We’ve all seen that commercial. You know the one.
A woman runs through a field of daisies, her pink skirt flowing in the wind. An ambiguous, chlorine-clean blue liquid is poured on a dove-white cotton wad. It’s a tampon commercial as far away from the flesh-and-blood truth of menstruation as an Instagram filter is from reality.
These are the kinds of commercials companies often employ to sell scented tampons and scented pads, menstrual products imbued with chemical fragrances to perfume your genitals with a “fresh scent.” While retailers tend to use the language of “freshness,” the underlying message of these feminine products is harmful and unrealistic, promising not only a blood-free period, but a vagina that smells like a flower.
Jennifer Conti, a gynecologist, host of the V Word podcast and professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, isn’t buying it.
“The vagina is not meant to smell like freshly laundered sheets or lilies. It’s a vagina,” she said.
Conti explained that scented tampons are more about catering to women’s insecurities to sell products, rather than to promote health.
“There’s a lot of mysticism and taboo around our vaginas — especially how they should look and smell — which is why products like these do so well,” she said.
They may be catering to insecurities, but are scented tampons actually bad for you?
Both experts said scented tampons aren’t just unnecessary, they can be actively harmful, potentially damaging vaginal health while sending negative messages about natural bodily functions.
Are Scented Tampons Safe to Use?
Tampons are typically made with a mix of cotton and rayon, derived from cotton plants and wood pulp. In the 1960s, manufacturers of feminine care products began adding synthetic ingredients as well, including polyester foam. The latter materials proved to be risky, encouraging the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium responsible for Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a potentially fatal disease.
Because of this potential hazard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now tests tampons for potential TSS risk, and cotton/rayon are currently the most popular and safest materials on the market. While tampons are much safer today, worries about harmful chemicals in tampons remain. Scented tampons are one of these products to avoid.
Ingredients like dyes and perfumes, commonly found in scented tampons, don’t have the same risk of TSS, but they can harm the sensitive tissue of the vagina and cause an allergic reaction. Scented tampon side effects can include itching and irritation or a burning sensation, and using scented products can increase your risk of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis (BV). Similar to vaginal douches, scented tampons can alter the pH levels of the vagina and interfere with normal bacteria.
The vagina is a pretty incredible organism. Lined with what’s called an epithelium, the tissue that protects internal organs, the vagina produces a layer of mucus. This constant flow of mucus (which you eventually see in your underwear in the form of discharge) helps lubricate the vagina for sex and childbirth, but it also serves a more fundamental purpose by guarding the vagina against external threats. Chemical additives like fragrances can irritate or even erode this barrier, harming your vagina’s natural defenses.
Scented Tampons Interfere With a Natural Process
Scented tampon brands, like Tampax Pearl and Playtex Sport Fresh Balance, market themselves around ideas like “freshness.” The idea: Your vagina is smelly and dirty, and you need our product to clean and scent it.
But the truth is, your vagina keeps itself perfectly clean. Thanks to the vaginal microbiome, an ecosystem of microorganisms that includes the helpful bacteria, lactobacillus, the vagina is slightly acidic. This quality discourages harmful bacteria and other potential infections from taking root.
When their pH is balanced, vaginas have a natural smell. This scent may range from mild and sweet to a bit musky, but it is overall healthy and normal.
It’s only when vaginal pH is disrupted, including through the chemicals found in products like scented tampons, that vaginal odor becomes something to worry about. A fishy or yeasty odor could indicate you have bacterial vaginosis (BV) or a yeast infection, conditions that both tend to occur when the vagina’s pH is disrupted.
These odors are a sign you should talk to your doctor, not that you should insert a scented product. In short, Conti said, “There’s no medical reason to put anything scented into your vagina.”
If that’s the case, why do menstrual health giants like Playtex and Tampax continue to sell scented tampons?
“We associate ‘pleasant smelling’ things with hygiene, which is why a lot of our soaps, detergents, shampoos, lotions, etcetera, are scented,” said Siriouthay.
This mindset, coupled with the shame we’re still taught to associate with vaginas, can lead to harmful health choices in the guise of “hygiene.”
“The idea that women need to clean their vaginas is medically ridiculous and offensive,” said Conti. “It’s a normal body part with normal bodily function, and does not need to be douched, flushed or scented.”
What to Look For and Avoid When Tampon Shopping
If scented tampons are a no-go, what should you actually look for when shopping for menstrual products?
As part of Siriouthay’s job at Ovee, she tries out menstrual health and vaginal care products and blogs about them in real time on the company’s Instagram.
“I’m like our community’s little guinea pig,” she said.
So Siriouthay spoke from experience when she recommended staying away from products with alcohol or synthetic fragrances.
Look for menstrual products, particularly tampons and pads, that are cotton, chemical-free and unscented. If you’re uncomfortable or unable to put your finger in your vagina, you can choose tampons with applicators; otherwise, save waste by opting for products that are applicator-free.
While products labeled “all-natural” or “organic” are generally better bets than synthetics, you may still have an adverse reaction to natural fragrances and other ingredients. This side effect can be a particular problem if you have allergies or sensitive skin. When trying out a new bar soap or lube, Siriouthay recommended testing it on a patch of skin other than the labia first, to see whether you’ll have a negative reaction in an area that’s less sensitive.
In terms of keeping your vagina clean, Conti agreed that less is more. A normal bathing routine without harsh or scented soaps; chemical-free menstrual-care; STI protection, and going to the gyno regularly should be all you need to do to keep your vagina healthy, happy and pH-balanced.
“But if there is ever something you’re concerned about, definitely talk with your healthcare provider who can evaluate further,” Conti said.
Keep It Clean (From Chemicals)
For health experts like Conti and Siriouthay, the notion that vaginas need to be “cleaned” or fragranced is actively harmful to both our vaginas and our self-esteem. Instead, we should embrace what it means to have a body — smells, periods and all.
“We sweat, we bleed, we fight off infection down there. We don’t need to hang a car freshener on our clits,” said Siriouthay.
What your vagina truly needs to stay healthy isn’t scented products, but general self-care: a gentle vulva washing with water and mild soap, and menstrual products like pads, tampons, menstrual cups, or period panties that don’t contain harmful chemicals.
Saying goodbye to scented tampons is a way people with vaginas can take our well-being into our own hands, and help keep our bodies — and our self-esteem — healthy. That’s a message that Conti, for one, will keep on repeating.
“This is a hill I will die on,” she said.
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