Remember that scene in She’s the Man where Amanda Bynes convinces Channing Tatum to stick a tampon up his nose to stop a nosebleed? Channing spots Amanda Bynes, dressed as a boy, rifling through her things to look for a tampon. He asks, “Why do you have tampons in your boot?” and Bynes quickly responds, “Uh… I get really bad nosebleeds…” Cut to later when Channing Tatum is lounging in bed with a tampon dangling from his nose.
While Channing Tatum might have been convinced of the benefits of tampons, there is actually a lot of shady practices in the feminine-hygiene product industry that have us asking a lot of questions. What are tampons made of? Are tampons doing weird things to our bodies? Is it normal to be uncomfortable with tampons? And most importantly, what are the alternatives?
Because discussion around periods is steeped in secrecy, these conversations are not often had in such a public manner. Openly discussing things like pads and tampons is a relatively new phenomenon, reflecting changing attitudes our society holds towards people who have periods. What’s interesting about tampons is that although they are largely touted as normal in most modern societies, the majority of the world still chooses pads. This is largely because in developing societies and in many cultures, the use of tampons is thought to be immoral. The reasoning behind this is problematic, and absolutely not a reason base a decision off of. What you should take into consideration is the environmental impact of disposable feminine hygiene products, as well as the potential consequences tampons, may have on your health. If you’re curious about the cons of tampon use versus the use of pads, read on. You might be surprised at what you’ll learn!
15 Improper Use Of Tampons Can Lead To Serious Infections
The 1980s and 90s were replete with horror stories in girls’ magazines about the dangers of Toxic Shock Syndrome. Toxic Shock Syndrome, a kind of Staph infection, can occur if a tampon is left inserted for too long, causing bacteria to grow. TSS is an infection of the circulatory system that can often be deadly. The uptick in diagnoses of TSS directly correlated with tampon use, and while the phenomenon is relatively rare, it is incredibly dangerous. The symptoms of TSS can resemble that of the flu, meaning doctors might misdiagnose the infection as something else with potentially life-threatening consequences. Model Lauren Wasser has documented her struggle with TSS on Instagram, which led to the removal of both of her legs. Despite this, she continues to work as a model while using her platform to raise awareness. Men are also able to contract TSS, according to Global News, because the infection can occur from burns, bug bites, and even following surgery. The majority of cases, however, occur in young women who use tampons. The relationship between the bacteria and tampon use isn’t totally understood – it doesn’t occur with every misuse of the product – but the data speaks for itself. To complicate matters further, because young women generally haven’t developed the antibodies necessary to fight the infection, the rate of occurrence is much higher in younger populations. If you choose to use tampons, make sure to follow the package instructions, and be aware of the symptoms of TSS.
14 Tampons Are Not Sustainable And Generate A Lot Of Waste
Some figures suggest that the average woman uses 11,000 tampons in her lifetime. An estimate by Rubycup, which manufactures reusable menstrual cups, suggests that 1 million tons of waste from disposable products end up in landfills and sewer systems, while around 170,000 plastic applicators wash up on American coastlines every year. While concessions can be made with tampon use, like buying tampons made of post-recycled material, without plastic applicators, and even made with organic cotton. When tampons end up in landfills, especially when wrapped in additional plastic and paper, they can take centuries to break down, thanks to the intense chemical processes by which tampons are processed. The Guardian, quoting Sophie Zivku, says, “The paper feminine hygiene industry has done a very good job of convincing women that their period is something [which] should be out of sight and out of mind, something they shouldn’t talk about.” Because of this, women are sort of forced to passively accept the necessity to use products that are environmentally damaging. For most of the 20thcentury, there were not many viable sustainable alternatives – sustainability wasn’t even part of the conversation!
