First things first. I’m not here to bash the glorious invention of the tampon. In fact, I find that tampons are amazing, powerful pieces of equipment that can transform a messy menstrual cycle into a mere afterthought. They’re easy, disposable, and the ideal companion to a swim party.
Heck, sometimes they even smell of perfume. I used to imagine it was the scent of liberation—like the carefree girls who ran through flower fields for tampon and pad commercials. That was, unfortunately, until I got better intel.
The thing is, not all spirit sticks are created equal. Some brands can actually cause more issues than they solve. I spoke with two experts about our vaginal health and its relationship with tampons. Here’s what you should know before tossing them in your shopping cart each month.
It Makes Scents, But It Shouldn’t
When you’re sick of the strong odor of your very own blood, choosing fragrant tampons to mask that—erm, really natural—scent can be tempting. “It seems companies have convinced many women that they need their vagina to smell like a flower, and to do this, they must purchase their special product,” explains Sydney Ziverts, Health & Nutrition Investigator from ConsumerSafety.org. “Since the vagina is self-cleaning, many of these products are completely unnecessary, and can even cause harm down below.” This explains why, for years, I was hooked on this quick fragrant solution—and still really surprised at my propensity for yeast infections.
Scented products kill good bacteria that should be in the vagina, while giving the bad bacteria more potential to overgrow. Harsh fragrance materials and chemicals break down the protective barrier the vagina normally provides to keep itself clean and healthy, resulting in a fishy smell. Our vaginal mucosa, despite being durable, is still extremely sensitive to harsh materials, which can change the vagina's normal flora and increase the risk of infection.
According to Dr. LaKeisha Richardson, OB-GYN, the best solution is to go the fragrance-free organic route. I recommend checking out subscription products like ThisIsL.com and Lola.com. Or consider one of 2017's ethical period products. If these aren’t a fit for you, do check for tampons that are dye free, chemical free, bleach free, and most certainly fragrance free (sorry).
Stick with Basic Washing Methods
The scent-free style doesn’t just go for tampons; this rule applies to panty liners, “pH-balanced” feminine wipes, and washes, too. Instead, Ziverts recommends using a mild, unscented soap and warm water to clean your nether regions. “Many feminine washes market themselves as being pH balanced, but since your vagina can maintain the proper pH on its own, these feminine washes and wipes are unnecessary.”
Your Vagina Is Actually Crazy-Absorbent
Dr. Richardson explained to me that our lady parts absorb substances at an extremely fast rate. “The vagina has a mucosal membrane that is thin and can absorb chemicals or compounds very rapidly. The rate of absorption and breakdown depends on the composition of the compound.” So if a chemical is in a tampon, it will rapidly be absorbed by your vaginal mucous (faster than your stomach digests food!). In fact, physicians also utilize the vaginal mucosa when they want your body to absorb medications more rapidly. This is why some medications are prescribed in intra-vaginal form.
Using the Right Size Decreases Your Chance of TSS
To simplify your life, you might have found it easier to buy boxes of only the super-size or regular tampons and be done with it. After all, it never hurts to have some extra absorption, right? Wrong. Dr. Richardson says that finding the right size for that day’s flow is of paramount importance. “Women should always use the tampon absorbency for their menstrual flow, and change them frequently.”
Toxic Shock Syndrome is extremely rare. Still, TSS risk increases when women use super absorbent tampons. So use them only when it’s absolutely necessary—aka, the strength that means you’ll need to change them every three to four hours and never longer than six to eight hours.
Furthermore, Dr. Richardson counsels against using tampons when any kind of infection is present. While most tampons don't cause UTIs or infections, Dr. Richardson warns that “using a tampon when an infection is present can make the infection worse or increase a woman's risk of TSS.”
To say the vagina is a complex organ is a huge understatement. But thankfully, we have so many options to choose from. When in doubt, the simplest products are the best ones.