My period started in January 2006. I was camping, our tent was flooding with rain and I was extremely ill with giardia from swimming in a freshwater stream. Suddenly bleeding out of my vagina filled me with the fear of my impending death until I realised it wasn’t caused by a stomach parasite but rather the beginning of a beautiful, if fraught, relationship with my uterus. I mean, I always knew it was coming. I guess when you feel like your internal organs are about to explode, blood coming out of anywhere isn’t reassuring.
Flash forward to October 2015: I came off birth control. My period, furious after three years of suppression, was ready to bleed through anything in its path. Around that time I stumbled upon the YouTube channel ‘Precious Stars Pads’ run by the brilliant, enigmatic Bree Farmer, an avid spokesperson for reusable menstrual products (or RUMPs) and the owner of her own RUMP company by her mid-teens.
I learnt that store-bought disposable menstrual products aren’t sterile. I don’t know why I just kind of assumed they were. Maybe it was because of their perfect hospital whiteness? And that’s not natural either. In addition to the bacteria they accumulate in transit, disposable pads and tampons are laden with chemicals to neutralise odours, and are bleached that pure, bleed-all-over-me white. What really got me was when I thought about how many plastic disposable pads get tossed into landfill each month. I realised I’ve used at least 800 disposable menstrual products in my time on this earth. This was reason enough for me to buy my first reusable cloth pad, and then the next and the next, until I was certain I wasn’t ever going back.
There are many kinds of RUMPs but these three are the most popular and the only kinds I’ve tried so I’m going to stick with what I know. Most of these you’ll need to order online; I’ve named some brands to get you started.
The phrase “cloth menstrual pad” may remind you of a medieval period rag, but I assure you they’re nothing like this. They operate on the same principle as store-bought pads but are made to be washed and reworn. Reusable pads contain an absorbent core and most often some kind of waterproofing. The wings of the pad are secured with press studs instead of an adhesive backing. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, absorbencies, and fabrics and most companies have a range of cute prints to make the whole bleeding experience a bit more cheery.
Nice and soft. I saw someone online describe them as “fluffy little vagina blankets”. There is a wide range of fabrics to consider. Minky and velour are super soft, but not very breathable. Cotton is breathable but not very soft. Flannelette is probably the best of both worlds.
About as discreet as ordinary pads, though if you’re out and about you will need a little wet bag or pad wrapper to carry the soiled ones (you can buy both of these things online or make them yourself).
Requires the most work of the three but this really depends on how concerned you are about stains. Otherwise just throw them in the cold wash. Unless you buy new clothes every week to avoid laundry it won’t be much extra effort.
If you want to go a whole period with just cloth pads, it’s going to cost you a bit of money to start out. That said, you’ll easily make back what you’ve spent within the year so it’s economical in the long term. You can sew your own if you’re short on cash or just like DIYs – Bree of Precious Stars Pads has tutorials for both hand-and machine stitched pads on her YouTube channel.
CONTACT WITH BLOOD
Not a huge amount more than ordinary pads, but again that depends on how you feel about stains. If you want them stain-free you’ll have to get up close and personal with your stain stick before machine washing. Some people “shower stomp” their pads which means only your feet come into contact with the blood.
Good for people sensitive to the chemicals in store-bought pads. Cute fabrics are also a plus – I have an epic overnight pad with unicorn-print and glow- in-the-dark press studs.
The staining issue.
Measure your favourite store-bought pad and try to find a seller that makes them in those dimensions and an appropriate absorbency. Novel Red has a good range. If you buy pads with a dark splotchy pattern the staining won’t be as obvious. “Minky” fabric tends to stain less.
FYI, Party In My Pants has a “cloth curious” giveaway for the price of postage if you’re not ready to commit to a full set.
You’ve probably heard of the Diva Cup, but there are heaps of different brands. Menstrual cups require insertion and a certain amount of contact with your period blood. Basically, you fold the cup in half, insert it and it forms suction around your cervix and acts as a little vessel to catch every drop that comes out. Some cups have a little stem to help you get
it in and out. It can take a few tries to find the right one for you as every vagina is different. Sydney Uni Food Co-op stocks two different brands.
It might take a while to find the most comfortable one for you but fortunately there are many sizes, shapes and flexibilities available. A menstrual cup is meant to sit low in the vaginal canal so if your cup comes with a stem you may need to trim it. I own a Lunette and had to whittle carefully away at the stem a few times for it to sit right.
If you remember to carry around a little water bottle or some cup wipes (sold by the companies themselves) or are content just wiping it out with loo paper (perfectly safe) then you don’t have to leave the toilet cubicle to clean it before reinsertion.
Sterilise once before and once after period, either with alcohol wipes or by boiling in water. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You don’t need to sterilise during your period as long as you use it consistently; you only need one cup for the whole cycle. Make sure you wash your hands before and after inserting but you should be doing that anyway.
$30-40 for up to 10 years use. Brilliant. Again, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and you’ll get a decent mileage out of your cup. Interaction with blood: Quite a bit. You need to remove the cup and empty the blood carefully into the toilet (pour, don’t just dump it in because, blood will go everywhere). Rinse or wipe it and then reinsert.
Some cups have little measurement marks on the side, so if you’re like me you can have fun seeing how much blood you produced.
Best bang for buck; you only need one. Once you suss out how to insert and remove it’s pretty much foolproof. Comes in a range of colours and styles and are non-gendered in appearance.
Not great if blood bothers you or if you don’t want to/can’t use insertables. Takes some research and tinkering to get it right.
Watch a couple of videos on the different kinds of cup and the different methods of inserting them. And whatever you do, don’t drop it in the toilet.
I could gush (sorry) about these for hours. They’re like regular underwear except waterproofing is built into the gusset. Different kinds have different absorbencies, usually listed on the packs measured in tampons-worth. These really work. If you have the funds and opportunity to try them, do it.
Just like normal underwear.
Again, just like wearing normal underwear. Genius.
Wear them, chuck them in the cold wash, hang them out to dry. Choose a brand with a black gusset to avoid needing to stain treat.
Low. There’s very little about them that’s different to regular underwear. Just don’t forget and leave them in your laundry basket for too long.
There’s an expensive initial cost at $30+ a pair. You’ll need at least 5 for an average period but over time they save you big $$$. You could even just buy a pair as back-up to a tampon or cup on your heaviest day.
INTERACTION WITH BLOOD
Next to nothing. You can soak before washing to get some of the blood out of the absorbent layer if you’re concerned about it staining other things in your wash.
It bears repeating: they are just like normal underwear. I also found a lot of companies are passionate about including all people who menstruate and offer no-frills non-gendered products. Thinx and Bloody Marys are the two I recommend, though Thinx does have some gendered language on their website.
Expensive start-up cost.
Consider a pair with a black gusset if you’re concerned about stains – Thinx makes these. Special mention goes to Bloody Marys Undies, which give you the opportunity to bleed in the face of your least favourite anti-choice American politicians, both literally and figuratively (meaning they print Trump, Cruz or whoever’s smarmy visage onto the absorbent gusset and then donate $3 from each sale to rebuilding Planned Parenthood clinics). Each pair also comes with two attachable heatpacks for both front and back pain – winning!
Art by Katie Thorburn