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Sanitary Pads are Toxic but do Eco-Friendly Menstrual Products Really Work?

Sanitary Pads are Toxic but do Eco-Friendly Menstrual Products Really Work?

There is high demand for alternative menstrual hygiene options, says Deep Bajaj, co-founder of 'Sirona', that specializes in creating women's hygiene products.

The biodegradable sanitary napkin is the buzzword in eco-feminist circles these days. It serves the twin purpose of providing a hygienic solution to a woman's menstrual needs while also being environment-friendly.

Climate-consciousness, thanks to social media and progressive media messaging (in part) and the work of countless activists such as 14-year-old Greta Thunberg, has matured over the years. This has led to increased demand for menstrual hygiene products that are bio-degradable.

There is high demand for alternative menstrual hygiene options, says Deep Bajaj, co-founder of Sirona, a company that specializes in creating women's hygiene products such as 'Pee Buddy'. The underlying idea was to confront women's hygiene issues at a variety of levels, Bajaj tells News18. The company recently started manufacturing unique, biodegradable sanitary napkins that are black in colour. Made out of biodegradable materials like straw bale, corn, sugarcane and cassava, the bright napkins are paraben-free. "Unlike plastic napkins, these will not irritate the users' skin and cause rashes," Bajaj says. The black colour is just to make the product more appealing to customers and also provide protection against easy stains.

Sirona is not the only brand to join the biodegradable menstrual hygiene market. In the past five years, growing focus on sanitation from a political as well as ecological standpoint meant a boom in entrepreneurs and activists investing in such ventures.

IIT Delhi graduate Harry Sehrawat who recently founded the women's hygiene and health start-up Sanfe, uses banana fiber to make re-usable, biodegradable pads, says that there is huge potential in the industry in terms of profit-making as well as its role as a social equalizer.

"Currently, about 70 per cent of the women who use sanitary pads use cloth pads. These are our target audience," Sehrawat tells News18. He says that increasing access to these biodegradable products in rural and semi-rural areas was the first step.

Pros and cons of eco-friendly alternatives

According to the latest National Family and Health Survey 4 data, 58 percent of women in the age group of 15-24 years in India use a hygienic method to deal with menstruation. As per a 2011 market research survey by AC Nielson, only 12 percent of India's women used sanitary napkins. Despite the low number, the implications in terms of menstrual waste management is crippling. These end up in landfills and ultimately in the hands of sanitation workers who face the risk of catching infections and other diseases from the exposure. Reusable and biodegradable pads offer a respite from this problem. But reusable pads come with their own issues.

“Biodegradable pads are of two types – one made of cloth and the other made of biodegradable materials such as bio-plastic or alternatives such as banana," says menstrual health activist Komal Ramdey. While cloth pads could be produced cheaply, the second type could be more costly. A pack of ten pieces of Carmesi biodegradable sanitary napkins costs Rs 239. A pack of 48 XL Active Ultra Healthy Hamesha costs Rs 336. A pack of non-biodegradable Whisper Ultra Soft napkins costs Rs 375. When prices are competitive, the choices and comforts offered by the non-biodegradable producers could be much more appealing to customers.

With reusable products, it is important to properly wash and dry the products and change the pads at regular intervals. According to Delhi-based gynaecologist Dr Saroj Tucker, a reusable cloth pad can only be worn for five-six hours before it needs to be changed. "Using the same cloth pad for too long could cause infections and lead to vaginal discharges and reproductive tract infections. If undetected, it can even lead to chronic illness," she said.

Menstruation and Stigma

With alternative menstrual hygiene products, the issue is more social than economic. Taboos surrounding menstruation make it hard for women, especially in rural or economically backward areas, to take proper care of them or even accept them. In Dr Tucker's experience, products like menstrual cups and even non-biodegradable ones such as tampons did not catch up much in India due to that fact that they had to be inserted into the vagina - a cultural roadblock for most Indian women.

Ramdey, who has worked on menstrual health awareness in Jharkhand's Shimdega district as well as in Gujarat stresses that the social stigma surrounding menstruation can be an impediment to proper use of such products. "Vast sections of women in rural India still do not have the privacy to wash and dry cloth pads," Ramdey tells News18.

Lack of education regarding menstrual health is one of the big underlying factors that contribute not just to the stigma but to ill-use of alternative menstrual hygiene products. Ramdey feels that lack of education across levels contributes a lot to the stigma as well as lack of awareness of biodegradable options.

It isn't just the women using menstrual products but also frontline health workers who are often unaware of the science behind menstruation and menstrual products.

The problem is that the biodegradable pad sector is still largely dominated and led by independent start-ups, rural or semi-rural entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations working for women’s reproductive health and sanitation and/or Menstrual health management. Unlike corporates, these manufacturers are small in terms of finances, funding and infrastructure. They lack manpower for production and R&D. In many cases, these initiatives include women from SHGs.  "The people who are part of such activities are not aware the real science and health concerns. These are people involved in production, packaging and dissemination."

Komal says that it was important thus to give state-sponsored training to these frontline health workers in order to reach the grassroots.