The use of disposable intimate hygiene items has been extending for decades now, and in some countries they are now used by an overwhelming majority. As shown in the following tabs, the price paid by the planet for the generalised use of disposable hygiene items is so high that it is clearly advisable to opt for reusable items.

The function of corporal hygiene items (for babies, for menstruation and for incontinence) is to contain whatever involuntarily escapes from the body so we do not dirty either ourselves or the environment and microbes do not proliferate out of control. A baby or a person with incontinence cannot regulate the quantity of urine they generate, nor can a woman regulate the amount of blood when she has her period but, in order to reduce consumption as much as possible, we can try to reduce the need for these items.

How can we go about it:

  • The sooner babies learn to control their sphincters, the sooner they will stop using nappies. In general, babies who never feel wet learn tocontrol their sphincters later, because they never feel the need to change anything. That is why, in general, cloth nappies (reusable, see below) are used for less time, particularly if they do not have a polyester layer in contact with the skin (because if there is one, it always stays dry).
  • Habits and practices helping to prevent or cure incontinence: reduce stress, maintain a balanced diet so that the intestine works properly, do not hold on to pee too long, do not drink liquids shortly before going to bed, do pelvic floor exercises (they can be learned at physiotherapy centres).
  • With a little sewing skill, cloth nappies, sanitary towels and panty pads can easily be made from material we may (or may not) have at home. Some websites that explain how, in English, include: Sew Your Own Diapers, Women Environmental Network, Downsizer.net
  • Babies usually pee a while after breastfeeding or drinking water. Change their nappies when they have done it.
  • If we buy well-made products of good quality material they will take longer to wear out or tear, and they will also last longer if we look after them properly.

In many countries the use of disposable items to collect incontinence is standard. Using reusable items is still a reality in some areas of some countries, and it is an environmentally very promising new practice in others. Both options have pros and cons, depending on which parameter we look at. Over the different tabs we will see that reusable versions are the best option according to the most important parameters for informed consumption, which is why we advise using reusable items.

How can we go about it:

  • There are three main types of nappies for babies. It is a good idea to know about the different types and to try more than one.
  • We should ask users who no longer need nappies for some to try; in general, anyone who uses them likes giving them to other people.
  • Here we have considerations for helping us calculate how many nappies we will need.
  • If it is going to be our first experience with a baby, we can introduce cloth nappies gradually, as we get to know what it is like to live with a small child, so everything does not become too much for us.
  • When we have to be away from home for a few days without a washing machine, it will be more convenient to use disposable nappies.
  • Here are some brands of reusable items, including nappies and products for women’s periods.
  • Reusable items are not often found in shops yet. Here is some help for finding out how to buy them.

The most common raw materials in items for incontinence are cotton (in cloth nappies and sanitary towels), cellulose (disposable nappies and sanitary towels), rayon (tampons) and SAP (superabsorbent polymer, in disposable nappies and sanitary towels). Obtaining all these natural resources has a price for the planet. We should look for the options that seek to minimise this price.

How can we go about it:

  • Items that can last us for years must have a smaller environmental impact than those we can only use once. We need to maintain them properly, however (see the At home tab).
  • There are cloth nappies and sanitary towels of organic cotton (not genetically modified and grown without pesticides) and raw cotton, made without refining or bleaching; raw cotton cannot be dyed. Some brands that have organic cotton nappies: Babykicks, Bumgenius, Popolini, Bummies.
  • Menstrual cups have an insignificant environmental and social impact. Sponges are beginning to be cultivated to meet a world demand that exceeds supply. We would therefore recommend the cup ahead of sponges for prevention purposes.
  • There are disposable nappies with features that make them more “green”: without SAP (superabsorbent), with unbleached cellulose, with the outer layer derived from maize starch, with the absorbent core separate from the plastic pants (which can be reused)… Here is a description of some brands of nappy which have some of these features (Tushies, Seventh Generation, etc.). We will also come across complaints about nappies that promote themselves with deceptive claims, for example there are some that say they are compostable even though they contain SAP, despite doubts over whether it is compostable.
  • There are also organically grown cotton tampons Natracare.

Disposable nappies and sanitary towels turn into a huge volume of waste. This waste cannot be recycled because it is made up of different materials. Although research is going on into how to separate the plastic parts from the organic ones, at the moment only very expensive and not very effective methods exist. Its final destination is, therefore, landfill or an incinerator and that has some disadvantages. Of all the waste that cannot be recycled, nappies and sanitary towels form the largest fraction, which is why special attention is being paid to them in waste management. This enormous waste generation is one of the biggest factors driving us to use and promote the use of items that can be used more than once.