13 Not A Lot Of Research Has Been Put Into Tampon Ingredients
Tampons, typically made of rayon – a synthetic material made from wood pulp can be subject to a myriad of chemical treatments before they hit store shelves. Chlorine gas can be used to whiten the fibers, creating dioxins. According to Slate, dioxins are toxic to the body as well as the environment. While this method has been largely phased out, tampons are still bleached. Slate says, “No one regulates the term ‘chlorine-free’ so that generic phrase can be used to describe [processes that still produce dioxins]”.The Guardian reports that in America, a lack of clear labeling on disposable products has “the potential for cumulative exposure to harmful chemicals.” American companies are not obliged to label the ingredients. Similarly, the research conducted into the chemicals used in tampons is insufficient. Profiled by Time in relation to her activism related to the research of feminine hygiene products, Democratic representative Carolyn Maloney said, “American women spend well over $2 billion per year on feminine hygiene products, and the average woman will use over 16,800 tampons and pads over the course of her lifetime. Despite this large investment and high usage, there has been limited research on the potential health risks these products may pose to women.” Maloney pushed for the approval of the Robin Danielson Act, named for a woman who died of TSS – remember, the link between tampon use and TSS is still unclear! Maloney hopes the passing of the bill would provide funding for research into the chemicals used in tampons, allowing us to reevaluate the impact that tampons have on the environment, but more importantly, our own bodies.
12 Some Evidence Suggests Tampons Make Cramping Worse
The reasoning is unclear, but many users of tampons report that their terrible cramping ceased once they began using alternatives to tampons. The internet is full of anecdotal accounts relating the use of tampons to cramping, but, as we already know, the research into the potentially harmful side effects of tampons is severely lacking. According to Huffpost, one of the purported reasons is that the conditions under which tampons are used might encourage bacterial growth, causing discomfort. The use of products that do not replicate the same environment, thus not allowing bacteria to grow, can decrease cramping. This isn’t to say that cramping can be eliminated entirely – the article only quotes one woman reporting hers became “less severe,” but it is absolutely something to be taken into consideration. The investigation by The Guardian into the tampon industry explains that because the FDA classifies feminine hygiene products as medical devices instead of personal care products, women can be duped into believing that tampons pose no health risk. While tampons are often touted as a more liberating alternative to pads, allowing for more freedom of movement, many women who use tampons might not even associate their cramping with tampon use because they think it’s totally normal.
11 Tampons May Actually Be Carcinogenic
According to a study by the University of La Plata, Argentina, reported by Huffpost, at least 85% of tampons contain glyphosate – an ingredient the World Health Organization has ruled as a carcinogen. Glyphosate was also found on sterile, medical grade cotton, which itself is often genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, according to RT.com. Glyphosate is not removed from the cotton during processing. What’s the big deal? A carcinogen is any substance that is capable of causing cancer, and we are exposed to a plethora of them on a daily basis. Carcinogens are present in cigarette smoke, plastics, even burnt food. While there is very little we can do on a personal level to limit our exposure to environmental carcinogens (unless you’re willing to live in an untainted Amazonian rainforest, otherwise, good luck!), we do have control over the known carcinogens we put in our bodies. As we’ve already discussed, the research into the chemicals that go into tampons is lacking severely, which makes the La Plata study invaluable. Huffpost notes that while one way to work around this is by purchasing organic and environmentally friendly tampons, alternatives are often very expensive and not accessible to all women. While researchers hope that the data might influence governments to push for legislation to investigate further the properties of tampons, there is still a very long way to go.
10 Tampons Can Make Odor Worse
Despite following package instructions to the letter, many women report that tampon use is directly correlated with an unpleasant odor. There are many reasons as to why this is, but the odor of your period largely has to do with how long the blood remained in the uterus before leaving. Sometimes, a heavy flow means an overgrowth of bacteria, according to Refinery 29, which relates a heavy flow with a high chance of odor. A change in odor can signal changes in your health, while a change in flow can be anything from normal hormonal changes to an infection. As for tampons? While tampons should be changed every four-to-eight hours at the absolute most, factors like sweating and inactivity (despite the apparent contradiction) can cause an odor to fester. Basically, the longer it sits there, the more likely there will be an odor. If you’re predisposed to having a heavier flow, there’s a higher chance that bacteria might overgrow. Similarly, wearing fabrics that are not breathable, like cotton, can also promote odor. None of this is to say, however, that every tampon user automatically smells bad. It just means that when certain factors come together, odor probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you’re self-conscious about odor, products like the Diva Cup, which is made from silicone, create a vacuum seal that inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria, according to Huffpost. It can’t hurt to investigate alternatives, especially if you’ve never considered that menstrual discomfort might actually have more to do with the products you’re using than your actual body.
