Conventional Wisdom: Tampons and Pads

by Staff

Take a stroll down the feminine hygiene aisle of your local supermarket or pharmacy and you will see row upon row of pads and tampons. The most commonly used menstrual products, pads and tampons come in a wide variety of absorbencies, styles, lengths and sometimes even colors. If you’re not already familiar with tampons or pads, perhaps it’s time you learned a bit more about the products you use every month to absorb your menstrual flow.

Many women prefer the use of tampons to pads because they find them to be much more comfortable and discrete than menstrual pads. Tampons are worn internally, held in place by your vaginal muscles, and absorb your menstrual blood before it leaves your body. Contrary to what some women may think, tampons do not block the flow of your period blood. Once the tampon has reached its absorbency capacity, it is possible for you to experience a leak.

Tampons themselves are usually made of cotton, some of which are completely organic (check the box), or a cotton/rayon blend. Most tampons have an applicator, made of either plastic or cardboard, although some brands don’t use an applicator. For these tampons, you use your finger to insert the tampon into your vagina. At the end of the tampon is a cotton string that hangs outside your body. To remove the tampon, you pull on the string to pull to the tampon out.

You can buy tampons in a variety of absorbencies, from light to super heavy. Since most women experience different levels of flow throughout their period, most tampon manufacturers now offer multi-packs that contain tampons of different absorbencies. Tampon applicators and wrappers must be thrown in the garbage as do some tampons. Check the instructions that come in your tampon box to find out how to properly dispose of your tampon. You should change your tampon every four to eight hours depending on how heavy your menstrual flow is. If you are experiencing a very heavy menstruation, it may be necessary to change your tampon more frequently.

Tampons and Toxins
One of the main concerns with using tampons is the risk of experiencing toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Because of this risk, tampons should never be left in for more than eight hours. You should also use the lowest absorbency necessary for your period as higher absorbency tampons have been found to increase the risk of TSS.

Since tampons are worn internally, many women are concerned about the chemicals used during the manufacturing process of tampons. In order to make sure the tampon fibers are clean, they do need to be bleached in order to ensure that they have been totally purified. Most tampon manufacturers use a chlorine-free bleaching process, commonly consisting of hydrogen peroxide or dilute sodium hypochlorite, to clean their tampon fibers. These bleaching processes are thought to be much safer than using bleach that contains chlorine.

The levels of dioxin in tampons are another source of worry for some women. Dioxins are a type of environmental pollutant and can cause problems when people come into contact with high levels of dioxins. However, in North America, tampons are regularly tested for dioxin levels and all are either at or below the detectable level. This means that the level of dioxins found in tampons is actually less than what is normally found in your body and therefore poses such a small hazard to your health that the risk is considered to be negligible.

For many years, a rumor has been swirling about that tampon manufacturers have been adding asbestos, a very dangerous and toxic chemical, to their tampons in order to cause women to bleed more and therefore buy more tampons. Absolutely no truth has been found in this rumor, though. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration regulates the making of tampons. This means that tampon manufacturers must follow the regulations imposed by the FDA on the materials and substances they use to make their tampons. It also means that the FDA regularly inspects the manufacturing practices of tampons. And so far, no asbestos has turned up. In Canada, Health Canada regulates the manufacturing of tampons and they too have not found any asbestos.

Pads go by many names: maxi pads, sanitary napkins, napkins, menstrual pads, rags. No matter what name you prefer, those pads that you normally find in your local pharmacy are all the same. They are made with an adhesive plastic back that sticks onto the crotch of your underwear. The over side of the pad (the side that sits against your body) is made up of absorbent wood cellulose fibers, similar to paper, and usually an additional top layer of perforated plastic that helps to keep you dry.

In the past, women didn’t have too much choice when it came to using a pad. There was one thickness, one type of absorbency and one length. Nowadays, women have the choice between thick, thin and ultra-thin pads; pads with or without wings (flaps that wrap around the sides of your underwear); regular length, long or extra long/overnight length; curved to fit your body better; and, finally, tapered at the end for thongs.

Similar to pads are panty liners. These are designed for those days when your menstrual flow is very light or when you experience spotting during your cycle. This pads are generally extremely thin and do not offer as much coverage as a regular menstrual pad. Again, though, there is a fair amount of variety in terms of style: with or without wings; regular length or long; tapered for thongs; scented or unscented; there are even some panty liners that come in different colors.

Pads usually need to be changed every four to six hours, although, if your flow is very heavy, you may need to change the pad more often. Since the pad is worn externally, there is no risk of TSS. However, you may notice a slight odor if you have not changed your pad for a while. This is due to your menstual blood being exposed to the air.

Reasons for Alternative Menstrual Products
While pads and tampons are convenient, they do have their drawbacks. Using tampons does increase your risk of TSS. Although pads do not have the same chemical concerns associated with them as tampons, many women are put off pads because of the amount of waste they produce. Since pads are not biodegradable, the only place for them to go is the landfill. Moreover, the long-term cost of using pads or tampons has lead an increasing number of women to seek out menstrual products that are more environmentally responsible and cost-effective. Some of these natural menstruation products include a menstrual cup and reusable menstrual pads.

Learn more about menstrual products, like tampons and pads, in our menstruation forum.


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