If you struggle with leaks or urgency in urinary incontinence, products like pads, devices and special underwear can make life easier. Buying these may feel emotionally challenging but they can be really useful while you’re waiting for a diagnosis or for a treatment plan to work.
Incontinence is a very common problem so it’s likely you have friends who use products to help this issue, too. You can buy incontinence products online if you want to, and there are lots to choose from - including newer washable pants that look and feel much closer to your usual underwear. So try different things to see what works for you.
Reusable incontinence underwear - for light leaks
If you prefer the idea of underwear that feels like normal pants, or you’re concerned about the environmental impact of disposable pads and pants, you can now buy reusable underwear with a built-in pad. These usually look like a standard pair of knickers so can be comfortable and discreet, and should last as long as normal underwear if you follow the washing instructions. They’re usually only suitable for fairly light leaks.
Incontinence pads - for light, moderate and heavy leaks
Small disposable pads work well for most women with light leakage. You can buy pads to deal with heavier leaking, too. So you might choose one absorbency for an exercise class and a different one to simply feel more confident at work, for example.
How do incontinence pads work?
They usually have three layers and work in a similar way to a baby’s nappy.
A top surface that allows urine to pass through it while keeping your skin dry.
A middle core, made from fluffed wood pulp fibres and sometimes containing a powder made from a polymer material. This is designed to be super-absorbent and lock urine into the centre of the pad even when there’s pressure on it, such as when you’re sitting down.
A waterproof backing, which may be ‘breathable’ to help protect your skin.
Disposable incontinence pants - light, moderate and heavier leaks
If you prefer the idea of wearing pants, you’re not alone. Research suggests many women choose incontinence pants over pads. They can be more convenient if you have an active lifestyle, although they do tend to be more expensive. Again, different levels of absorbency are available.
Do thinner incontinence pads and pants still really work?
Thin, discreet pads should work well for light to moderate leaks and the same goes for thinner pants. Remember - the technology means they can soak up urine very effectively and keep it locked away from skin. Make sure your pads fit well - wear close-fitting underwear so the pad is held securely against your body to prevent leaks.
Incontinence bed pads - back up plan for night time leaks
This isn’t an issue for most women with urinary incontinence but some women with overactive bladder may need protection against night-time leaks. If you need the reassurance, you can use incontinence bed pads along with pants or pads.
You can also add a good quality waterproof mattress protector under your sheet (the larger the better). Plus get fitted PVC covers to go under duvet covers, keeping your duvet clean. For extra protection overnight you can use disposable underpads beneath the sheets, too.
Avoid using period products for incontinence - here’s why
Many women use sanitary pads instead of incontinence pads because they're cheaper. But they don't have the same absorbent technology to quickly soak up a rapid flow of urine and lock it away, so can stay damp and irritate your skin.
Incontinence pads can to hold much more fluid than sanitary pads or towels. Many products also draw moisture away from the skin to help prevent smell, as well as protecting your skin against rashes and soreness.
Incontinence products while you’re having your period - what’s best?
It’s usually a question of finding out what suits you. Some women just use incontinence pads or pants to absorb everything.
If you tend to have heavy periods, you may want to add sanitary protection on heavier days. You can use a tampon or menstrual cup with your incontinence product. If you prefer to use a sanitary towel, you can position this inside your incontinence pad or pants.
Are tampons a safe way to stop bladder leaks?
Some women with stress incontinence use a super-sized tampon to put pressure on the neck of the bladder and prevent sudden leaks. The latest National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on urinary incontinence in women advises against using tampons routinely in this way, and it’s important to be aware tampon manufacturers don’t recommend it.
It’s possible to buy a tampon-like internal device designed especially for use in incontinence, and some women with light leaks find these helpful. But they can carry similar health risks as normal tampons, including a small risk of infection, if not used correctly so you need to follow the instructions.
Portable urinals for women - if you just can’t get to the loo
Female portable urinals can be helpful in urge incontinence at times you may not be able to get to the toilet, such as when you’re travelling. They’re easy to clean and reusable. But they can take a bit of getting used to so it’s a good idea to practise using them at home.
Female portable urinals fall into two broad categories - hand-held devices and body-supporting devices. Hand-held devices rest between the thighs and include dishes, jugs, bottles, two-piece small mouldings with drainage attached and one-piece small mouldings with a bag. Body-supporting devices sit under the thighs, and both have openings designed to make it easier for women to use them without spillage. There are various models available so shop around to find what works for you.
When to see a doctor
If you have light incontinence, self-care techniques and lifestyle changes combined with incontinence products can help to lessen or keep your symptoms under control. If there’s no change in your incontinence, it gets worse, or these products are not doing the job, see your doctor.
You should also seek support as soon as possible if your incontinence is already affecting your confidence and quality of life - don’t suffer in silence! It’s also important to see a doctor immediately if it’s started happening suddenly or you have other symptoms, including pain and burning when you pee.
If you’re worried about any of your symptoms, use our Smart Symptom Checker to give you more information. Your doctor can diagnose the type of urinary incontinence you have and can also rule out any health conditions that may be causing it.
Your health questions answered
Can I get incontinence products on the NHS?
Answered by: Healthily’s medical team
"You may be able to get incontinence products on the NHS, depending on your local clinical commissioning group (CCG) - to qualify for these you may need to be assessed by your doctor so ask them about what is available to you in your area. You can also buy many of them from your local pharmacist and supermarkets."