When I first encountered reusable pads in a targeted Instagram ad—aesthetically millennial, eco-friendly, and available in pretty patterns—they immediately hooked me. There are a few reasons for this: Unless I’m being active, I generally prefer pads to tampons because I can wear them externally, and my period is rarely heavy enough to saturate an entire tampon. The idea of washable cloth pads that I could use over and over again sweetened the deal. I, like many menstruating people in 2020, am increasingly interested in minimizing the environmental and financial impact of my period. Phasing out single-use products (or completely making the switch to products like reusable pads or a menstrual cup) seemed like a surefire way to do both.
Nevertheless, I didn’t immediately click through to buy a week’s worth of pads when I scrolled upon this ad. I still had questions about reusable pads. (How do I make sure they’re clean? Am I, personally, a good fit for them? How do they even work?) In case you’re similarly intrigued yet reluctant, here’s everything you need to know about reusable pads.
How do reusable pads actually work?
As with disposable single-use pads, you secure reusable pads to the crotch of your underwear, and they absorb menstrual fluid externally. So there isn’t much of a learning curve there. Where they differ from the pads you might be used to, however, is in their construction. Some pads, like GladRags Organic Day Pads (Amazon, $37), come in two distinct parts. There’s a washable holder that snaps around the crotch piece of your underwear, and an absorbent pad insert that you can wash, reuse, and even double up on for heavier days. Other styles consist of a single piece of fabric that snaps into your underwear, like Aisle’s pads and liners or Think Eco’s Organic Reusable Cotton Pads (Amazon, $20). One pad costs about $15, and many come in packs of two or three.
Whether the absorbent part of the pad is removable or not, it typically consists of something like cotton, synthetic fabrics, or charcoal-based material. Disposable pads can contain numerous materials, including some combination of wood pulp and superabsorbent polymer (the same “slush powder” you find in most disposable diapers). Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates pads as medical devices and encourages brands to provide general information about what they contain, it does not require them to list every single ingredient.
Like your run-of-the-mill disposable pad, reusable pads tend to come in different sizes to accommodate different levels of flow, but many brands claim that their products are more absorbent than your average disposable. You should aim to change disposable pads when they start to feel full or wet and uncomfortable, typically every four to eight hours, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But even if you’re dealing with an extra-absorbent reusable pad, you should, at the very least, change out your pad on a daily basis, Taraneh Shirazian, M.D., a gynecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF.
How do you clean a reusable pad?
When it comes to cleaning and caring for reusable pads, you’re best off following the instructions that come with your pad of choice. Generally speaking, cloth pads can go in the laundry like other items of clothing (if your pad comes with an insert, separate it from the sleeve before tossing both items into the wash). “For menstrual cups and underwear, people are just using soap and water,” Dr. Shirazian says. (Except when boiling menstrual cups between cycles to disinfect them—but we’re talking about regular cleaning here.) “I don’t think washing a reusable pad would be any different from a medical standpoint or hygiene standpoint. You just want to thoroughly wash it with soap and water or throw it in the wash.” If you’re worried about stains, soak your pads in cold water until you’re ready to do laundry or pretreat them with a specialized stain product before washing, like The Laundress Stain Solution (Amazon, $16).
Do reusable pads actually make an environmental difference?
Simply put, yes—but the extent to which they’re greener than conventional pads and tampons is difficult to quantify. Here’s the thing: The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t publicly share information on the exact impact that disposable menstrual products have on the environment. That said, we know enough to believe that, whatever the impact may be exactly, it isn’t great.
Susan E. Powers, Ph.D., the Spence Professor of Sustainable Environmental Systems and the director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at Clarkson University, tells SELF that, according to research she published last year in Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, one person who menstruates uses anywhere from 108 to 504 menstrual products in a year. Working with an average of 240 products per year and a representative weight of 10 grams per product, she then estimated that one person who menstruates will use about 2.4 kilograms (or around 5.5 pounds) of menstrual products in a year. Powers points out, “That would really range from one to five kilograms of sanitary products,” and even then, these figures only account for dry, unused tampons and pads plus their packaging, with nothing to say of how much fluid (and therefore additional weight) they may absorb after use.
