The debate between tampons and sanitary pads has been raging on for decades now. With time, newer things have become available to manage your periods, including reusable cups, period-proof panties, washable pads, and many others. There are various myths also that are prevalent about both these methods of menstrual protection that must be looked at. Let’s take a look at the different pros and cons of both tampons and sanitary pads to try to determine which one is better.
Looking at Tampons
A tampon is a small, cylindrical bundle that is made up of cotton, rayon, or sometimes a blend of cotton and rayon. Tampons are inserted inside the vagina directly, where it absorbs menstrual blood even before the blood comes out of the vagina. The entire tampon is inserted inside the vagina, except for the small pull-string that helps you pull out the tampon.
Tampons can be inserted into the vagina with or without the use of an applicator. No tampon should be used more than once. It surprises many people to learn that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates tampons as they come under the sector of medical devices.1
The tampon is known for providing ‘invisible’ protection, and it is nearly unnoticeable. Furthermore, if inserted correctly, you are unlikely to even feel that it is there. This makes it one of the most comfortable products you can use when you have your periods. However, at the same time, it is essential to remember that you should not wear a tampon for more than eight hours.
Tampons are available in different sizes based on what type of flow you have. It is also possible to change your tampon absorbency according to your flow. From light to ultra, there are many types of tampons available to provide protection, even on the heavy flow days.
Pros and Cons of Using Tampons:
The tiny size of tampons is one of the biggest advantages of using them. They are small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, thus being making them convenient and discreet to carry around. Many women do not feel comfortable carrying menstrual products around openly, which is why using a tampon can prove to be beneficial for them.
Some of the other benefits of using tampons include:
- If inserted correctly, you won’t even be able to feel them.
- You don’t have to worry about the tampon being visible.
- You can swim with a tampon.
No ‘wet’ feeling – many women don’t like to pull down their underwear and see their uterine lining shedding. Some are also squeamish about blood and don’t want their menstrual blood to be present in the underwear for long periods. Using tampons prevents feeling the sensation of the blood sitting inside your underwear.
As convenient as tampons may be, there are certain drawbacks to wearing tampons as well. Perhaps the biggest drawback of tampons is the risk of having toxic shock syndrome (TTS). TTS is a life-threatening but rare complication that stems from certain types of bacterial infections. The condition is caused when a bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus enters the bloodstream and produces toxins that can be fatal to the body.2,3
Infection in TTS typically occurs when the bacteria enters the body through a cut, wound, or sore. However, experts are still not sure why tampon use sometimes causes TTS. It is believed that a tampon left inside the body for an extended amount of time starts attracting bacteria. Another theory is that the tampon fibers scratch and tear the vagina, thus creating an opening that allows bacteria to enter the bloodstream.4
TTS is primarily associated with the use of super-absorbent tampons. During the 1980s, though, manufacturers carried out several changes to their products, including one brand of super-absorbent tampons that were even withdrawn from the market.
As people have become more aware, the incidents of TTS has reduced, and currently, it is estimated that 0.8 to 3.4 per 100,000 people in the US are affected by this condition. The statistics also include non-menstrual cases.5
There are certain steps you can take to lower the risk of TTS. These include:
- Change your tampon every eight hours.
- Instead of super-absorbent tampons, opt for using the lowest absorbency tampons.
- Avoid wearing a single tampon throughout the night as this increases the risk of infection and irritation.
- Alternate between using tampons and pads, especially when your flow is light.
Here are some of the other drawbacks of using tampons:
- Many women find it uncomfortable to insert a tampon, especially if you are trying to insert it for the first time.
- Tampons can make a significant dent in your budget.
- Finding the correct type and size of tampon for your flow will take some time and a lot of trial and error. Be prepared for accidents.
- They can irritate the inside of your vagina and also dry out the vagina, making it uncomfortable and itchy.
- Tampons are known for having a huge environmental impact. Every year, millions of tampons and their packaging fill up the landfills in the US.6
Being nearly invisible, it is also possible to completely forget about having a tampon inside of you. The highly discreet nature of tampons makes it easy to lose track of time they have been inside the body. This can cause accidental leakage and also increase the risk of TTS.
Looking at Sanitary Pads
Sanitary pads, also known as a menstrual pad or sanitary napkin, is a thin pad made from absorbent material that absorbs the menstrual blood when you have your period.7 They stick to the inside of your underwear and are usually of the disposable kind. These disposable pads are meant for single use only. However, there are reusable sanitary pads also available these days. These are made from cloth that can be washed, dried, and reused again.8
Sanitary pads are available in different shapes and sizes, and with different capacity that helps absorb both light and heavy menstrual bleeding. Finding the right sanitary pad for your flow also involves a bit of trial and error.
While over the years, sanitary pads have become much sleeker and varied in design, but there are still horror stories you get to hear about every now and then.
Pros and Cons Of Using Sanitary Pads:
Women who have heavier periods prefer to wear sanitary pads over tampons. Pads are also ideal when you just begin your menstrual cycle, and if you have a hard time inserting the tampons.
Other advantages of using sanitary pads include:
- There is almost no risk of TTS associated with wearing sanitary pads.’
- Sanitary pads are much cheaper than tampons.
- They are available in various options to accommodate your activity level as well as flow.
- You can easily wear them overnight.
