Not only are incontinence pads expensive, nothing says old like having to buy them instead of menstrual pads. Pads are not something you want to talk about in the first place, so when you spot the date next to the UPC, you’re not going to head to the pharmacy and ask if that’s an expiration date, are you?
Incontinence pads do expire. Manufacturers add expiration dates for two reasons. First, most pads consist of a combination of natural and human-made ingredients. Second, there is a risk of fungus or bacteria growing on incontinence pads since the packaging is not airtight.
If you don’t want to talk about incontinence, you’re not alone. Only 45% of women who suffer from incontinence ever seek treatment for it. In this post, you will learn why incontinence pads expire and whether it is safe to use pads past their expiration date.
What Is an Incontinence Pad Made From?
Incontinence pads consist of a combination of textiles and polymers. The textiles will be woven fabric, cotton, or wood by-products, while the polymers will be human-made products, including various kinds of plastics and other resins.
The polymers used in incontinence pads are designed for their ability to absorb liquids. Once water encounters these polymer crystals, they turn into a gel to absorb the urine. Because of their ability to absorb large quantities of fluids quickly, they are used in incontinence pads but not most menstrual pads.
What Are Superabsorbent Polymers?
One gram of a superabsorbent can absorb up to 500 grams of water, or 500 times its weight. Because of their ability to hold water, similar superabsorbent polymers are used in horticulture. They keep water from penetrating underground cables and make the artificial snow you see in movies.
The polymers used in incontinence products are also used in baby diapers and other hygiene products because of their ability to absorb liquids. In the mid-1980s, diapers constructed with superabsorbents weighed a third of those without it and could hold significantly more liquid. The polymers also hold the urine in the diaper, thereby protecting a baby’s skin from moisture.
Although many sanitary pads contain some superabsorber polymers, the amounts are not enough to absorb the urine’s rapid flow. Since menstrual flows are not as large and fast as urine leaks, manufacturers of menstrual pads add fewer superabsorbers. Even pads that claim to be suitable for leakage can only hold 2-3 ounces of liquid.
This short, fascinating video demonstrates superabsorbent polymers in action:
Why Do Incontinence Pads Expire?
The expiration date on incontinence pads is not merely a marketing gimmick. There are two reasons why they expire.
Polymers Break Down
Have you ever wondered why bottled water has an expiration date? Water doesn’t go bad, or does it? Well, yes and no.
Water that has been distilled shouldn’t go bad because harmful bacteria should have been killed in the distillation process. Tap water is considered safe to drink for six months. The concern is that the plastic will eventually begin to leach into the water.
In 1987, New Jersey mandated that bottled water sold in the state be labeled with an expiration date of two years. Because of that law, the industry decided that bottled water would have an expiration date.
Manufacturers of hygiene products decided to err on the side of caution and avoid the risk of possibly harmful chemicals, such as antimony and bisphenol A, breaking down and leeching into the pads.
Bacteria and Fungus
In the 1980s, the use of superabsorbents (SAPs) was banned in tampons. At the time, the culprit appeared to be the SAPs, which were being linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). However, researchers concluded that the SAPs were not the cause. Instead, it is now believed that the prolonged internal use of the SAP tampons allowed excessive bacteria to grow.
Most incontinence pads have added an expiration date to ensure that bacteria do not grow over time. Neither menstrual nor incontinence pads are sold in sealed, sterilized packaging. This means that over time, bacteria and mold can grow on them.
Why Not Use Menstrual Pads Instead?
Along with larger superabsorber quantities, incontinence pads contain several other features that are not present in menstrual pads.
- Odor control – Menstrual pads control or mask the odor with deodorants. Incontinence pads contain pH neutralizers that help prevent urine-related odors.
- Infection preventers – Incontinence pads often contain a gel to reduce skin infections. Long term exposure to urine can lead to skin infections and pressure sores. Generally speaking, menstrual pads do not have similar gels.
- Barriers – Incontinence pads have elastic along their edges to help them fit better. Cuffs, or standing barriers, are designed to reduce the risk of leakage.
- Indicator strip – Strips that indicate when the pad needs to be changed are often found in larger pads.
Because menstrual pads don’t do a good job of keeping the skin dry, they are not a good option for women with incontinence. Not only will the chance of leakage be greater, but a menstrual pad will be uncomfortable for anything except minor leaks.
How Are Incontinence Pads Made?
Pads typically have three layers.
- Backing – The outside of a pad is often made from a breathable plastic that allows air circulation for healthier skin.
- Core – The core is made from a combination of either cotton or wood fibers and SAPs.
- Top sheet – This thin sheet is designed to keep the skin dry.
Can I Still Use an Expired Incontinence Pad?
Bacteria and mold would be the more significant concern than the small chance that some plastic has leached into the pad. For that reason, to best answer that, you need to consider the pad’s storage conditions. If they were stored in areas with high humidity, the chances of bacteria are greater.
If the pad is discolored or smells off, then do not use it. Unfortunately, bacteria might be present but not visible. Although the risk is probably minimal of using expired pads until you get new ones, continuing to use them is not recommended. Saving a few dollars is not worth risking a urinary tract infection.
What to Look for in an Incontinence Pad
When purchasing incontinence pads, ask yourself these questions:
- Size – Although absorbency is essential, so is size. Pads too small will leak, and those too large will be uncomfortable.
- Skin sensitivity – Those with sensitive skin should look for hypoallergenic options, such as Elyte 100% pure cotton pads. The core of these pads is made from cotton, not wood fibers.
- Absorbency – Incontinence levels are measured by ounces. Up to 5 ounces is considered light, the medium is up to 10 ounces, and anything over that is considered heavy.
- Special mobility needs – People with lower mobility often are more successful with pads because pull-up pants are harder to get on and off.
Many incontinence pads have an expiration date, which is up to five years from the manufacturer date. Whether you use one depends on how old it is, whether it is discolored, and where it has been stored. Discolored ones should not be used.
Otherwise, it is up to you whether you want to use an expired pad. A menstrual pad might work in a pinch, especially if you only experience minor leakage.
However, they are not designed to hold enough liquid to be useful as incontinence pads and should not be long-term. Many online retailers will ship incontinence pads in packaging that does not reveal what is inside, so consider going online if you are embarrassed about purchasing them in a store.
- Use Revive: What is My Incontinence Pad Made of?
- Allanda: All About Incontinence
- MamaMia: Can Tampons and Pads Expire? We Investigate
- PubMed: Care Seeking and Treatment for Urinary Incontinence
- BASF: Superabsorbents
- Healthline: Does Water Expire?