By Alice || Edited by Go Ask Alice Editorial Team || Last edited May 26, 2023
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Alice! Health Promotion. "Reusable vs. disposable pads?." Go Ask Alice!, Columbia University, 26 May. 2023, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/reusable-vs-disposable-pads. Accessed 23, Jun. 2024.

Alice! Health Promotion. (2023, May 26). Reusable vs. disposable pads?. Go Ask Alice!, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/reusable-vs-disposable-pads.

Dear Alice,

My mother recommended that I use a cotton washable sanitary towel during my period (as she did) instead of disposable pads. In the country I'm from the feminine sanitary towel is 30x30cm, so when I put it in my panties I can't wear trousers, tights, or jeans. What is your opinion? Are disposable pads unhygienic?

Dear Reader, 

It's great that you are open to your mother's recommendations while inquiring for yourself whether they will work for you. People today have many choices of how to manage their menstruation. Some external choices include disposable pads, reusable pads, or period underwear. Internal options include tampons, menstrual cups, or menstrual discs. Each menstrual modality may be more or less helpful at different times in your life and for different activities. Some factors to consider include cost, accessibility, ease of use, methods of disposal, environmental impacts, and—as you mention—hygiene. Reusable pads and disposable pads are equally sanitary when used correctly, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. 

Some benefits of disposable pads are that they are often easier to find in stores and might be offered in a greater variety of shapes, sizes, and absorbency levels. There is also no need to wash or store disposable pads, so they might prove to be a more convenient option, especially when traveling. However, some disposable pads (and tampons) contain harmful chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin in the genital area. If you're concerned about such chemicals, or about the environmental impact of using disposables, many health food stores sell disposable pads made without chemical additives. Additionally, some stores may even sell menstrual products made with organic cotton—be sure to check the label before purchasing to see materials and any chemical additives! 

Reusable pads, on the other hand, markedly create less waste as you aren’t throwing them away each use. They are also more cost-effective: people reuse their pads for an average of 4.3 years, which means over four years of not having to buy disposables. Reusable pads are often made of cotton or flannel and are therefore soft, absorbent, and breathable. They also don't have the plastic backing that disposables do, which can chafe and irritate skin or bunch in uncomfortable ways. While not as easy to pick up at the local drug store, many health food stores carry reusable pads, and an online search will certainly turn up many results. 

Some people may be intimidated by the task of washing their reusable pads, but the process is quite simple. After a quick rinse, they can be tossed in a washing machine (dark load is recommended to avoid the possibility of staining other items) with cold water and dried in a dryer. It’s also possible to hand-wash them. Many individual brands have online resources and instructions for how to safely care for their products on their website.  If you're going to be out for most of the day, you can bring a plastic or cloth bag to store the used pads and wash them when possible. 

In addition to disposable and reusable pads, there are some other products that may be worth exploring: 

  • Period Underwear are undergarments that you wear during your period that absorb blood but still feel dry. Like a reusable pad, you can wash and wear them repeatedly. 
  • Menstrual cups are flexible devices worn inside the vagina that collect blood and fluid rather than absorbing them. Most menstrual cups are reusable and can be removed, washed, and reinserted. It’s recommended you speak with a health care professional before using menstrual cups if you have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted, if you’ve been advised not to use tampons, or if you have recently been pregnant. 
    Menstrual discs are flatter and smaller than menstrual cups but work in a similar way. Since it sits deeper in the body, it can be messier to remove than a menstrual cup but can also be worn during penetrative sex. 
  • Menstrual discs are available in both disposable and reusable versions and generally cost between $10 and $20 for a box of 8 to 12 discs. 

With almost any menstrual product, there is some risk of getting toxic shock syndrome (TSS)—a condition in which normally harmless bacteria on the skin makes its way into the bloodstream and releases toxins. Both reusable and disposable pads carry a low risk of TSS because blood leaves the vaginal canal immediately, rather than collecting in a tampon that may sit in the vagina for hours. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some risk when using external products. A 2022 study found polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs)—chemicals which may be carcinogenic—in some brands of menstrual underwear. While it’s uncertain whether or not PFAs can enter the body in higher concentrations from undergarments than products like shampoo, research has yet to determine if the chemicals can have an impact on your health. No matter what kind of pads you choose, it's best to change them every two to five hours as needed, to prevent bacteria and odor buildup. 

If using a pad—disposable or not—is incompatible with the clothing that you like to wear, you might explore the different products that may be available to you in your area. Whichever type of menstrual product you choose, remember you can always switch things up if activities like traveling, swimming, or wearing a particular article of clothing require a different type of protection. Comfort, convenience, thrift, and effectiveness all come into play when choosing between the different types of menstrual products, but rest assured that when you use them right, both disposable and reusable pads are equally hygienic options. 

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