Soft, reusable, absorbent, and often handmade, cloth menstrual pads are a pretty yummy option for people who cycle, and who have access to the soap, water, and sunlight necessary for their care.
Made from cotton flannel, these popular pads, including the ones WiseBodies makes, snap onto underwear, stay in place, are gentle next to our sensitive vulvas, and do a great job absorbing flow and being easy on our over-extended landfills.
Cloth pads do require care, and resources. They need access to water, and soap for washing, and dryers or sunshine for drying. The fact is that the best way to dry cloth pads is in sunshine, where the light and heat from the sun can sterilize the cloth, leaving them ultra clean and sweet-smelling.
A huge bonus from wearing cloth pads is that they have the wonderful effect of putting us in touch with our menstrual flow, something that's entirely cool and desirable. Who doesn't want to grow into knowing all the different ways menstrual blood can look, feel, and smell? This special fluid, the blood that nurtured each and every one of us until our parents' womb created a placenta, is utterly remarkable.
We live in a culture that rarely mentions how magical menstrual blood can be. Instead, our culture usually supports the idea that our menstrual flow is something to hide, to feel shame about, and to secretly dispose of via disposable pads and tampons.
Given all this, it's surprising to have New York Times writer and Ob/Gyn, Dr. Jen Gunter, come down in her piece entitled "Are Reusable Feminine Cloths Safe?" from January 17, 2019, without clear, strong support for cotton flannel pads.
Instead, the article leads with a title that raises the anxious possibilty that cloth - a common product used worldwide in communities with access to water, soap, and sunshine, may not, in fact, be safe. (Imagine if the title had been "Reusable Cloth Menstrual Pads are Fabulous!" as an example of a clearly pad-supportive title.)
The title also uses the phrase "feminine cloths" rather than "menstrual pads." For those of us not familiar with the look of a menstrual pad, we may not have known the article was about a period product. "Feminine cloths" reads like something a woman might use to wipe down her body, rather than a product that everyone who cycles (including some non-binary people and trans men) can use to collect menstrual blood.
The author continues to be wishy-washy on her support for cloth pads by beginning her article with the sentence, "There are several studies looking at providing women with reusable menstrual cloths designed specifically for menstruation in countries where women have limited access to products for menstrual hygiene."
Locating the use of cloth menstrual pads in "countries where women have limited access to products for menstrual hygiene" and, in our reading imaginations, marking those other women as poor due to their "limited access to products," Dr. Gunter suggests that cloth menstrual pads are for poor women living in countries apart from, and therefore separate from, people in the U.S.
This trope separates the doctor's readership from the rest of the world's cyclers, and for no reason. In the U.S., we have a large percentage of cycling people who do not have access to menstrual supplies, who can afford neither cloth nor paper pads, and who do not have easy access to soap, water, and sunshine. In addition, the US holds an anti-menstruation culture, one in which publicly hanging cloth menstrual pads in to dry in the sunshine most often would not be welcome. This conversation is greatly needed, yet is not included in this piece.
The author continues, "The material is the same or similar to that used for cloth diapers." While the author could have chosen a cloth comparison that links menstrual pads with an adult item, like a cozy flannel shirt, she instead has chosen to connect cloth pads with diapers, infantalizing pads. This suggestion, that cloth pads and diapers are similar, continues the US gynecologic system's pattern of infantalizing those of us who have vaginas, including their practice of suggesting to us that they know more about, and are in control of, our bodies rather than the reverse.
There's more. While stating that "...many patients of mine have reported using reusable cloth menstrual pads and have been very satisfied," Dr. Gunter begins that sentence with this: "These menstrual cloths are generally safe to use...," again raising doubt about the safety of cloth pads. Since we have yet to have had a single study done in the U.S. in regard to the safety of cloth pad use in communities with access to water, soap, and sunshine, the use of the word "generally" has no factual basis.
The only available pad studies have been done in communities outside the U.S., communities where pad users have not had access to water and soap. And while these studies have indeed shown an increase in vaginal infection related to cloth pad rather than disposable pad use, the studies are clear that the increased infection rates are due to the lack of soap and water for cleaning. Moreover, studies have demonstrated that the lack of cultural approval for hanging cloth pads outdoors, in the sun, where the cloth can be sterilized via sun exposure, has had an impact on the cleanliness of cloth pads.
What the doctor and the studies neglect to mention is that the same conditions for cloth care exist here in the U.S., where people with access to soap and water are more likely to be cloth pad users rather than those without. Increased rates of vaginal infection due to poor cloth pad care are not country-bound, but rather bound by access to necessary resources. When cyclers have access to clean water, soap, and sunshine, the conditions for healthy pad use are fully satisfied.
If we were to change the focus of these studies of "other cultures" away from cloth pad miscare and toward misogyny and induced poverty, we likely could imagine the end of both as a cure for safe cloth pad practice.
Dr. Gunter's last paragraph on cloth pads claims that "The biggest medical risk with any menstrual hygiene product that sits against your vulva is inadequate absorbency. If the cloth or pad is wet, it will irritate the skin."
While cloth pad wearers know their pads need to be changed regularly in order to not have menstrual blood soak through onto clothing, absolutely no data support her claim that wet cloth pads irritate the skin of the vulva. There is, however, increasing concern about the harm that chemical-rich paper pads may cause the paper pad wearer, a concern Dr. Gunter does not include in her article.
The author's final sentence, "If you are not wet and don’t feel irritated then the reusable pad or cloth you are using is likely just fine," leaves the reader where we started, with a non-affirmative okay to cloth pad use.
Menstruators experience wetness. That's a fact of bleeding. And menstruators know that the word "likely" is not as clear as "Yes." A strong final sentence might have read: "If you cycle, it's cool that you're using cloth pads! Change them often, wash them with soap and water, and get them out in the sunshine so the world can see that we bleed, and are proud of it."
At WiseBodies, cloth pads are a definite Yes. At WiseBodies, we support making sure those in our communities have access to free menstrual supplies, including cloth pads. At WiseBodies, we support our communities having access to soap and water. At WiseBodies, we support our culture transitioning to absolute support for hanging cloth pads outdoors in full sunshine, alongside our flannel shirts and our children's diapers.