A sanitary napkin, sanitary towel, feminine napkin, sanitary pad, menstrual pad, or pad is an absorbent item worn by women in their underwear when menstruating, bleeding after giving birth, recovering from gynecologic surgery, experiencing a miscarriage or abortion, or in any other situation where it is necessary to absorb a flow of blood from the vagina. A menstrual pad is a type of menstrual hygiene product that is worn externally, unlike tampons and menstrual cups, which are worn inside the vagina. Pads are generally changed by being stripped off the pants and panties, taking out the old pad, sticking the new one on the inside of the panties and pulling them back on. Pads are recommended to be changed every 3–4 hours to avoid certain bacteria that can fester in blood, this time also may differ depending on the kind worn, flow, and the time it is worn.
Menstrual pads are made from a range of materials, differing depending on style, country of origin, and brand. The pads are not the same as incontinence pads, which generally have higher absorbency and are worn by those who have urinary incontinence problems or experience stress incontinence. Although menstrual pads are not made for this use, some use them for this purpose.
Although producers are generally reluctant to reveal the exact composition of their products, the main materials are usually bleached rayon (cellulose made from wood pulp), cotton and plastics. In addition, fragrance and antibacterial agents can be included. The plastic parts are the backsheet and polymer powder as an additional powerful absorbent (superabsorbent polymers) that turns into a gel when moistened. Procter & Gamble advertise a proprietary material called infinicel as the core of their napkins. In general, the layering is as follows: "an absorbent core material placed between a flexible liquid-pervious topsheet and a liquid-impervious plastic backsheet that has an adhesive on the outside for attaching the napkin to an undergarment". As is the case with disposable tampons and diapers, recycling is difficult and rarely done due to cost reasons, although proof-of-principle solutions appear to exist. When not dumped in a landfill where the non-biodegradable parts may persist for thousands of years, conventional hygiene products can at best be "thermally recycled" (incinerated).
There are several different types of disposable menstrual pads:
- Panty liner: Designed to absorb daily vaginal discharge, light menstrual flow, "spotting", slight urinary incontinence, or as a backup for tampon or menstrual cup use.
- Ultra-thin: A very compact (thin) pad, which may be as absorbent as a Regular or Maxi/Super pad but with less bulk.
- Regular: A middle range absorbency pad.
- Maxi/Super: A larger absorbency pad, useful for the start of the menstrual cycle when menstruation is often heaviest.
- Overnight: A longer pad to allow for more protection while the wearer is lying down, with an absorbency suitable for overnight use.
- Maternity: These are usually slightly longer than a maxi/Super pad and are designed to be worn to absorb lochia (bleeding that occurs after childbirth) and also can absorb urine.
The shape, absorbency and lengths may vary depending on manufacturer, but usually range from the short slender panty liner to the larger and longer overnight. Long pads are offered for extra protection or for larger women whose undergarments might not be completely protected by regular length pads, and also for overnight use.
Other options are often offered in a manufacturer's line of pads, such as wings or tabs that wrap around the sides of underwear to add additional leak protection and help secure the pad in place. Deodorant is also added to some pads, which is designed to cover menstrual odor with a light fragrance. There are even panty liners specifically designed to be worn with a thong/G-string.
Some women use a washable or reusable cloth menstrual pad. These are made from a number of types of fabric—most often cotton flannel, bamboo, or hemp (which is highly absorbent and not as bulky as cotton). Most styles have wings that secure around the underpants, but some are just held in place (without wings) between the body and the underpants. Some (particularly the older styles) are available in belted styles. Cloth menstrual pads made a comeback around the 1970s, with their popularity increasing in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Reasons women choose to switch to cloth menstrual pads include comfort, savings over time, environmental impact and health reasons.
Washable menstrual pads do not need to be disposed of after use and therefore offer a more economical alternative. Reusable menstrual pads can be found on a number of websites, or are made at home (instructions are available online). They have become a popular alternative because they are allergen- and perfume-free, and can be more comfortable for women who suffer from irritation from using disposable pads.
There are many styles of cloth menstrual pads available today, ranging from panty liners to overnight pads. Popular styles of cloth menstrual pads include all-in-one, or AIO pads, in which the absorbent layer is sewn inside the pad, "inserts on top" style pads, which have absorbent layers that can be secured on top of the pad as needed, envelope or pocket style pads, which have absorbent layers that can be inserted inside the pad as needed, and a foldable style, in which the pad folds around the absorbent layers. Cloth menstrual pads can also have a waterproof lining, which provides more leak protection but may also be less breathable than those with no lining.
Menstrual pads are worn by women to absorb menstrual discharge thereby protect clothing and furnishings. They are usually individually wrapped so they are easier and more discreet to carry in a purse or bag. This wrapper may be used to wrap the soiled pads before disposing of them in appropriate receptacles. Some women prefer to wrap the pads with toilet paper instead of (or as well as) using the wrapper, which, often being made of slick plastic with a small tape tab, may not adequately stick. Menstrual pads of any type should not be flushed down the toilet as they can cause blockages. In developed countries, public toilets almost always include a receptacle in which to place soiled pads. In first aid, they make excellent dressings for heavy bleeding due to their high absorbency if gauze is unavailable or inadequate.
