Wash & wear
There’s a quiet revolution taking place among educated, modern and well-informed women in India who are opting out of disposable sanitary napkins and embracing reusable ones. SHALINI SAKSENA looks at this tech-powered trend and speaks with manufacturers to bring you a report
For decades, there was talk that Indian women needed to switch to disposable sanitary pads. But nobody told them that using these sanitary pads came with riders. Rashes and the problem of how to dispose them of top of the list. According to a report in the Clean India Journal, an estimated 9000 tonnes of sanitary waste (432 million pads) is generated in India annually. Worse still, 80 per cent of this waste is either flushed down the toilet or ends up in landfills.
That is not all. These pads are non-biodegradable and remain so for the next 800 or more years!
To save the environment there is a band of women which has started a revolution, of going back to the roots for sustainable living by making small contribution that will help Nature. Many women are now shifting to using recycled cloth pads. It is the not cost but the idea of doing their bit to save the environment or for social cause since many cloth pad manufacturers donate a pad to rural women for every cloth pad bought. The fact that each cloth pad lasts for around 75 pads means 75 less disposable sanitary pads going into the landfills.
Priyanka Jain, founder of Hygiene And You, says that the shift from cloth pads happened because women were getting infections. “Menstruation was and is taboo in society, though of late, there has been some talk on the need for period hygiene. The movie Padman shows that there is a shame associated with periods. The infection stemming from cloth pads was because women were not washing it properly or drying it in the sun. If cloth is not washed and dried, infection is bound to happen. So the concept ‘cloth is bad’ emerged. The MNCs took advantage of this and convinced women that our (Indian) method was unhygienic,” Jain says.
Disposable sanitary pad manufacturers are not required to list what goes into making a pad. So one doesn’t know what chemicals are used to harm the user and the environment. “There is no way that one can burn the disposable pad since they emit toxins. There is an issue of how we are filling our landfills with no solution in sight except that we don’t use disposable pads. Therefore, we encourage women to go back to tradition and use cloth but with precautions. There are many products available in the market that are good — in fact better — than disposable pads,” Jain asserts.
Most cloth pads come with leak-proof lining. Different materials are being used for this. Some are using totally natural products and that may not give the same level of comfort or dryness. It depends on what kind of product a woman picks up. It is recommended that women buy one and try it instead of buying 10 before checking what works for them. One can also mix and match. Longer and larger for heavier flow and another for the first day and later.
While the one-time cost seems high, it ranges from Rs 100 to Rs 400 for a single pad, if one does the math to compare spending on disposable pads in a year, recycled cloth pads are much cheaper.
But making the switch is not easy. There is the hesitance washing the cloth pad. Many balk at the idea of washing blood filled pads. Cloth propagators tell you that it takes time getting used to it. Also, one has to first soak the pad in ‘cold water’ — anywhere between 20 minutes to eight hours. Then throw this water away. However, if you feel there is still some blood left, soak it overnight. This can then be put in a washing machine bag and washed like any other piece of garment.
“It is not as if we are squeamish at the sight of our blood. When we cut our finger we instinctively put it in our mouth and suck it. Some women may argue that that is normal blood, and that menstrual blood is gross. That is not so. The odour is due to the blood reacting with chemicals which go into making a disposable pad. When you use a cloth pad, there is no smell. It is just a matter of getting used to it,” Jain explains.
When traveling, each cloth pad comes with snap buttons. All one has to do is remove the pad from the underwear and put the snap buttons and keep it. There have been times when women have kept it in a packet for an entire week with no foul smell.
“Our aim came from the need for sustainability. Our grandparents led such a healthy life. It began with finding a solution for better health and environment. This is only possible with sustainable living — going back to the roots— how our grandparents lived — using multani mitti instead of soap etc,” says Jain who has clients from Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra. To being with, when Jain started three years back, they would get only one order a day, now it is 15-20.
That the cloth pad is inexpensive is the last reason to make the shift. The first should be concern for Nature. Second, many women get rashes due to disposable pads and cloth pads address this issue. The last is the low cost.
For 25-year-old Tanvi Johri, the name behind Carmesi, the journey began in November 2017 with a vision to make periods a ‘safe’ time of the month for women. “Our aim is to educate women and help them make informed decisions when it comes to menstrual care. Besides providing a safer and healthier alternative to conventional synthetics, our pads offer a holistic experience that caters to every aspect of the menstrual cycle, right from the time a woman receives her supply to its storage, usage and disposals, Johri says.
