Cloth Pads for Beginners: Getting Started

When I was pregnant I looked into cloth diapers for my little one while for during my Maternity leave.  Things like the money savings and the fact that they felt healthier for someone who was bound to be more sensitive to chemicals to me made it a no-brainer.

But it also got me thinking about my own body and how re-useable/non-chemical items might benefit my health too.  Which led me to start looking at things like re-useable menstrual pads and menstrual cups.  Of course, my biggest questions when I was looking at starting are the ones I’m addressing here, but if you have anything not covered please send me an email and I’d be happy to help answer anything I can.

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Before we go any further please know that I understand this is a slightly taboo subject.  I’m going to do my best to keep this post helpful without getting excessively detailed or graphic.  Having said that if things like blood or menstruation, bothers you this may not be the post (or topic) you are looking for. 

When starting anything new we all have questions, as a beginner, I’m sure I asked my more experienced friends the same questions repeatedly.   While others may have had a different experience I’m answering from what I’ve noticed in the last couple years I’ve been using them. 

Why use Cloth Pads?

Your Health

Disposable products contain chemicals that can put your health at risk through things like Toxic Schock Syndrome (AKA TSS). Many of these chemicals may not be listed on the packaging either, but they can include things like wood pulp and adhesives along with artificial fragrance and chemical gels.

These chemicals when placed near (or in) the body can not only cause irritation but may dry out the natural protection our bodies use to keep our feminine health hygenic.

The Environment

Globally women using disposables use millions of pads and tampons a month to handle their monthly flows. And even where things like incinerators are available to dispose of these it is a rare and inefficient way of removing the waste, normally the used pads end up in landfills.

During the course of her life the average American woman is estimated to use between 12,000 and 16,000 disposable products to handle her monthly flow. And when these products hit the landfill they will take centuries to degrade, meaning the first pad you ever used will be around long after your great-great-great-great gandkids are born.

Much like disposable diapers these are considered a biohazard and should not be flushed or left out where humans will handle them. Even if the sewer system where you are is robust enough to handle the flushing with something designed to absorb liquid and expand you are risking clogging the whole system with each sanitary pad.

And while burning the pads may sound like a good idea that also releases toxins into the environment risking poisoning humans, animals, and the environment as a whole.

Then you still need to consider how to handle all the packaging these products come in.

Your Budget

Lets say you use the minimum estimated at around 12,000 disposables. That adds up pretty quick! While monthly it may seem like a small amount you’ll end up spending thousands of dollars over your life time. And while cloth pads can be more expensive up front they pay for themselves over time. Many cloth pad users have even reported saving over $500 in just a few years.

If you are not sure what you could be saving check out this helpful Cloth Pad Savings Calculator. The last time I ran the calculator I was saving $1,092 from age 36 to 50… I can think of better things to do with that money!

Your Comfort

I don’t know about you, but disposable pads stick to my skin. And believe it or not caused me rashes that I didn’t realize were NOT normal! Not only do the chemicals mentioned above irritate our sensitive areas but the fact that a disposable pad does not let your body breathe due to the plastic it is made of, creates an environment ripe for sweating which leads to infections and all sorts of other issues that may seem normal until after you switch to reusable products.

Can they really be clean enough?

Ok, this was the biggest question for me when I started looking at cloth pads.  For beginners, this is usually the first question that pops up. 

Our disposable pads are commonly referred to as “sanitary napkins” and many (like me) believe them to be sterile/sanitized (like hand sanitizer).  They come in plastic packaging and almost feel medical.  And because they are so bright white I often thought they were more sanitary then cloth.  If you are thinking the same thing I was right there with you. 

But here is the thing, those individually wrapped packages?  They are not sterile, they are certainly not sealed (think about how you get gauze from the hospital what does that package look like?). 

What I’m trying to get at here is that your cloth pads cleanlieness is related more to how you clean and store them than anything else.  And our disposable “sanitary napkins” may not be as clean as you think.  

If you want more information on this please check out Are Sanitary Pads “Sanitary”?

Don’t they feel bulky and uncomfortable?

Ummmm, no.  On one of the Facebook groups, I’m in for these types of pads we jokingly call them “fluffy pillows for your vagina” or pillows for short.  Mostly because they are so soft that it feels like you have a pillow under you.  But when you stand up it feels more like you are just wearing your underwear (at least for me).

I don’t tend to notice that I’m wearing my Mama Cloth unless I stand up and get a gusher… then I have to think about if I’m wearing one or not.  The first time you put one in it will feel a bit different than your regular disposable.  But that’s a good thing, it will be soft and slightly cushy. 

I still recommend wearing one around the house a couple of times before your first cycle, that way you know what it feels like (or if you will even notice it). 

How Many do I really need?

This answer is going to vary from person to person.  I would ask you how many pads do you currently use in a day?  And how many days do you want to go between washes?   

I’ve personally found that over time I’ve needed less and less cloth pads in the same time frame (believe it or not your flow may change when you switch to cloth).  But when first starting out on average you will need the same number of cloth pads per day as you use disposable.

For example, if you use 5 pads a day now, and want to wash every 3 days or so then you need around 15 cloth pads.  

Do they really hold as much as the disposables?

Yes and no, what I’ve found is that I change them out just as often as I did with disposables.  However, the “gush” that happens when you stand up?  yeah, a lighter cloth pad will handle that faster/better than disposables ever did.

Also as mentioned above your flow could change over time after making the switch meaning you won’t need them to hold as much anyway.

Though exact volume retained cloth vs disposables will depend on the variety and make you purchase (for both disposables and cloth).  Some businesses add extra layers of absorbancy then others.  And there is no really solid way to know exactly how much a pad will hold until you try it.

