Most of us who menstruate have been there. You’re out in public, go to the bathroom, and discover that your period has made an early or irregular appearance.
There’s no tampon vending machine in the stall, you’re out without a friend, far from a store, and no one else is in the restroom—but you do have an old tampon rolling around the bottom of your bag.
Only problem: That wrinkly, slightly ripped wrapper looks like it’s been hiding in your purse pocket since middle school. To use or not to use? Do tampons expire?
“I’ve seen this in actual day-to-day practice,” said Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in New York and the author of The Complete A to Z For Your V. “Women think they’re in menopause or perimenopause and go ten months without a period and then—surprise, surprise,” she said.
If kept in the right conditions, with its wrapper on, that tampon should be perfectly good to use in a pinch. But, said Dweck, if the wrapper is ripped, the tampon has come into contact with moisture, or the tampon is very old, it may not be safe to use. “Even though it’s not well publicized, most tampons do have an expiration date,” said Dweck.
Do Tampons Expire?
It may seem that tampons, as wads of mostly-cotton, will never go bad. And not all tampons have an expiration date printed on the box. But some manufacturers do include a date—and tampons can expire.
That’s because tampons’ most important quality—absorbency—also means they are at risk of growing mold, fungus, or other bacteria if kept in the wrong conditions for a long time. “Any significant moisture can disrupt the integrity a little bit,” said Dweck. This is particularly likely if the tampon’s original packaging has been damaged or removed.
How Long Can You Keep Tampons?
There’s no industry or FDA standard shelf life for tampons. And most of us will use the tampons we’ve bought well before we have to worry about them expiring. But, said Dweck, there is a rule of thumb for shelf life: “The overall estimate is five years.”
How long tampons last depends on the environment they’re kept in. “The big deal is storage,” Dweck said. “The vagina is not a sterile environment so tampons do not need to be sterile,” said Dweck. “However, they do need to be clean.” Sterile means something that is sanitized to remove all bacteria, fungus, mold, and viruses—surgical instruments, for example. Clean, on the other hand, means that an object is free of more serious concentrations of dirt, mold, or bacteria.
Since the vagina is a self-cleaning environment containing its own complex microbiome, tampons don’t need to be kept in a sterile environment. But they can absorb moisture, causing them to quickly grow higher concentrations of mold, fungus, bacteria and other potentially infection-causing organisms. “If it’s out in the open and it’s a steamy, sauna-like environment that could cause some disruption because tampons absorb moisture,” said Dweck.
Aim, instead, to store tampons and menstrual pads in a cool, dry place. Outside the warm, steamy bathroom is ideal, but if you do store them in a bathroom cupboard, use an airtight container and keep them as far from the shower as possible.
If your box of tampons doesn’t have a manufacture or expiration date on them, you can also label them with the date you bought them as a reminder in case they get lost at the bottom of a drawer.
How To Tell If Your Tampon Is Expired?
While some brands put the expiration date on the box, the most important tools in checking if your tampons are still good to use are your own eyes and nose. “Common sense rules here,” said Dweck. “If it looks ripped, stained, or that there’s mold growing on it,” that tampon should probably be trashed.
Use your judgement here. If a tampon is visibly moldy, of course, it’s a no-go. Same if it’s swollen with water, or if it’s been rolling around your coat pocket without a wrapper. If the wrapper is slightly torn, but the tampon and applicator is still protected, that may still be good. Finally, mold may be obscured in tampons with an applicator, so look for other signs like moisture or a lack of proper packaging. A funky smell would also, of course, be a sign that this tampon should stay far away from your vagina.
Side Effects Of Using Expired Tampons
“The vagina has a very natural well-balanced, delicately balanced microbiome, meaning there’s plenty of yeast and bacteria,” said Dweck. This naturally acidic microbiome is generally all you need to protect your vagina from infection.
But outside contaminants, like bacteria or chemicals, can throw this microbiome off, altering the vagina’s pH and thus creating an atmosphere that encourages the growth of harmful organisms. Like scents and other additives, mold and bacteria growth on expired or contaminated tampons can similarly disrupt the vagina’s delicate pH, leading to irritation or infection.
It’s not clear whether using a contaminated tampon could up your risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, a rare but serious illness associated with tampon use. “It’s possible the risk would go up a bit,” said Dweck. However, “most studies or theories suggest that the risk is TSS is absorbency.” So to prevent TSS, it’s most important to use tampons that are appropriately sized for your flow, and to change tampons every eight hours or less.
If you realize you’ve used an expired tampon, or had to use a tampon with a slightly ripped wrapper in a pinch, don’t panic. You’re the expert on your own vagina, so if everything feels a-okay, you’re probably fine. “People with vaginas are pretty comfortable with what their secretions and odor are usually like, so if something changes they’re normally aware of it,” said Dweck. If you do noticed a strange odor, a burning or stinging sensation, or an unusual discharge, those are potential signs of infection—and definite signs that it’s time to go to the gynecologist.
Do Pads Expire?
Non-organic pads, like tampons, are made of a mix of cotton and synthetics. Organic pads and organic tampons are generally made of 100% cotton or, in the case of pads, bamboo. All of these materials can potentially become moldy or grow bacteria in the wrong environments. Pads can also become swollen and ineffective if damp. So it’s important that you store pads in dry, cool, and dark conditions, like tampons.
How long can you keep pads before they go bad?
Not all menstrual pad packaging contains expiration dates. Those that do, however, often recommend an expiration or use-by date of three years from manufacture.
How can you tell whether a pad is expired or not?
Similarly to tampons, it’s important to make sure that the pad is properly wrapped and moisture-free. It’s not a great idea to use a pad that has become unwrapped in your purse, or a pad that is ripped or wet. Similarly, if you see discoloration or mold on your menstrual pad, switch it out for a fresh one.
As with tampons, you can label new containers of pads with the date you bought it if you’re at all worried that you won’t use them for a while.
Dweck, who has spoken to the media about menstrual hygiene before, has noticed a trend among consumers: “People are now much more cognizant of their brand of tampon, their ingredients,” she said. That’s good news for people who menstruate, whose reproductive health has typically not received the funding, attention, and affirmation we deserve.
When it comes to menstrual products’ expiration dates, however, we probably don’t need to worry too much. As long as we’re storing our products properly and using them in a reasonable amount of time, we should be fine.
As for the dilemma of being in a bathroom stall with only one tampon with a slightly ripped wrapper? “If you’re out and about and nowhere near where you can buy a tampon and the only tampon you can find is the one that looks a teeny bit disrupted at the bottom of your bag, I would say go for it,” said Dweck. “Otherwise, if you have another choice or you can purchase one, I would say go for that.”
And then, next time you’re home, you can pack your purse with a few fresh tampons—in a sealable, protective pouch.
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