Have you watched the latest adaptation of Anne of Green Gables on Netflix yet? Spoiler alert if you’ve not.
“You’ll need some cotton cloths to pin to your undergarments,” the ever-pragmatic Marilla Cuthbert informs her 13-year-old ward, Anne Shirley – who happens to be in the depths of despair after being told that she’s in her ‘womanly flowering time’.
Anne’s appalled gasp on learning that Marilla had to scrub bloodstained fabric for years probably elicited a few winces of sympathy from us modern day menstruating folks, possibly even a few smug thoughts of “Thank goodness we’ve Kotex/Laurier/Whisper!”
Reusable Menstrual Cloth Pads
So it likely comes as a shock to hear of someone, or even a whole community of young and old people, choosing to reject the convenience of disposable pads and tampons in favour of reusable menstrual cloth pads.
I get it. I’ve got the horrified looks, the “that’s so unhygienic/messy/troublesome!” and the puzzled queries of how I keep them clean. The common thread in all these responses – the big WHY, whether voiced or unvoiced.
To the WHYs, there are many BECAUSEs, some which I identify with, others that I don’t, but all of which can be found on the net. That’s how common the experience of using reusable menstrual cloth pads has become – it’s certainly not a cultish practice of women dabbling in menstrual blood spells. Try Googling it. (More than 2.7 million results, when I searched at the start of June 2017.)
So because there’re many other compelling articles on why anyone would pick cloth over disposables – I will instead be frank and share a couple of takeaways from my 2 years and 3 months of being a cloth pad user.
1. Baby steps, baby steps. (Or, how did I transition to cloth pads?)
I hadn’t gone full cloth when I went ahead and bought my first cloth pads from Canadian maker Renee of New Moon Pads. I went for a trial pack, and mixed my three cherry-blossom printed loot with disposables for one period. That’s when I got to compare the pros and cons of either – the scratchy, sticky, over-perfumed grossness of disposables versus the ick of flushing blood clots and disturbing amounts of blood out of cloth pads. Having no fear of bodily fluids, and convinced that we’ve a serious need to cut down on the stuff we throw (over 10,000 bloody strips of plastic and bleached wood pulp tossed out by each of nearly half the world’s population), I went ahead with ordering a few more cloth pads at a time.
It’s good to take small steps if you’re set on going zero-waste or free of toxic chemicals, just like with any other big commitment. (If you’re all for being even more environmentally friendly, I would direct you to menstrual cups, which I’m still struggling to figure out.) I advise my friends who’re curious about cloth to start with panty liners first, to see how they’ll deal with this easier-to-clean option.
Take the time to try out different shapes, absorbencies, lengths and materials that cloth pad makers have to offer – variety is definitely one area where cloth trumps over disposables – and find out what works for you. Etsy’s a great place to start, while there are other sellers in Asia, such as Korea’s Hannah Pad and Singaporean retailer LiveLoveLuna. There are also many makers worldwide who sell through Facebook groups, which may offer more customisation and lower prices. Some types of pad backings may not hold in your heavy flow as well, or you might prefer a synthetic fabric if you have sensitive skin and want something that doesn’t stain easily. That will help sort out the array of problems you may encounter with cloth pads from the start.
2. It’s not easy. (Or, how I get a hang of the icky cleaning thing.)
Way to put you off, but that’s one thing everyone gets correct right from the start. Yes, you may have to get blood all over your hands, unless you are one of the folks who’ve decided it’s quite all right to dump your month’s worth of used cloth pads directly into the washing machine and get them out squeaky clean after an hour or so. (There are people who do that, and you can too, if your household is cool with it.) And to be honest, I will say that while I had been appalled by the sheer amount of blood at first, it has become a routine somewhere along the way. Sometimes, I worry about the amount of water I use to rinse out my pads (although I’ve figured out a washing method to cut that down), or if my pad’s going to leak despite its incredibly reliable backing fabric. On bad days when I’m crampy or extra-tired, the thought of having to wash a day’s worth of pads in the shower gets a tad more daunting.
But it’s not like disposable pads are perfect period solutions either, right?
So, how do I wash cloth pads my way? (Because everyone swears their method is their best.) First off, I will bring home my used pads in my water-resistant wet bag, which I will dump into a pail of water to soak for a short while. I bring them into the shower with me, dump them onto the floor – after making sure it’s clean – turn on the tap and shower-stomp the pads until the water runs clean.
After which, I would replace the pads in the pail and stain treat them after my shower. I use Hungary-based Emilla Pads’ stain stick, which comes in vegan and organic options, or those by Buncha Farmers from Canada. Both claim to use natural ingredients, and have worked amazingly for me so far. (A friend uses a homemade blend of baking soda, castile soap and essential oils, which she says is as effective.) I will rub the bar against the stained areas of my damp cloth pads, and then rub in the soap until a lather is formed, and place them back into the pail to soak. After two to three days, when a handful of pads have piled up in my pail and are all free of stains, I would wash them on a normal cycle along with my other clothes in the washing machine.
3. … It gets better, though. (Or, how I found support for my choices.)
In my two years, for all my concerns, I’ve mostly had positive feelings about my cloth pads use. From being excited about getting pads in adorable prints or new shapes, to never having to hear that horrible adhesive sound when ripping a pad off undies – yep, pretty awesome so far. (To understand why this matters to me: my greatest peeves are of stickers and labels that get all gross over time, and of the whole toilet knowing that I’m in the cubicle changing my pad.)
I’m also mostly comfortable during my whole period, sitting on foofy, soft fabric, instead of squirming on scratchy bits of plastic containing goodness knows what. If you find yourself facing objection from members of your family for wanting to use cloth pads, as hard as it is, talk to them about it to find out where their discomfort lies. If it’s something that you can’t do anything about at the moment, stay positive, and try cloth pads again at a later time when your circumstances change. Even though this is a big change that means a lot to you and the environment, it’s not worth falling out with your loved ones over. Over time, you are likely to bump into more supportive voices both online and in real life. Aside from joining Facebook groups that affirm reusable menstrual products (also known as “RUMPs”), the more I speak up about using cloth pads, the more I bump into people who’re cloth-curious, or who start to realise the consequences of this rarely-discussed aspect of our throwaway culture.