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What Is a Sanitary Napkin?

By S. Gonzales
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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A sanitary napkin is a feminine hygiene product that is used to absorb the flow of menstrual blood. It usually is fastened to a woman's undergarments underneath the vulva and touches her body so that it can be positioned to catch the flow of menstrual blood as it occurs. Disposable sanitary napkins are a very popular type of feminine hygiene product in the developed world, but reusable cloth sanitary napkins can also be used as alternatives to them.

When people use the term "sanitary napkin," they usually are referring to a disposable type of sanitary towel that is used once to absorb menstrual flow and then thrown away. These types of sanitary napkins can be purchased from stores and can be available in a wide array of styles. Usually, sanitary towels are marketed by thickness and absorbency potential, though length and added fragrances can also be factors that influence purchasing decisions as well.

When shopping for sanitary pads, women can have their choice of ultra-thin pads, regular pads and "maxi" pads, which are super absorbency pads. Regular pads are those that are designed to absorb an average menstrual flow, and maxi or super absorbency pads are better equipped to handle heavier flows. Ultra-thin pads can have regular to high absorbency potential, too, but the pads, as their name suggests, are designed to have thinner widths and be more comfortable for the wearer. In addition, panty liners can be marketed as a type of sanitary pad that can be used to absorb accidental, excess flow when the wearer is using a tampon, and overnight pads can be longer to help catch the flow associated with supine positions.

Though disposable sanitary napkins are cheap and convenient, their use can become detrimental to the environment and expensive over time. Women who do not dispose of their sanitary napkins properly, either by neglecting to place them in the proper receptacle or by flushing them, risk having their sanitary napkins end up in oceans or in other inappropriate places. Moreover, some chemicals used to make sanitary napkins are not biodegradable and can harm the environment. Flushing a sanitary napkin can also result in plumbing problems in a home or building.

A cloth sanitary napkin can be a viable alternative to a disposable sanitary napkin for women who want to save money and reduce their impact on the environment. Cloth menstrual pads have been in use longer than disposable sanitary napkins. Although they have waned in popularity since the emergence of disposable sanitary napkins, they remain an affordable and reusable feminine hygiene product option. Made out of hemp, cotton flannel or highly absorbent materials, they can be secured to an undergarment using buttons, ties or another type of fastener. Women who find disposable sanitary napkins uncomfortable or allergy-inducing can choose cloth sanitary napkins as their preferred menstrual product.

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