- There is no need to insert anything in the vagina, thus no irritation and dryness of the vagina.
However, similar to tampons, there are many disadvantages to wearing a sanitary pad as well. Even though over the years, pads have become thinner and thinner, they are still sometimes visible under certain clothes. While, of course, there is nothing to hide, and it is a normal bodily process, but many women still feel self-conscious throughout the day if their pad is visible.
Other drawbacks of sanitary pads include:
- A major drawback is that you cannot swim in them.
- They also tend to shift out of place and start to wrinkle up or bunch up in the center when you are moving or running.
- Sanitary pads are also not very discrete, and they make a very obvious sound when you pull them off the underwear.
- It is not possible to wear them with certain types of underwear, like thongs or G-strings.
- You may need to change your pads every four to five hours to avoid odors and a possible buildup of bacteria.
- Pads also have a huge environmental impact, though there are many reusable options available now.
Contact dermatitis or pad rash is another potential disadvantage of wearing sanitary pads. This can cause itching, redness, and swelling. Usually, the rash is a resultant of the skin getting irritated due to the material the pad is made from. Other times, a mixture of heat and moisture can lead to bacterial buildup, which causes contact dermatitis.
Many manufacturers these days add fragrances to their pads to combat the problem of period odor. Some women may have sensitive skin that reacts to these fragrances. However, most sanitary napkins usually place the fragrance layer under the absorbent core, meaning the fragrant layer does not come in direct contact with your skin. Nevertheless, sometimes, an allergic reaction and rashes can occur due to the fragrance used.
A study found that an estimated 0.7 percent of all skin rashes in women using pads were due to an allergic reaction to the adhesive used in the sanitary pads.9 Another study discovered that the incidence of extreme irritation from maxi pads was only observed in one per two million pads used.10
Apart from the contact dermatitis caused by the components of the pad itself, the friction that arises from wearing a sanitary pad itself can also cause a pad rash.
Tampons vs. Sanitary Pads – Which is Better?
The answer to this age-old question really depends on many factors, as well as an individual preference. Factors such as ease of use, comfort, how active a lifestyle you have, your flow, overnight use, and safety have to be considered when making a decision about which product you feel more comfortable using. There is really no winner in this debate, and women all over the world use tampons and sanitary pads equally in large quantities. There is also no clear advantage that one product has over the other.
The entire choice comes down to choosing what fits your lifestyle the best. If you want the freedom of movement, discretion, ability to swim, minimal fuss, then tampons should be your ideal choice. However, if you are okay with sacrificing discretion for peace of mind about your safety, no frustrating and painful insertions, and the ability to wear them for longer times, then sanitary pads should be your pick.
The bottom line is that you should pick the product that works best for you. If you don’t feel comfortable with either tampons or pads, there are many other options available today that you can pick from, including menstrual cups, padded period underwear, reusable pads, and even gender-neutral menstrual products. Consider your comfort, budget, and convenience to finally choose your menstrual product.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2020. The Facts On Tampons—And How To Use Them Safely. [online] Available at: <https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/facts-tampons-and-how-use-them-safely#:~:text=Tampons%20are%20one%20method%20of,time%20and%20then%20thrown%20away.> [Accessed 12 November 2020].
- Todd, J., Fishaut, M., Kapral, F. and Welch, T., 1978. Toxic-shock syndrome associated with phage-group-I Staphylococci. The Lancet, 312(8100), pp.1116-1118.
- Leung, D.Y., Kotzin, B.L., Meissner, H.C., Fulton, R.D., Murray, D.L. and Schlievert, P.M., 1993. Toxic shock syndrome toxin-secreting Staphylococcus aureus in Kawasaki syndrome. The Lancet, 342(8884), pp.1385-1388.
- Shands, K.N., Schmid, G.P., Dan, B.B., Blum, D., Guidotti, R.J., Hargrett, N.T., Anderson, R.L., Hill, D.L., Broome, C.V., Band, J.D. and Fraser, D.W., 1980. Toxic-shock syndrome in menstruating women: association with tampon use and Staphylococcus aureus and clinical features in 52 cases. New England Journal of Medicine, 303(25), pp.1436-1442.
- Ross, A. and Shoff, H.W., 2017. Toxic Shock Syndrome.
- Facts, G., Science, H. and Products, C., 2020. Cumulative Exposure And Feminine Care Products – Safe Cosmetics. [online] Safe Cosmetics. Available at: <http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/healthandscience/cumulative-exposure-and-feminine-care-products/> [Accessed 12 November 2020].
- Pohlmann, M., 2016. Design and materials selection: analysis of similar sanitary pads for daily use. inflammation, 2, p.5.
- Koo, M.R., 2013. Basic research for development of environment-friendly Women’s specialty item-focused on cloth sanitary pad. Journal of the Korea Fashion and Costume Design Association, 15(3), pp.41-50.
- Williams, J.D., Frowen, K.E. and Nixon, R.L., 2007. Allergic contact dermatitis from methyldibromo glutaronitrile in a sanitary pad and review of Australian clinic data. Contact Dermatitis, 56(3), pp.164-167.
- Woeller, K.E. and Hochwalt, A.E., 2015. Safety assessment of sanitary pads with a polymeric foam absorbent core. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 73(1), pp.419-424.