How can we go about it:

  • We should not decide we cannot use reusable nappies or sanitary towels until we have tried them.
  • We should pressurise the local council to establish rules to promote reusable items and disincentivise disposable ones; here we can see some real experiences that might inspire us.
  • We should promote the use of cloth nappies in maternity units, nurseries, geriatric units, shops…

In any case, if we do use disposable items we can also pick up some habits to reduce the waste problem.

How can we go about it:

  • If when we go to change the nappy or sanitary towel it is still reasonably clean, let’s reuse it.
  • We should throw the poo not stuck to the nappy down the toilet and not in the rubbish bin.
  • We should throw tampons in the rubbish bin and not in the toilet so as not to block the drains or sewers and not hamper the action of the treatment plants. We should throw plastic applicators away with packaging and cardboard ones with paper.

When we no longer need cloth nappies or sanitary towels, we should also minimise the waste problem.

How can we go about it:

  • If they are in good condition, we should pass them on to someone we know or to second hand shops.
  • If they are damaged, we should separate the synthetic parts and throw them away in the packaging container. The rest can be treated like any waste cloth (use it as dish cloths, give it to recoverers… or as a last resort, thrown it in the refuse container).

Rumours go round about the effects nappies, sanitary towels and tampons can have on health. We should find out about the health problems associated with these items.

How can we go about it:

  • There are people who are allergic to cellulose nappies or sanitary towels. It is not known whether the allergy is caused by the cellulose, one of the synthetic fabrics or one of the chemical substances that may be in them.
  • In the ‘70s, a very clear correlation was detected between tampon absorption capacity and Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a very rare illness that can be fatal. Since then, tampons have been made less absorbent (they now do not put sap on them) and the manufacturers have agreed to give information about TSS on tampon leaflets (in the USA it is compulsory). They usually say that to prevent the risk of it being caused by tampons they should not be used, and they recommend that you should not use more absorbent tampons than you need.
  • Cellulose tampons, sanitary towels and nappies can contain traces of dioxins (a highly toxic family of substances) if the raw material has been bleached with chlorine.
  • The manufacturers state that hygiene products do not contain any harmful chemical substance but they have sometimes been found (for example, in 2000 Greenpeace detected tributilin, a biocide that is highly toxic for aquatic life and for people). Perfumes, which can be detected by their smell, can cause problems, particularly respiratory ones.
  • Research is now going on into whether too high a temperature inside nappies may have an impact on male infertility. It is recommended that children’s bottoms be left uncovered whenever possible.
  • The silicone used to manufacture most menstrual cups does not generate allergies and is not related to TSS. However, the latex from which some menstrual cups are made can generate allergies.

Cloth nappies and sanitary towels involve a use of resources during the years we use them. We should save energy and water when washing them.

How can we go about it:

  • We should throw the poo down the toilet and not in the rubbish bin. For younger children, whose poo is more liquid, we can use a liner (ask your supplier). Any stuck to the nappy can be rinsed off with some water and, if necessary, a brush (an old toothbrush, for example).
  • To keep dirty nappies until we wash them, some people soak them in cold water and vinegar (or borax or bicarbonate) and some keep them dry in a covered bucket…
  • Use a washing machine with good energy efficiency, which regulates the water flow depending on the load.
  • We should mix nappies with other clothes. If they have velcro, do it up so as not to damage the other clothes.
  • Softening the water will leave the material cleaner and softer and preserve the washing machine better.
  • We should try washing at different temperatures and choose the coldest possible one. As well as saving energy, the material will last longer.
  • We should not put more soap than necessary in the washing machine. We should use green or phosphate-free soaps. We should not use fabric softeners: they damage the material and reduce its absorption capacity. They can be replaced with borax or white vinegar. We should not use bleach.
  • We should dry the nappies by hanging them out (the dryer damages the fabric).
  • To remove stains, put wet soap on them and leave them in the sun, keeping the nappy damp for one or two days.
  • We should look at the instructions given to us by all nappy manufacturers.

Anyone who has used superabsorbent disposable nappies may not have changed a nappy for as long as eight hours. With cloth ones, we have to remember that they do not absorb so much. We should change nappies whenever necessary.

How can we go about it:

  • The average for changes is 10 a day in the first few weeks, 8 until 12-18 months and 6 until the end. Some children pee more than others; everyone has to find out what works for them.
  • At night, which is when we want the nappy to last longer, we can add sanitary towels or use specially absorbent nappies (some manufacturers have night-time models).
  • Children usually pee a while after breastfeeding or drinking liquids. We should wait until they have done it to change them.
  • If the child pees while we are out, we can put a clean sanitary towel between the nappy and the skin and change the whole nappy when we get home.