Like many of her contemporaries, Johri while doing research on the kind of brands available in the market found that most women face the problem of rashes (7 out of 10), discomfort and in disposing it. I wanted to bring in a pad that was not only easy to dispose of but gave a better experience,” Johri tells you, listing why recycled cloth pads are not convenient.
First, cloth pads need to be washed properly otherwise there is a chance that there is some trace of blood is left and this can be dangerous. “In this case, disposable sanitary pad is an option. Women, especially in India, don’t know what their pads are made of this so because penetration of pads in India is very little — only 17 per cent — even lesser than Kenya. An Indian woman doesn’t have access to sanitary pads let alone environment-friendly. In this case, health comes first hence disposable pads are a better option,” she opines.
The pads that she manufactures are made of — top sheet from corn starch, absorption layer is made from bamboo fibre and the bottom layer is made from corn-based bioplastic. All components are biodegradable within a year. Available on the company website and online like Amazon etc, Caremsi today has 5000 customers from places like Agra, Chandigarh, Ludhiana, metros, Lucknow and Jaipur in the age group 24 to 36 and most of them are working.
Then there are books by the likes of Dr Geeta Bora — Moon Light — which answer almost all queries that a young girl who has just started her periods may want to ask but is too shy to. Dr Bora, through her foundation Spherule, holds health and hygiene workshops all over the country. She found that many girls are shy to ask questions.
“Most schools in rural and slum areas don’t have clean bathrooms. Because of this, girls get many infections during the periods as they would continue to wear the pad for over 12 hours. Most don’t know that they should change the pad within six hours even if there is negligible spotting,” Bora says.
She tells you that through films like Padman help spread awareness, the problem is that those who actually need to watch the film haven’t. However, those who have seen it, their perspective has changed including men.
“Cloth pads are good environmentally. But from a pure hygiene viewpoint — sanitary pads and cloth pads are the same. With the cloth pad, it is an issue of washing and hanging it to dry in the sun. Also, how many women actually use the right cloth pad? They use what comes their way — newspaper, dry leaves and even ash. For such women, the whole issue of washing and drying out in the open sun is a big no no. Here disposable napkins work,” Bora says.
However, Sindhu Naik who started Green The Red campaign in January 2017, has a different take on the debate on cloth or disposable pads, as also that coloured cloth pads may be toxic since the prints are chemical dyes.
“We have been doing this back to basics in many ways. The most common being using cloth bags instead of plastic bags to buy vegetables, etc. Why did we shift to using disposable sanitary pads? It was convenient but this convenience came at a price and we have to decide and question ourself and look at what is good for the environment and the woman herself. When it comes to rural women, the problem was not the cloth but the taboos around menstruation. The more we talk about, the better it is. Once the taboo is broken, the women will not hide the menstrual cloth and dry it properly,” Naik says and tells you that it is the women themselves who are responsible for the trend of using cloth pads.
She also tells you that people who say that cloth pads are not good because they are coloured need to answer one simple question. “Women wear coloured underwear. Why is there no talk of chemical dyes in them and only cloth pad? There is no toxicology report which talks about the effect of chemical dyes. Also, as long as the cloth pad is made of organic dyes or unbleached cloth there is no problem,” she argues.
Seconds Anju Bist, co-creator of Saukhyam Pads which use banana fibre as absorbent material, tells you that there are several advantages of banana fibre as an absorbent. “A very common example is that if we can use underwear after washing it, so can the cloth pads, it works on the same principles.
The pads, an initiative of Amrita SeRVe (Self Reliant Village) project of Mata Amritanandamayi Math, aims to not only to prevent an environmental catastrophe, but also make the pads cheaper and provide employment to rural women,” Bist says and tells you that each production centre employs about 15 to 20 women. The model can be scaled up to every village in the country,” Bist says and tells you that Saukhyam Pads have 1,222 paying customers since they were launched in October 2017 with the research taking three to four years with a starter pack with two bases and three pieces costing Rs 420 in rural areas.
“Our experience shows that women are willing to try eco-friendly solutions. They just want to be given an option. Given that young girls who don’t even wash their clothes, the whole shift to cloth pads has been encouraging,” Bist says who has satisfied customers not only in rural India but also in countries like Singapore.
