A Comprehensive Guide To How Your Menstrual Hygiene Product Is Made

Period Paath logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC, to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management among menstruating persons in India. Join the conversation to take action and demand change! The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

This Menstrual Hygiene Day, it’s important for you to position yourself within the larger context of the world. The rate at which the climate, economy, social fabric, justice and rights are evolving, an individual standing has never been so significant, yet insignificant at the same time.

If you’re the kind of person I am, you’d be amused by the sheer variety of interpretations of just one ideology that surrounds you. Perhaps what amuses you the most is a (forgive me) righteous tone of feminist talk. The kind that establishes the other brand of feminism and empowerment as superior to your own. Noted feminist Bell Hooks herself says the ideology suffers from a lack of consensus. She’s not wrong. Some of the most heated debates I have had with fellow seekers of equality have been about menstruation: pads vs. tampons, menstrual leaves, meftalspaz vs. crocin, and hot compresses vs. punching something. It almost always ends in (blood) sweat and tears…

Sounds nuts, right? It’s what oppression does, sweetie! You can learn to guilt yourself over your right to bleed comfortably.

I’m not that naive, though. The right to bleed comfortably is a luxury. In the capitalist world we live in today, where luxury is defined by the gap between the rich and the poor, what ends up being a marker of social status is the kind of services you choose to pay for. It goes way beyond what one owns now, it’s about how much comfort you’re willing to pay for.

No pointing fingers, but. This is only natural. We’re moving further and further away from our natural origins and becoming more material as we progress deeper into analysing, but never accepting what actually caused Wall Street to crash (bespoke tranche opportunity sounds far more sophisticated than a CDO).

So, if you’re going to be part of another debate surrounding which menstrual hygiene product to use, here’s what you should know about the manufacturing of each of these. You should know the kind of impact you could potentially be leaving on the planet, as well as on your sanity, regardless of what you choose to use.

1) Sanitary Pads

Sanitary pads or napkins are mostly made out of cotton. Over time, fibres like rayon and non-woven fibres have been used to make pads. Cellulose gel is another important component of a pad, which is the base for the absorbent core.

Now, agriculture across the world is ridden with the GMO plague, and cotton production is no exception. While India has been resistant to the Bt cotton revolution that’s overtaken other agricultural giants, it still doesn’t bode well for GMO free cotton production.

Photo: Getty Images.

Synthetic fibres are the main plastic that ends up in the ocean water and pollutes marine life. Not only that, the water breaks down these fibres into fragments, so the longer they continue to float, the more toxic the ocean gets.

Because cellulose is extracted directly from plants, the process creates a massive amount of plant and wood waste. The non-cellulose liquid is just randomly disposed once extraction is over. In cases where cellulose is directly extracted from trees on a mass scale, it may lead to deforestation.

2) Panty Liners

These are made the same way a sanitary pad is, but are much smaller in size. However, because they are used for purposes other than menstruation (vaginal discharge, spotting, or as backup for a menstrual cup), it doesn’t mean that the production scale is any less. Making panty liners may as well generate the same amount of waste as sanitary pads.

3) Tampons

Quite possibly the biggest polariser in the debate surrounding menstrual hygiene products. You either swear by it, or are disgusted by the mere thought of using it.

Tampons are made with a blend of cotton and rayon. A problematic additive, however, is bleach. While the US now says that the FDA has approved a non-toxic bleach for the wood pulp used in making rayon, it doesn’t change the fact that chemicals are still used in manufacturing these little babies.

Photo: Kaldari/Wikipedia.

The risk lies in the fact that vaginal walls are easily permeable. Anything in a tampon can make it to the bloodstream, particularly harmful toxins.

4) Cloth Menstrual Pads/Washable Pads

Generally, these pads are made of cotton or hemp. Because the concept of a cloth pad has been around for centuries, a number of specialty fabrics are used to make these: terrycloth, silk, Gore-Tex (lightweight waterproof fabric), bamboo terry, bamboo velour, soy French terry, wool interlock and polyurethane laminate (PUL).

Photo: meghan/Wikimedia Commons.

All the natural fibres mentioned here are woven or knitted. Gore-Tex, however, uses Teflon, and PUL also uses synthetic fibres like polyester.

5) Thinx

Thinx is a prettier name than “period panties” even though it refers to a brand that’s a recent entrant in the menstrual hygiene game. Quite simply, it’s a pair of underwear that you slip on when you’re menstruating. Nothing on the gusset, nothing inside your vagina either.

Photo: Thinx/Official Website.

There’s plenty videos that explain the hows and whys of the product, but here’s what it’s made of: a lot of polyester and a bit of lycra that come together to form a fabric called QuadTECH. As of now, there are only two major brands that supply period panties, and both use the same fabric, layering it to create period panties. I’m assuming you know that regular polyester is far from eco-friendly and that lycra is also a polymer, the processing for which requires toxic chemicals.

6) Menstrual Cups

Menstrual cups are becoming increasingly popular, moving beyond YouTube and into real life. Most are made from silicone or rubber. Essentially, both are environmentally far friendlier than plastic, but durability can tend to be an issue. Important to note here though, is rampant exploitation within the rubber industry which goes beyond labour issues. Rubber plantations have been the driving force behind environmental degradation in many cases across the globe.

Photo: Michelle Tribe/Wikimedia Commons.

In the end, the availability of a choice implies a responsibility. The action of undertaking an informed choice is not only individually empowering, but something everyone with access to information is obliged to do. Access, action, impact are closely interlinked when it comes down to matters of hygiene and sanitation. Regardless of where you live and what you use, make sure you understand every aspect before you utilise a product/service, instead of analysing the impact post-usage.

Instead of ‘othering’ the environment, which incidentally is where your cotton comes from and where your plastic goes, include it in your contemplation.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: MaxPixel.net; Wikimedia Commons.
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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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