9 The Average Woman Spends Thousands Of Dollars On Tampons During Her Lifetime
Have you ever heard of the tampon tax? In the majority of American states, tampons are subject to sales tax. According to the Washington Post, while necessities like groceries, prescriptions, and prosthetics are exempt from the sales tax, tampons are classified as a luxury. Ironic, considering the FDA classifies tampons as medical devices! The write-up by the Washington post estimates that women in California pay, on average, $7 per month on the tampon tax alone. “Statewide, it adds up to over $20 million annually in taxes.” The Huffington Post published an estimate into how much money women spend on average on their periods over a lifetime, suggesting that the average woman spends around 2,280 days of her life on her period. They write, “1 tampon every 6 hours = 4 tampons per day x 5 days of a period = 20 tampons per cycle x 456 periods = 9,120 tampons. At 36 tampons per box, that's 253.3 boxes x $7 = $1,773.33.” Of course, this all depends on region and whether or not this region taxes tampons. A similar breakdown by Chatelaine estimates that Canadian women spend upwards of $2500 during their life on tampons alone, and that’s only those who can afford it. “Homeless women, women on welfare, and other low-income groups [experience] serious problems with access to feminine hygiene products.” What is the alternative? The evidence suggests reusable and sustainable products, like cloth pads or menstrual cups. There are many ways that sustainable feminine hygiene products can save you money while reducing your carbon footprint, odor, cramping, and your chance of infection. All it takes is a bit of research.
8 Pads Can Protect Better Against Embarrassing Accidents
If discretion is your game, pads might be your best bet when it comes to protecting against leaks and stains. Pads come in an array of shapes. Some with wings that wrap around undergarments for extra security. Some are much thinner and low-key. A key difference between pads and tampons is that pads tend to cover a lot more ground and are more absorbent. While tampons might be preferable for somebody with a high activity level, pads are perfectly fine options for somebody a little more stationary. The technology behind modern sanitary napkins is amazing. For thousands of years, women typically used old pieces of cloth to manage their periods. The first disposable pads were made from wool (yikes) or cotton and often came with a belt. Disposable pads are currently made from absorbent materials like rayon and cotton, as well as a polymer that turns into a gel. Unlike their Victorian counterparts, they tend to be discreet enough to not come with belts. A writer at Bustlejoked, “the absorbent power of our current pads is such that they could probably blot an entire inkwell.” The author goes on to say, “For that reason, and because they often cover so much of the underwear they're stuck on, you're likely to avoid staining.” She does concede, however, that while pads are more absorbent than tampons, they typically do require some adjusting with movement.
7 Sanitary Pads Can Actually Boost Third-World Economies
For many women living in developing countries, access to sanitary napkins is only a dream. Many cultures attach a large stigma to visible blood, and women who can’t access pads will often use dirty clothes, newspaper, and even mud to avoid staining. These don’t work very well and can often lead to infection. Because of this stigma, many women will not go to work or school during their periods, preventing them from being able to profit from an education and gain experience. This relegates them to the domestic sphere and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. When Arunachalam Muruganantham from Coimbatore, India, was confronted with the fact that his wife avoided buying pads because they were too expensive, he decided to make his own. As profiled by The Atlantic, Muruganantham’s company addresses a market need in developing countries that are not met by imported pads. “The napkins produced,” says The Atlantic, “are comparable in quality to imported pads, and at one third the cost. The company also sponsors start-ups that employ women to produce sanitary napkins for their own communities. With more girls in developing countries in school than ever before, the continuing need for pads is evident. The Atlantic writes “This rising generation of schoolgirls accustomed to disposable napkins is poised to become a loyal customer base. It’s hard to imagine them reverting to rags, especially since their educations and delayed marriages will raise their standard of living.” Even domestically, women’s shelters are always looking for donations of feminine hygiene products. If you’re looking to help out locally, consider making a donation.