When it comes to absorption and the whole concept of dry feel, the banana fibre is very handy. It absorbs six times its own weight and hence it is able to last for almost six to seven hours without any discomfort. It has been found that women who buy Saukhyam Pads never want to go back to using disposable sanitary pads.
“When it comes to addressing cloth versus disposable sanitary pads, we tell women that we are against the use of dirty cloth and not cloth pads which are quite popular in countries like the US where women have been using it for over two decades. The good part is that it has now picked up in India,” Bist tells you and the reason for the shift is because gynaecologists have now started to say that disposable pads have dioxin residue and other chemicals that are endocrine disrupters and the skin in the vaginal area is very permeable, there is a very good chance that these can entire the blood stream. “But there is more research needed and awareness spread,” Bist tells you.
Jessamijn Miedema, co-founder of Eco Femme based out of Auroville, tells you that many women still use cloth to manage periods. “Cloth pads are a designed version of that. Cloth pads have been made as a commercial product already for a long time, outside India, there are many brands. Within India, they were also being made. We started in 2010 and have been promoting the switch to cloth and menstrual cups through group talks, events, presentations, menstrual education to girls and women and through social media. Especially social media has enabled the sharing between women of sustainable menstrual products and the issues surrounding plastic disposable sanitary napkins. This access to information, especially from peer to peer has made really a very large difference,” Miedema says.
Once a woman realises that the pad is no longer working, it can be recycled. “Simply remove the press buttons and recycle the metal, the cotton with other waste fabric and PUL plastic with plastic waste recycling,” Miedema tells you.
How to Use reusable pads
In the last decade, the subject of Menstrual Hygiene Management has witnessed an encouraging upsurge and asserting the need for breaking the silence in a highly inherent patriarchal socio-cultural system in India. Here is what you need to know about cloth reusable sanitary pads:
Cloth pads are a reusable alternative to disposable sanitary napkins. They work exactly like a sanitary napkin, except they can be washed and reused for several years. They do not create any disposable waste after each use.
Regular pads are designed for average and plus-sized women. The ‘G’ width of the pad measures 7.5cm. This size works well if you are using underwear with a wide crotch. Pads of this size can also be used for postpartum bleeding – consider size L and XL.
How to wash your cloth pads
- Rinse and scrub: Run them under cold water to remove blood, then soak in a mug of cold water for 20 minutes to 8 hours. Hand scrub with mild soap and water. Do not use brush. Always dry the washed pad in sunlight/low tumble dry. Hang straight.
Machine wash tips
- Remove all blood by squeezing in cold water by hand. Place the pads in a cotton bag and machine wash in a short cycle. Tumble dry.
- Always use a clean and dry pad.
- Change once every 4-6 hours even on light flow days.
- Use mild soap to clean the pad; rinse thoroughly to make sure no soap remains on the pad.
- Dry it in direct sunlight when possible, or dry in your machine on low heat.
- Store in a clean and dry place.
- Wash the cloth pad before first use.
- While drying, do not fold the pad or keep on flat surface.
- Do not soak/wash the pad in hot water as it will set stains.
- Never use a wet/damp pad.
- Do not store a wet/damp pad in your cupboard.
- Do not brush the cloth pad.
- Do not machine wash regularly.
- Do not iron the cloth pad.
Is there anything I have to do before I start using the pad?
As with all new garments, especially underwear, you should wash new pads prior to using them.
Inter-labia pads — as the name suggests — are worn between the labia (folds of skin at vaginal opening) to catch the menstrual flow and must be used along with a cloth pad or a menstrual cup.
They come in a leaf-like shape and are a lot smaller and thinner than a panty liner.
BENEFIT: The pads above pantyliners provide comfort, discretion and a different way of plugging the leak. They prevent cloth pads leaking from the sides or wings.
Menstrual cup is a small, bell-shaped cup usually made of medical-grade silicon which is inserted into the vagina during the menstrual cycle to catch and collect the flow. The cup needs to be replaced every 6-12 hours. One cup lasts 10 years.
BENEFIT: When worn correctly, the cup feels non-existent. There is no wetness, leakage or bulky pads between your legs.
Leak-proof period panties are designed to catch the menstrual flow or mild urine leaks and can be worn alone or as a back-up to the menstrual cup.
BENEFIT: Period panties come with adjustable absorbency. They are ideal for all degrees of flow.
Cloth pads are a modern twist to the age-old practice of using soft, gentle, washable and reusable cloth.
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