). SAP is an acrylic based polymer that forms gel after absorbing liquid, which is yet another type of plastic.
- “True fit” RT wings – curved cutaways for a better fit.
- Leak proof layer – an impermeable polyethylene/non-woven film – yet another plastic component.
All these often available with “shower fresh” scent and individually wrapped (in plastic of course).
But…what about health?
Studies have revealed that up to a third of women with symptoms of vaginal itching and rashes, soreness and/or discharge may be experiencing the symptoms of Vulval Dermatitis or Intimate Irritation. 75% of UK gynaecologists believe that conventional sanitary protection could be the cause of intimate irritation – indicated by the increase in occurrence of these symptoms at the time of menstruation. This may not be so surprising when you realise that the pads have such high concentrations of petrochemical plastics inside.
Another important reason for health concern come from the chlorine bleaching process that is used to artificially whiten the products. This process produces dioxin, which has been linked to various forms of cancer, as well as immune system suppression, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Women’s ‘Voices for the Earth’ study 2014 conducted the first ever research in 2014 into the trace elements inside “Always” sanitary pads (P&G branded in India as Whisper).
The results of the testing indicate that both scented and unscented Always pads emit toxic chemicals, including chemicals identified by multiple agencies that monitor health and environment as carcinogens, and reproductive and developmental toxins. None of these chemicals are disclosed on the product by the manufacturer.
While the levels of the toxic chemicals emitted by Always pads were relatively low, their presence warrants health concerns for women. Menstrual pads are designed to have direct contact with highly absorptive and sensitive vulval tissue for extended periods of time. Toxic volatile chemicals emitted from menstrual pads could be absorbed into women’s bodies. This is especially concerning because the chemicals in question are linked to cancer, as well as reproductive and developmental harm.
Also…what about the environment?
In 2013, the magazine Down To Earth attempted to estimate the amount of menstrual waste generated in India, calculating that 12 percent of 300 million menstruating women – 36 million Indian women – used sanitary napkins every month. Allotting 12 napkins to a women woman per month, it found that this added up to 432 million soiled pads, weighing a staggering 9,000 tonnes a month – enough to cover a landfill spread over 24 hectares.
This represents a massive problem in our society – the basic point is that while disposable pads may appeal because of their convenience the inconvenient truth is that it is just not that simple. From a recent research report in the state of sanitary waste, “incinerating menstrual waste is a dangerous practice as it is linked to toxic emissions. Pune Municipal Corporation has set up four mini-incinerators, where the cost of incinerating one sanitary napkin comes to Rs 2 [including waste collection, electricity charge, etc]. This is both ecologically and financially unsustainable”.
In the absence of an effective option, using landfills is a better option. Experts prefer deep burial of sanitary pads over incineration. But the long-term solution lies in moving to healthier and eco-friendly alternatives.
While it’s appealing to think that we can magically disappear our menstrual waste with the flick of the wrist, the reality is altogether different. Given the sheer volume of non biodegradable pads we are speaking of (also with genuine health concerns given the composition of these products); we feel it’s necessary for us to rethink the way menstruation is managed.
Fortunately there are alternatives, some surprisingly low tech and effective.
There are a number of alternative menstrual products that offer significant benefits over disposable products – cost savings, health benefits and massive reduction of waste. Alternative menstrual products are nothing new. There are 2 in particular we will describe in more depth because of their accessibility, affordability, reduction of pollution and proven efficacy.
- Washable cloth pads are a designed innovation of the traditional practice of using cloth which served women well until the introduction of disposable pads. Today cloth pads come with features like the disposable napkin – wings, leak proofing, absorbent material and beauty!
A pioneer in this field is Eco Femme, Auroville that along with the rural women produce cloth pads which are sold around the world, with the Indian market slowly catching on!
- Menstrual cups have been around from the 1930’s and since then gaining popularity, especially in the West over the last 40 years. In India there are a few manufacturers and we collaborate with She-cup who was the first to launch the product commercially in India. Our understanding is that many women in India feel uncomfortable with this idea but in the spirit of bringing awareness to options we wanted to share this possibility and encourage those who have been considering giving it a try!
- Other options – Recycle old cloth and make your own – Goonj and other producers have been in the business of making low cost sanitary napkins which are not so sophisticated. Biodegradable pads are being worked on but not commercially available so far, since research into other biodegradable materials encounters problems with production scale and cost effectiveness. Tampons may be less hazardous because they do not contain plastic but the process of producing them – especially the bleaching process is problematic as is the use of cotton heavily treated with pesticides.
Making friends with our cycle and valuing its gifts
There is an emerging new conversation across the world that is replacing silence and shame with empowering knowledge and dignity – there is more to this than greener periods and getting rid of rashes!
Let’s face it, who looks forward to getting their period? Who among us has never felt a sense of acute embarrassment at a leak or been outright upset at our monthly visitor coming at an inopportune moment? Periods are seen as a burden to be managed and an experience that must be concealed!
A whole subject in itself about how menstruation is viewed in our culture (and it is not just an Indian phenomenon that tends to deny the existence of menstruation). One can even argue that the reason disposable products with such dubious properties have become so popular is that media feeds (creates) our menstrual-phobic attitudes in order to get us to buy more, elevating certain properties (like convenience) while simply deleting other facts (like what actually goes in to making these magical products).
A few suggestions for how to become friendlier with menstruation and value it for the gifts it has – because rethinking this may be part of a much bigger conversion to accepting the value of the feminine in our world and living in greater balance and harmony with nature
- Getting familiar with the cycle using cycle tracking apps and charts. Understand the deeper layers of the cycle to provide ourselves with a bio feedback mechanism to listen to our bodies and allow cycles of regeneration with action.
- Talk to girls and boys – the importance of this is to help girls feel safe and confident to navigate their growing up. Menstrupedia resources and conversations for boys and girls help them to understand what is happening in their growing bodies; to alleviate anxiety, give accurate information about the process, to not only help educate them about the role menstruation plays in reproduction but also towards the wider consequences such as health and environment. As we overcome our shyness, it models something important to girls especially to be able to talk about their body and not be afraid and timid
- Using alternative products is part of gaining a more intimate connection. The fact is, switching to re-usable menstrual products goes even beyond saving money and greening the earth. We believe it is a choice that gives us the chance to make friends with our bodies and our cyclical nature!
- Education about herbal remedies, asana‘s and other ways to keep our bodies clean and healthy.
- Look around at the wider conversation – different campaigns and conversations are mushrooming around the globe!
- Pads against sexism
- Come and see blood on my skirt
- Rupi Kaur image
- Period of Change campaign
These are voices breaking the silence on the menstrual taboo. We believe its happening as part of a growing choir of voices that are expressing that something is out of balance with how we relate to women and their bodies and the wider body of the earth. Connecting to, and valuing our cycles points to a new way of inhabiting our bodies and restoring our connection to the earth – a connection we urgently need if we are to become a sustainable and benevolent presence on this loving planet.
This post is part of Period Of Change, a 5-week campaign organized by The Kachra Project along with Earth&us that aims to mobilize people (both men and women) around menstrual waste as a starting point to lobby for change in current practices in MH waste management.