Do I need anything else to get started?

Not really no, there are some tools that can make your experience more comfortable but you don’t need them for this to work. 

For instance, a wet bag is a great idea for when you are out of the house and need to change your pad, especially if you get a 2 pocket one as I use.  Clean pad in one spot & dirty pad in the other makes life easier/simpler.  But you could just as easily use a baggie or wrap the pad up with its wings keeping it closed.

How do they smell?

I’ve never noticed a smell from my pads.  And certianly nothing like the smell I used to get from disposables every time I went to the washroom.  

There are so many pretty prints, will they stain?

Honestly, they might, but some fabrics stain less than others and how you take care of them will play into this.  You can use things like a stain stick, or like I do soak them in cold water before washing to reduce the risk. 

some pretty cloth pads with a cotton top, some of the patterns can be really gorgeous!

How hard are they to clean?

It’s easier then you think.  Now I’m not terribly squeamish, but I know there are those of you out there who can’t handle the idea of touching blood.  It’s important to note I’ve never touched the blood on my pads, not even on my crazy heavy days.  

How do you clean them?

Let me count the ways… no seriously there are a bunch of ways you could do this. Like:
– rinse & place in wet bag right after use
– toss in bucket to soak with oxy clean (changing the water daily)
– rinse & treat with stain stick right away then soak on laundry day
– or toss in a wet bag & soak on laundry day <—- this is my preferred choice though I use a bucket at home so I just add cold water an hour before washing. 

Do cloth pads leak?

They can, but it’s dependant on how heavy your flow vs the pads absorbency.  I find that if I stick to the heavy pads in the Night/postpartum cut from Tree Hugger Cloth Pads I don’t tend to leak.  But if you are changing them out based on your flow you should be more then fine. 

Also if you feel you need more protection you can layer up some of makes, for instance during my postpartum recovery I plan to use a “Heavy” pad under my PostPartum/Night pads to make sure I’m not overflowing the capacity.

This can also be affected by where you bleed. Prior to using Mamma Cloth I was not aware of this so it may sound a tad strange at first. But have you noticed that you bleed more on the front or to one side of your pads? This is “directional bleeding” and with cloth pads you can get these handy things called Leaves that let you direct the flow to the centre of the pad instead of where you would normally find you bleed off the side etc.

Leaves have CHANGED MY LIFE and mean I haven’t bled off a pad since using them.

How does it work when you are out of the house?

The ladies who got me started suggested using a wet bag, which has a waterproof lining and can be 1 or 2 pockets which help to keep your stash clean and the soiled ones contained.  When changing your pad you just fold & snap the used one up and pop it in the wet bag, and grab a clean pad to replace it (just like with disposables)

I typically set up my purse with a 1 pocket wetbag & just put my clean pads in the purse beside it. 

Can I throw them in with the rest of my laundry?

If you want to sure, I do.  Some women prefer to keep them separate from the rest.  However, the way you wash them is entirely up to your personal preferences.  Just be mindful of the heat settings on your washer and dryer.  Generally speaking, cloth pads should not be treated with hot water. 

As most of our laundry is done in cold water though I tend to just toss them in with the rest.  I also to a “pre-soak” an hour beforehand that uses cold water as well which helps prevent stains etc.  

You can air-dry or sun-dry your pads, but if you are just starting to build a stash this may not give you enough in rotation as they take a while to dry.

 Are they really less expensive?

There is an upfront cost to get started with cloth pads, normally between $8 and $15 per cloth pad.  But over the long term it ends up being a LOT less expensive as the pads will last for years and in some cases, I’ve heard of decades. 

Just be warned that a good number of women I know who have started with cloth pads also started collecting them for all the pretty prints etc.  If you go that route (I’m seriously heading there) then it can get expensive.

How should I pick which ones to start with?

Measure the pads you currently use.  Go ahead grab a ruler and a new pad you would normally use.  Make sure it’s fresh and one you would find comfortable with and measure the length and width.  If you have any pads that are uncomfortable or that you don’t like note the reason for that, are they too long? short? puffy?  This will give you a good idea of the size of pad you want for your cloth pads. 

Purchase a variety to start with. This ensures that you will get to try out multiple types, styles, and fits.  I personally recommend Tree Hugger Cloth Pads, you can find their online store here. I love their cotton topped night pads as they feel just like you are only wearing underwear.  But they also have bamboo and minky and offer a variety of sizes plus adding an extra snap for narrower underwear.

What absorbancy should I start with? I personally always lean towards the “heavy” pads.  There is just something in my brain that says I don’t have light days so stick to “heavy”.  But the fact of the matter is that as you get used to them you will be able to gauge what will work for your body and what won’t.  So start with the heavy, or get a variety of absorbancies to see which ones you like more. 

Final Thoughts on Cloth Pads for Beginners

I’m personally a huge fan of Mama Cloth/Cloth Pads, and getting started is easier than you likely think (and less gross I promise).  But the best way is to just dive right in, and get some samples.  You don’t even need to buy a full stash. 

When I started I bought two pads to see if I liked them.  I tried them on my next cycle and loved them!  All I did then was use the cloth, then wash while using disposables.  And when the cloth was ready to use again did so.  

I think it’s a good idea to add a pad a month if you can/want to.  And that way you can try a bunch of different ones as well.  However, if you are looking for a full stash right away I’d recommend starting with my favorites from Tree Hugger Cloth Pads, my current stash is primarily from them.

Mrs. B.’s Mama Cloth Stash in the bin they are stored in.