Many women who experience urinary incontinence use menstrual pads to manage bladder leaks. However, since menstrual pads are designed to absorb menstrual flow, they are not as effective in absorbing urinary leaks; incontinence pads are designed for this purpose.
If a woman does not have sanitary napkins on hand while menstruating, she might use toilet paper as a temporary substitution.
Through the ages women have used different forms of menstrual protection. Menstrual pads have been mentioned as early as the 10th century, in the Suda, where Hypatia, who lived in the 4th century AD, was said to have thrown one of her used menstrual rags at an admirer in an attempt to discourage him. Before commercially available menstrual hygiene products, most women used pieces of cloth to absorb their menstrual flow. "On the rag" is a term that originally referred to menstrual rags, but its modern usage is as a menstrual euphemism.
Until disposable sanitary pads were created, cloth or reusable pads were widely used to collect menstrual blood. Women often used a variety of home-made menstrual pads which they crafted from various fabrics, or other absorbent materials, to collect menstrual blood. Even after disposable pads were commercially available, for several years they were too expensive for many women to afford. When they could be afforded, women were allowed to place money in a box so that they would not have to speak to the clerk and take a box of Kotex pads from the counter themselves. It took several years for disposable menstrual pads to become commonplace. However, they are now used nearly exclusively in most of the industrialized world.
The first of the disposable pads were generally in the form of a cotton wool or similar fibrous rectangle covered with an absorbent liner. The liner ends were extended front and back so as to fit through loops in a special girdle or belt worn beneath undergarments. This design was notorious for slipping either forward or back of the intended position.
Disposable menstrual pads grew from a Benjamin Franklin invention created to help stop wounded soldiers from bleeding, but appear to have been first commercially available from around 1888 with Thomas and William Southall's pad. The first commercially available American disposable napkins were Lister's Towels created by Johnson & Johnson in 1888. Disposable pads had their start with nurses using their wood pulp bandages to absorb their menstrual flow, creating a pad that was made from easily obtainable materials and inexpensive enough to throw away after use. Kotex's first advertisement for products made with this wood pulp (cellucotton) appeared in January 1921. Johnson & Johnson introduced Modess Sanitary Napkins in 1926, researched by Lillian Gilbreth. Several of the first disposable pad manufacturers were also manufacturers of bandages, which could give an indication of what these products were like.
In 1956 Mary Kenner obtained a patent for an adjustable sanitary belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket. However, the company that first showed interest in her invention rejected it after they discovered that she was African American.
Later an adhesive strip was placed on the bottom of sanitary pads for attachment to the crotch of the panties, and this became a favoured method with women. The belted sanitary napkin quickly disappeared during the early 1980s.
The ergonomic design and materials used to make pads also changed through the 1980s to today. With earlier materials not being as absorbent and effective, and early pads being up to two centimetres thick, leaks were a major problem. Some variations introduced were quilting of the lining, adding "wings" and reducing the thickness of the pad by utilising products such as sphagnum and polyacrylate superabsorbent gels derived from petroleum. The materials used to manufacture most pads are derived from the petroleum industry and forestry. The absorbent core, made from chlorine bleached wood pulp, could be reduced to make slimmer products with the addition of polyacrylate gels which sucks up the liquid quickly and holds it in a suspension under pressure. The remaining materials are mostly derived from the petroleum industry, the cover stock used is polypropylene non woven, with the leakproof barrier made from polyethylene film.
Society and culture
Napkins, especially reusable ones, may be visible on full body scanners.
In India, Goonj through its 'Not Just a Piece of Cloth' initiative has distributed more than 4 million cloth pads across India and organized thousands of awareness meetings among the least developed communities all across the country.
An NGO, Our Youth Social Community based in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh is planning to distribute 3.5 lakhs of biodegradable sanitary napkins to rural women in India at a cost of Rs 1. It is totally organized by a team of 18 – 28 years old men and women who are highly enthusiastic in helping others.
In developing countries, makeshift pads are still used to collect menstrual blood as they are cheaper. Rags, soil, and mud are also reportedly used for collecting menstrual flow by people who cannot afford the more expensive disposable pads or tampons.
In order to meet the need for achieving an inexpensive solution to reduce unsanitary and unhygienic practices in countries like India, Arunachalam Muruganantham from rural Coimbatore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, developed and patented a machine which could manufacture low-cost sanitary pads for less than a third of the former cost. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Nairobi-based ZanaAfrica a grant of US$3 million. ZanaAfrica explores creative approaches to menstrual health education for adolescent girls.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi government is planning to launch a ₹12,000 crore scheme to ensure access to sanitary napkins across India, pegged on its popular ₹1/pad under Suvidha brand. The pads are oxo-biodegradable, which means they break down into “tiny pieces in the presence of oxygen and may then slowly biodegrade”. The original cost of production of each pad is estimated at Rs 2.50.
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Hartmann's ad for "Towelettes" for women