"That's gross... with all the blood & stuff!"
In the "olden days" women didn't use disposable pads, they used whatever they could find, which is where the term "rags" comes from (ie. "I'm having my rags") as they literally used pieces of old cloth to soak up menstrual blood... All women did, Queens, Peasants, women of high class, women of low class.. there was no other option. The only difference now is that disposable products are available, and women who choose to go cloth usually do so for environmental, economical or personal reasons - generally an informed choice to do so.
To be honest I thought it was gross when I first heard of it too.... then I started thinking about it, and changed my mind.
"but Civilised folk don't do that any more...it's unclean"
Do you carry a hanky? or use a tissue? Do you throw away any underpants that get a blood stain on them? I find it amazing how many people save their snot up in a little piece of cloth, put it in their pocket, re-use it over and over again, and then wash the rest of their clothes with it... and consider that perfectly fine, but washing a pad with blood on it is akin to the plague.
But yes, civilised folk do use them... all over the world! *gasp* imagine that! and no, its not "unclean". All hospital gowns, sheets etc. that get blood on them and are washed in a normal washing machine (albeit a large efficient one that gets very hot) and reused... and that's lots of people's blood.
Think about it logically.... once a month you loose a bit of blood....It comes from your body - just like if you've cut your leg shaving or something, and you'll do that month after month for year after year. Does it seem a bit silly to buy plasticy/papery things to collect that to throw away just so you don't have to wash a bit of blood off and be all icked out by it?
No, they aren't sterile, but then neither are disposable pads. Just because it's white and packed in plastic doesn't make it sterile. You can however boil some cloth pads, or soak them in sterilising solutions if you are so inclined - but then I hope you're also doing that with any underwear that's happened to get blood on it, because there really is no difference between underwear that's had blood on it and a cloth pad that's had blood on it... and if you've not died from some terrible disease from reusing your underpants, then chances are you'll be fine reusing a pad.
"ok... so are they better for the Environment and all that?"
I forget the statistics, but an enormous amount of rubbish in Landfill is made up of Sanitary pads and babies nappies/diapers. I think I heard that the average women goes through something like 6 shopping trolleys full of sanitary products over their lifetime. If you think of how many women you know, each having 6 trolley's worth of products - that's an awful lot of space that is taking up in a landfill. Cloth pads are reusable, so rather than throwing about 20-30 or more pads away each month, your supply of around 10 pads will last you around 5 years, perhaps up to about 10 years.
Added to that - what are disposable pads made of? - bleached paper pulp mostly, and plastic. They are made in huge factories that pump out pollution, freighted to distribution centres and then on to supermarkets. All for something that is worn for a few hours maybe and then thrown away - to sit in landfill for many many years to come. While yes, the textiles industry does also produce it's own fair share of pollution - at least it is producing a reusable product at the end (and you have the option of choosing pads made with organic cotton which has far less pollution and chemicals in it's creation)
"But washing it out each time... that's a fair bit of effort...."
Ok, yes... I am not going to lie.. there is more work involved than throwing your disposable pad in the bin - just like washing a china plate it more work than throwing a plastic plate in the bin....
Trust me, I'm one of the laziest people in the universe! and I manage it. We are only talking a commitment of, say 10 mins a month to rinse out your pads before you put them in the washing machine. Some people don't even do that and wash them as is..... and some people hand wash (which is more effort and I personally can't be bothered handwashing).. some women pop them on the shower floor with them and give them a bit of a stomp to rinse them off before putting them in the washing machine. You can wash them with any load of washing, so you don't have to wash them on their own. There is hardly any effort involved at all if you just save them all up to the end of your period and put them in the washing machine. At the very least the added "effort" is tossing them in a bucket of water beside the toilet and throwing the contents into a washing machine after a few days. See - easy!
When I was using disposables I'd wrap them into little mummified bundles (so nobody would know what they were - because nothing else gets wrapped in miles of toilet paper and put in the bin beside the loo now does it!) and put them in the bin - quite a time consuming process sometimes..... it's much quicker putting the used pad in the bucket of water. You would probably find that added up those seconds of mummifying each of your disposables, would take care of the time it takes to put the pads in a soaking bucket and dumping the cloth pads in the washing machine. So I don't think you'd find overall it makes that much difference time/effort wise... and you certainly won't use as much toilet paper each month! (You could further this by using cloth wipes to clean up, rather than toilet paper -but I don't want to scare you off just yet!)
"Won't they get stained and smelly?"
Obviously a white or light coloured pad is going to be more prone to staining than a darker coloured pad. Synthetics (eg microfleece, suedecloth) should not stain. So use a darker colour, dark red (well it's the obvious colour isn't it ;)) or a highly patterned fabric if you are concerned about staining... The way you wash your pads will also help prevent staining, or you can deal with staining if it happens.
As for smell...If you don't leave them lying around in a bucket of water too long, they shouldn't get smelly. A bucket of water with a few blood soaked pads in it is not going to be the most hygienic of places, so if you do leave them sitting in a bucket of water for a few days, they start to smell a little (just as a normal disposable pad does if you just left it sitting there). Rinsing them out before you leave them to soak will reduce this, as will putting some disinfectant in the water, as will simply not leaving pads soaking for days on end. Changing the water frequently helps stop them getting smelly. As with a disposable pad, if you wear it all day it can have an odour (though some women find its less of a problem with cloth) so change them as regularly as you would a disposable pad, rinse them out within a day and you'll have no smell. The washed pads should have no smell at all unless you've left them soaking around for too long - in which case you should be able to fix that by washing them well
"What about while I am out?"
I suggest you start off by wearing them around the house until you get comfortable with them, and using regular disposable pads while out.. Then as you become confident, you can start wearing them out. You can wear a disposable under a cloth pad while trying it out if you like. Depending on how you make them, or the ones you buy... the ones with wings can be folded up into a parcel and wrapped up to be taken home if you need to change while you are out. To do that - Fold the top and bottom ends down toward the middle (soiled side in) and wrapped the wings over and snap them closed to keep it together. I'd suggest taking a "ziplock" bag, or something specially made (Sometimes called a "wetbag") with you to put any soiled pads into. Even a PVC pencil case - something that isn't going to stain, smell or leak. Some people like one with 2 compartments so they can carry a clean and a soiled pad at the same time. Some pad styles have a waterproofed base with absorbent inserts that sit on top of this, and these make carrying pads around easier, as the inserts are usually smaller and you may be able to change just those, leaving the base on.
"How practical are they really?"
If you are used to wearing tampons or ultra thin pads, then you probably won't like these. They are more bulky than an ultra thin pad, but can be around the same thickness as a regular pad (Although you can make them however you like, but it's pointless if they aren't thick enough to work). Disposable pads have a layer of plastic on the underside to prevent any liquid seeping through - some cloth pads won't have this. You may not need waterproofing, depending on your flow, and how thick the pad is. If you are concerned (or have a heavy flow), you can buy waterproofed pads, or make a liner of waterproof material to sew onto the underside of the pad, or to slip between your pad and your underpants as extra protection. Depending on the type of pads you are used to, these might not seem as dry on top as the disposable pads you are used to. Many disposable pads on the market are designed to absorb the liquid leaving the surface (close to) dry. Your cloth pads will not be as dry as those, but they are softer against the skin.