6 Some Women Have Health Issues That Makes Using Tampons Inadvisable
Many women suffer from ailments that heavily affect how they experience their periods. As mentioned before, changes in menstruation can often be an indicator of health and wellness. For women who suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, tampons are often totally out of the question. For some sufferers, it’s possible to continue using them, but for many, it might not be a good idea. The use of tampons can be incredibly painful. Other people suggest a link between the chemicals in tampons – remember dioxin? – and the worsening of PCOS symptoms. Similarly, the chemicals in tampons might also exacerbate symptoms of endometriosis, although the evidence on that front is still emerging. In an op-ed for Cosmopolitan, a sufferer of PCOS writes, “wearing a pad makes me feel more protected while I'm on my period.” Especially around the time of her diagnosis, while her symptoms were severe and she was still learning to manage them, she says, “I felt like I could really rely on pads because they came through for me in my time of need.” The author recounts an experience in which she was deceived by the potential absorbency of tampons, not realizing her condition would make it incredibly difficult to avoid any embarrassing accidents. Pads are not, she writes, “like wearing a diaper, as some die-hard tampon users might describe it. Pads have come a long way, and if you have the right pad for your body, it will stay in place and you will forget about it.”
5 Pads Can Be Greener
Before the infamous Divacup, there were reusable cloth pads. First becoming popular in the 1970s, they have been a mainstay for people who take a green approach to ethical consumption. For those who don’t enjoy the feeling of a menstrual cup – and there are many who don’t! – a reusable cloth pad might be the best choice both for health and the environment. Greenchild Magazine estimates that the average woman tosses around 12,000 disposable feminine hygiene products in her lifetime. With The Guardian pointing out that it takes centuries for pads to decay in landfills, those who wish to make the switch would be reducing their carbon footprint by a lot. Greenchildlauds the non-irritating composition of most reusable pads, which don’t contain plastic, fragrance, and adhesive. For women who don’t trust the chemicals present in disposable pads, a cloth or reusable pad would provide the comfort of knowing exactly what the product contains. Cloth pads can be washed, reused, and repaired. Cloth pads are affordable do not need to be frequently replaced. Because they’re cloth, many users report that they are far more comfortable than disposable alternatives. They write, “cloth pads won’t bunch or twist like adhesive pads can, and most pads have an absorbent core to keep you leak-free.” While it might seem kind of hippie-dippie at first, cloth pads are a healthful, environmentally friendly, and non-invasive alternative for people who are interested in their health and reducing waste.
4 Sustainable Pads Are More Cost Effective In The Long Run
In an op-ed for Cedar Rapids Moms Blog, Kallee Meskimen praises reusable pads for their cost-effectiveness over a lifetime of use. When it comes to the lifetime cost of disposable feminine hygiene products, Greenchildposes a figure of nearly $3000. If this is your first exposure to reusable products, Meskimen addresses the initial ick-factor many people experience. She writes, “Like me, your first reaction is probably, ‘that’s so gross!’ As a society, we’re conditioned from the time we understand menstruation to associate this natural, healthy, vitally important process as disgusting, shameful, and inconvenient.” Regarding wider social attitudes, she says, “Disposable feminine products continue promoting that mindset by allowing women to quickly, thoughtlessly flush or toss out any evidence of their monthly cycles.” In the same way that women are sort of passively forced to accept partaking in a market that is widely environmentally damaging (remember that statistic about how many tampon applicators wash up on American coastlines every year?), women are also made to feel ashamed about their periods and consume feminine hygiene products in a manner that reflects this. Instead of spending thousands, a single, one-time investment could save you money and help change attitudes towards periods. It’s no surprise that making a change that’s beneficial to your health is also beneficial to the environment and societal attitudes at large.