An extra five pounds of waste each year might not sound like much, but based on data from the World Health Organization, we can estimate that a person’s primary reproductive years are between the ages of 15 and 49. This means that most people get their period for about 34 years, give or take some years for things like pregnancy, not getting your period while using a hormonal IUD, etc. That’s about 187 extra pounds of waste over the course of one’s lifetime—just from period products. While some brands do market disposable pads and tampons as biodegradable, this term can be a bit misleading. Often biodegradability is based on whether or not a material will decompose in a natural environment (like being submerged in water), but most landfills aren’t exactly “natural environments,” so snagging biodegradable products might not be as environmentally impactful as you’d expect.
But it isn’t just everything we end up throwing away that makes single-use pads less than eco-friendly. We also have to think about the resources and energy required to produce them in the first place, Powers says. “Solid waste is often what we think about because that’s what we see, but there’s all this other stuff,” she says, noting the chemical emissions released when preparing wood-pulp products that go into pads (and the environmental impact of harvesting the wood). In other words, a disposable pad already has an environmental footprint before it even gets to the store, Powers says. By comparison, a reusable pad will produce some amount of waste throughout its lifespan simply due to the fact that it’s washable, which requires you to use more water and detergent (a pollutant) than you would with a disposable pad, but its overall footprint will still be much smaller, Powers explains. Plus, if you’re dropping the pads in with the rest of your laundry, it’s probably not adding much to your overall footprint.
So the short answer is yes, switching to reusable pads would probably reduce the strain that any single-use pads you would otherwise use might place on the environment. But Powers points out that you don’t have to quit disposable pads cold-turkey to make a difference. Pads that are unbleached or packaged in more cardboard and less plastic are slightly better options because they create smaller footprints, she says, adding that making these kinds of changes to your period routine is an “intermediate step that could reduce people’s impact” on the environment. “It’s a bigger barrier to say, ‘I’m going to use a reusable product,’ than it is to say, ‘I’m going to minimize the packaging,’” she says. “Better to get people to take even the small steps to move away from our current approach.” That said, if you’re ready to cross that barrier, we have some advice for you.
Here’s what you should keep in mind before trying reusable pads
1. Select the pad appropriate for your flow.
Kassie B., 29, tells SELF that when she first gave reusable pads a try, she quickly learned what kind of flow they were (and were not) suitable for. “For a long time, I had terribly heavy periods. I had to change my pad or menstrual cup roughly every hour, frequently bled through my clothes, and often had to stay home for work because the bleeding was too much too fast,” she explains. “When my period was bad, reusable pads really weren’t better than anything else I tried, but nothing made that situation better, so it certainly wasn’t the pad’s fault.”
As we mentioned earlier, reusable pads are available in different levels of absorbency, just like their disposable counterparts. Dr. Shirazian adds that, if you normally use multiple products at once, like a tampon and a pad in case of leaks, you may need to continue with that routine unless you find an ultra-absorbent reusable pad, like Glad Rags Colorful Night Pad (Amazon, $17).
2. Seriously, rotate between reusable and disposable pads if you need to.
Even though Kassie didn’t see much success with reusable pads on heavier days, she still uses them on days that she knows will be lighter, or when using an entire single-use pad seems unnecessary. (Plus, true to Dr. Powers’s point about incremental changes, Kassie says that even occasionally using reusable pads makes her feel a little better about her period’s environmental impact.) It may be wise to consider a similar system for yourself, where you rotate between reusable and disposable pads. Whether you use more of one over the other will depend not only on how light your flow is but also on how much additional money you want to put toward your menstrual routine. It might feel like a lot to spend $15 on one reusable pad upfront, but that price may seem more reasonable when you consider how much less you’ll spend on disposable pads over time.
3. Get comfortable with the cleaning process.
If you don’t have direct access to a washer and dryer or work long or busy hours, it might be tricky to make sure you always have clean reusable pads on hand. Your first few periods with reusable pads will likely involve a learning curve as you figure out a steady cleaning routine that works for you. Along the way you may find that it’s simply more convenient to keep a few disposable pads in your bag for on-the-go emergencies.
Ultimately, as long as you are willing to deal with some trial and error and feel comfortable trying something unfamiliar, there’s no major reason why you shouldn’t give reusable pads a shot. Plus, you’ll get to feel a little better about your personal environmental footprint along the way. “Nondisposable is always a better idea,” Dr. Shirazian says. “You’re doing a service, not only to yourself but also to the environment.”