Reusable menstrual hygiene products: pros and cons

It was just after noon in Mumbai.  Our book club was just winding up and people were chatting in the cafe.  A woman called me aside and said, “is it really such a drawback to forget the date of your periods?”  She was referring to an article that appeared in the newspaper, where I called the “worst thing about the menstrual cup” the fact that wearing it made the days of one’s period feel so normal, that one could forget about it altogether.   “I meant it ironically,” I explained.  It’s like saying, “my worst fault is that I am too generous.”  “Oh!”  she smiled.

So when Bindu Mohanty of the #PeriodofChange Campaign asked me for a frank opinion on the pros and cons of reusable menstrual hygiene products, I almost began to reply in the same tenor.  Because, after all, are there in fact any cons?

Of course there are. Otherwise everyone would be using them and we would have no reason to talk about the pros. But we do talk about the pros, and thereby implicitly acknowledge that there are cons.

For example, consider cloth pads.

PRO:  The cloth pads available today are comfortable, soft and pretty.

CON:  Very few shops stock these pads.  So these pads are “available” mainly to those who find them online.     In an emergency, one can run to the nearest corner shop and buy disposable pads.  Not so with cloth pads.

Most women in India who are using cloth for their periods are using torn pieces of old clothes, not necessarily soft or even cotton.   While they encounter ubiquitous advertisements for disposable pads, through print, TV and other media, few women in rural and urban poor areas get to hear about the contemporary designs of cloth pads that they can purchase or make using a simple pattern.

Cloth pads drying on the line.

Cloth pads drying on the line.

PRO:  Cloth pads are clean and hygienic when washed well and dried in the sun.

CON:  Some people face taboos against drying pads in the open

PRO: Cloth pads cost less to use over the long term.  Knowing that there is no additional cost per use may encourage women to change more frequently, which is more hygienic.

CON:  Though they are reusable, they require washing.  Women living in slums and girls staying in hostels that provide dhobi services do not always have access to bathrooms for washing clothes, or any sunny place to dry them.

PRO:  Cloth pads last for years!  They help us live lightly on the earth and avoid polluting the environment.

CON:  On days with heavy flow, cloth pads require more frequent changing and some women do not like to carry used cloth pads in their bags, even when wrapped in leak-proof bags.

Overcoming these obstacles calls for better access to quality cloth pads, better washing and drying facilities, especially in hostels, and generally better attitudes about menstruation and women’s health and hygiene.

And now for the menstrual cup.  I have written so much about the wonders of the cup that it almost comes as a surprise to me when I meet someone who has never heard of it.  But like the new world of cloth pads, the menstrual cup is unchartered territory for the majority of women all over the world.   In fact, it took me ten years to persuade a mainstream newspaper to publish an article about it.

Menstrual cup

Menstrual cup

PRO:  Most comfortable.

CON:  Some women have starting trouble and no one to go to for help. Gynecologists are often unaware of the cup and advise women not to use it.

PRO:  Least expensive over the long term.

CON:  Cost of Rs. 700 – 800 is too high for many to pay at once.

PRO:  Least impact on the environment.  One cup easily lasts ten years and requires much less water to wash than a pad.

CON: Unavailable in shops, must order online.

To overcome the obstacles in using the cup, women and people providing health care services to women need to be aware of the cup, and more generally all of us need to be able to talk about menstrual health with a straight face.  Access to credit would allow women with low incomes to buy the cup and repay in installments – provided they could overcome the more general obstacles that women throughout India and the world face.

If women’s health in general and menstrual health in particular were taken more seriously, women would learn about the cup and cloth menstrual pads from their local doctor or ASHA worker.  Girls would be introduced to them in schools and government health programs would provide information, trained personnel and access to free or subsidized pads and cups.  Hostels and municipalities would team up with Sulabh Sauchalaya to ensure that women had a place to wash pads.  Businesses making cloth pads and cups would get incentives from the Ministry of Health as well as the Ministry of Environment, while waste management fees would be levied on businesses making disposables.  The Ministry of Human Resource Development would distribute sewing patterns for menstrual pads in their sewing and vocational training classes and everyone from two-bit NGOs to Sulabh Vocational Training Centres would popularize them.  Menstruation would no longer be taboo and women would have one more reason to take pride in their bodies.

–Aravinda P

Aravinda Pillalamarri works with the Association for India’s Development. Her articles on education, environment, food and gender have appeared in Teacher Plus, The Alternative, India Together, The Hindu and other publications.  She blogs about peace, justice and sustainability on the home front at AskAmma.

This is an original article by the author written specifically for the #periodofchange campaign.  Join the webinar on  Reusable menstrual hygiene products: pros and cons on MAY 16, 12-1 pm

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