This is part of a new series of posts called Ditch the Disposables where I explore and educate about reusable options for common disposable items.

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I’ve had some questions come up from readers lately about reusable feminine products, both menstrual cups and cloth pads, so I thought I would write up a post about what is out there and what I use/recommend.  (Guys- you can skip this post, if you like, or pass it on to the women in your lives!)

My Story (or How I Discovered The Cloth World…)

For several years, I hated my monthly period. I mean, hated. It was just painful, a bother, and… gross. I would have at least 24 hours of debilitating cramps (the type that would leave me writhing in a super-hot bathtub, delirious with a pain fever, begging to die), followed by the next several days of dry and painful tampon changes.  I thought that this was just how it was. Deal with it. Pop a few Midol or Aleve and move on. Pray that next month it was better.

Never even considered using cloth. That had been extinct since the 1800s, right? Who uses “rags” anymore?  I don’t even remember now how I first saw cloth pads. It may have been when I was researching cloth diapers (even before I was pregnant!). But in any case, I bought a sampler pack from a retailer.

The Options

Cloth Pads

There are actually a few different “styles” of cloth pads available.

  • All-in-one: these are made where the absorbant layer on top and the water-proof layer on bottom are all sewn together as one piece. These need to be changed completely, as a whole, with each pad change.
  • Pocket: these have a pocket where can “stuff” absorbant material to your specifications. Water-proof later is again on the bottom. These need to be changed completely, as a whole, with each pad change.
  • All-in-two (well, that’s what I’ll call them): these have the water-proof bottom, sewn to an absorbant top. Then there will be another layer of flannel that is detatchable. This is held to the main pad with either snaps or a piece of rikrak. When you change these, you usually only need to change the top layer with each change, reducing the number of “pads” that you need.

Any of the above can be found as a) lay-in pads: your body holds them in place to your panties. Or b) “with wings” that snap around your panty to hold them in place (this is more common).

You can purchase these from well-established retailers:

Or, if you are so gifted, you can make your own. Here are some patterns available for free on the web (I just did a Google search – there were more!):

Menstrual Cups

Menstrual cups are made from either rubber or silicone. They are designed to be inserted into a woman’s vagina during her period to collect the menstrual fluid. Depending on the brand, they can last from 5-10 years before they need replacing.  There CAN be a learning curve in how to insert, but once you’ve figured it out – easy! They are generally available in 2 sizes and choosing the correct size is important, because it is the muscles in your vaginal wall that keep the cup in place.

Popular Brands:

Sea Sponges

Contain no Dioxin or synthetic fibers, are sustainably harvested and reusable for three to six months or more. They can be custom trimmed to fit.  Sponges are naturally very absorbent, and can also be used during sex. They have been an option for contraception for years.

Where to buy: Jade & Pearl is a common brand. I have NOT used these, so this is the extent of any knowledge I have on these.

Accessories

Carry Bags are probably the most common, also known as “wet bags”. These are bags where you can store your cloth pads or diva cup between uses.  Some brands make a variety with a water-proof outer layer, perfect for storing used cloth pads until you can launder them. Essential for when you are “out and about”.

How This Works in Real  Life

Use

You use cloth pads the same as you would disposable pads. Changing as needed and recommended, according to the manufacturer. The biggest thing new users will notice is that a) you WON’T notice them after a while. No sticking to your skin. No drying out.  And b) your period may become lighter.  This was a big one with me. I always needed “maxi”, “heavy day” pads previously. Now, I can easily get by with lighter-day pads on most days, and maybe only one heavier day where I need the “big guns”.

With the cups, the biggest hurdle is learning how to insert them properly. Once that is done, you will never know how you did without it. They only need to be emptied once every 12 hours. It was amazing how little blood there actually was. Especially with how moist my girly-parts felt. I learned that I had been sucking my natural moisture out with the disposable products and this is what was causing most of my pain issues. When I do empty the cup, I wipe it out, reinsert it and I’m good to go.

Out and About

Everyone is always concerned with this part. What do I do when I’m out of the house? Well, what did you do before? Ball up the tampon/pad, wrap it in toilet paper, and toss it, right? Well, just omit the last 2 steps. :) With the cup, there’s literally nothing to do: wipe it out, reinsert it, keep going. With the cloth pads, replace the top liner or the entire pad, depending on the system you’ve chosen, put the soiled pad in your carry bag. Replace with a new pad. When you get home, rinse out the soiled pad or soak it. Then come laundry day, wash them. That’s it.

Laundry

Just like with cloth diapers, people are seriously freaked out about the ick factor when it comes to cloth pad laundry. At this point, 2 cloth-diapered kids later, nothing really grosses me out anymore. Well, maybe spiders.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cloth pad laundry.

  • Soak method: this requires you to have a soaker pot, or something in which to store you pads, covered in water, until laundry day.
  • Rinse method: This method has you rinsing out any soiled pads in your sink. And then placing them somewhere until laundry day.

I personally use the rinse method.  I tried the soak method and had an issue with my soaking pot seriously stinking. And I can’t take stink. People do recommend using essential oils, or even drops of soap, to combat the stink. But for me, it was just easier to switch to the rinse method. Works just as well for me.

After whatever method you’ve chosen, you can either a) do a load of just the cloth pads, b) add them to your regular laundry (some people choose towels. Doesn’t matter to me or my husband – so they’ll often go in our regular laundry), or c) if you have children in cloth diapers, you can toss them in with the diapers.  Some caveats: do not use liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets. These will usually cause your cloth pads to repel liquid, which obviously defeats the purpose of having cloth pads. Leaks = Yucky.

I dry in the dryer as I do any other load, but have line-dried on occasion.

The cup is really easy in regards to care and cleaning.  I will give mine a good cleaning, rinsing, etc at night after using it. And then after each cycle, boil it to sanitize it.  Each manufacturer has different recommendations, so follow their directions. Once I’ve sanitized mine, back into its storage carry bag and into my purse for the next cycle.

My Final Thoughts

While my initial reasons for switching were completely personal – I was sick and tired of being in pain – I have come to realize there are so many more benefits. First, I am not spending money on disposable products any longer. More cash in my pocket! Love that. And I no longer have the dreaded moment when I’m in the bathroom and realize I am out of supplies! Who’s been there? Raise your hand. I see you! Everyone has. (In fact, I do have a limited supply still in my bathroom from pre-cloth days, but they’re for guests who find themselves in that same spot.)  Second, I am no longer throwing away products that are going into landfills. Huge bonus! And lastly, I am not introducing my body to toxic chemicals each and every month.  I know that should be higher on my list, but honestly, I had never thought about that before. Pain and money are usually higher on my list of priorities. So, shoot me.

And what about that pain? Gone. I have not suffered from significant menstrual cramps since switching. Minor annoyances, but nothing that impedes my daily life. And nothing that requires OTC medication.

Any questions? Please leave a comment. If I don’t know the answer, I will find out!

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