3 The Indie Pad Industry Means Supporting Sustainable Local Business
Did you know that reusable menstrual products are still largely produced by small businesses? While Kotex dominated the market for disposable feminine hygiene products, brands like Lunapads, Gladrags, Rubycup, and Diva Cup, are all relatively small businesses that emphasize sustainability. Etsy sellers also manufacture cloth pads and reusable products, often by hand, and often in their spare time. Another reason to buy reusable? Recognizing the need for sustainable products is largely a feat by women. Traditional disposable pads were originally manufactured by Kotex to make use of excess wood pulp, a by-product of the paper industry. In an article by The New York Times, the history of Kotex is explored in its relation with the general sense of shame and removal of women and periods from its advertising. Often depicting smiling, happy, dancing women, the ads do not depict the reality of having a period, which can often be uncomfortable. Elissa Stein, quoted in the New York Times, writes, “You never see a bathroom, you never see a woman using a product. They never show someone having cramps or her face breaking out or tearful — it’s always happy, playful, sporty women.” So why buy reusable products from local sellers? Because they’re probably women and they probably understand better than anyone the need to approach having a period realistically.
2 Some Evidence Suggests Pads Protect Better Against Odor
If you think this is counterintuitive, hold on for just a moment. While odor might be an issue if breathability is an issue, the idea that pads offer more protection from leaks also means they can protect you from odor. Of course, every person is different. Periods actually do not have much of an odor, according to Kotex. Odor occurs when bacteria are able to grow. It’s actually very similar to sweating. By itself, sweat is totally odorless, but when perspiration mixes with bacteria that live on the skin, BO abounds. In reality, the best way to combat odor is by changing your disposable products regularly. If your body can handle it, the chemicals present in disposable products tend to mask odor as well, although most sources would not recommend using fragrance in such a sensitive area. Some reusable or organic pads might contain activated charcoal, which is a natural by-product of burning wood. Activated charcoal masks odor, but is also thought to have health benefits unrelated to periods, like teeth whitening or detoxification. Indeed, activated charcoal is used in hospitals to treat poisoning. In the same way that many users of tampons report the feeling of discomfort and odor disappearing when they made the switch to reusable products, people with body chemistry sensitive to synthetic chemicals and fragrance might also find making the switch to greener alternatives to be beneficial.
1 Most Importantly: You Don't Need To Use Tampons If You're Not Comfortable
At the end of the day, if you don’t want to use tampons, you shouldn’t feel pressured to. Tampons are often touted as the “normal” option because they are discreet. In reality, a lot of people experience discomfort with tampons and never become used to the feeling. This is perfectly normal. Although there is some stigma attached to tampons that perpetuates myths about the female body, choosing not to use them does not mean you are perpetuating these myths yourself. You don’t really owe anybody an explanation, either. Seventeenprofiled 8 girls and women who preferred pads to tampons, and while their answers differed, many reported experiencing discomfort with tampons even into adulthood. One girl responded by saying, “honestly, tampons scare me, so I'll gladly pass.” No explanation needed. When it comes to how women deal with their bodies, it is important to be respectful of the choices they make. This means making informed decisions for yourself while letting other people figure themselves out on their own time. One girl wrote of her experience with tampons for the Seventeen article, saying “no one had ever taught me so I had no clue what I was doing. I remember it hurting so bad and being self-conscious.” Another girl wrote that she was “freaked out” by the idea of using tampons, and that’s perfectly okay.
What’s important to know is that no matter how you choose to experience your period, you have so many options and so much information at your fingertips. Ask questions, look for answers, and choose whatever is right for you.
References: globalnews.ca, theguardian.com, weedemandreap.com, time.com, cosmopolitan.com, huffingtonpost.com, huffingtonpost.ca, huffpost.com, bustle.com, theatlantic.com, cosmpolitan.com, greenchildmagazine, treehugger.com, seventeen.com, cedarrapids.com, The Washington Post, Chatelaine