In summer 2020, the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI) took an advertisement off the air after receiving 84 complaints from television viewers.
The ad, these viewers claimed, was “vulgar;” it was “brash and disgusting and unnecessary”; it “crossed the line of decency.”
The advertisement in question? A Tampax commercial, offering practical advice for how to insert a tampon.
“This is not a shameful or taboo topic!” said Dr. Lisa Klein, a pediatrician at Child Health Associates, P.C., in Michigan, and the co-founder of puberty and health education organization Turning Teen. She noted that, despite the fact that menstruation is common and normal, stigma around menstruation and tampon use still exist.
This stigma, and the persistent lack of accurate, accessible information about the reproductive systems of people with vulvas and vaginas, means that many first-time tampon users may feel uncertain.
“Anything we haven’t done before or don’t understand well can cause us to feel fearful and confused,” Klein said.
Add to this obstacle the fact that many first-time tampon users are just beginning to menstruate, or may not be comfortable with their bodies. That confusion can become outright stress.
“This is exactly why there needs to be more open educational dialogue about all parts of bodies, including details on female anatomy,” Klein said.
Public Goods spoke to Dr. Klein about how to use a tampon the right way for a healthy, low-stress period. The bottom line: there is nothing “vulgar” or “brash” about tampon use. Instead, menstrual products are a totally normal, healthy part of menstruation.
What Are Tampons?
People who menstruate have been devising clever ways to stem the blood flow for thousands of years. Ancient women used everything from wool, grass and “the furry part of a native fern” to vegetable fibers and paper. Before the 1920s most American women used cloth secured by pins as makeshift sanitary napkins.
Tampons were actually used to stop bleeding from wounds before they were ever used to stem menstruation. In 1931, however, an inventor by the name of E.C. Hass filed a patent for the first modern, menstrual tampon meant to be inserted into the vagina, starting the company that would become Tampax. Scientists and health professionals have tweaked tampon designs over the years, for comfort and hygiene.
Today, tampons are highly safe and are comfortable for most menstruators. They consist of a cylindrical wad of cotton with a string hanging off at the end. Some tampons have plastic or cardboard applicators to assist in insertion; some are meant to be inserted by hand. Tampons come in a variety of absorbances, can be scented or unscented, and can be made of organic or non-organic cotton.
Should You Choose A Tampon With or Without an Applicator?
Whether you use tampons, or what kind of tampons you use, is totally up to your comfort and your individual menstrual cycle. The same goes for whether you choose tampons with a plastic applicator, cardboard applicator or no applicator at all.
Applicators are long tubes that encase the tampon. To insert the tampon without having to put your finger inside your vagina, you simply insert the applicator and press down the tube.
Plastic applicators tend to be the smoothest. Cardboard applicators may be a little bumpier. Tampons without applicators require users to insert their finger into their vagina to push the tampon into place; they also produce the least amount of garbage.
“Whether or not you use an applicator is a personal choice,” Klein said.
She noted that most young people start using tampons with plastic applicators, as that may be more comfortable for young people or people just getting to know their bodies.
“But for those trying to be environmentally-friendly, and who are very comfortable with their bodies, no applicator is the way to go,” she said.
Scented or Unscented? Organic or Non-organic?
Since they are going to be inserted into your body, it’s best to use tampons with the least amount of harmful chemicals possible. All tampon manufacturers are subject to safety standards, so they are all safe to use.
Scented tampons, however, contain chemicals that give the tampon a perfume. They’re often advertised as being “fresher” or as hiding “embarrassing odors.” This marketing language draws on long-standing cultural stigma that labels women’s bodies dirty. In reality the vagina is self-cleaning, and vaginal odor is perfectly natural.
“The idea that women need to clean their vaginas is medically ridiculous and offensive,” Jennifer Conti, a gynecologist, host of the V Word podcast and professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, told Public Goods in a previous interview. “It’s a normal body part with normal bodily function, and does not need to be douched, flushed or scented.”
What’s more, the dyes and perfumes commonly found in scented tampons can irritate the delicate skin of the vagina and disrupt the vagina’s natural pH balance, leading to an increased risk of yeast infections and Bacterial Vaginosis (BV).
Similarly, 100% organic tampons are made entirely of cotton, with no synthetic additives or perfumes, and thus may be a better choice to guarantee you aren’t inserting potentially irritating chemicals into your body.
What Size Should You Choose?
Especially for young people or people who are not used to inserting anything into their vaginas, choosing the proper tampon size can feel intimidating.
According to CDC standards, light tampons can hold up to six grams of fluid. Regular tampons can hold between six and nine grams, and super tampons can hold between nine and 12 grams. There are even larger tampon sizes for people with heavier flows.
There are also special “slim fit” tampons that may be more suitable for younger menstruators or people unaccustomed to putting anything inside their vaginas.
“A good rule of thumb is to start with the thinnest tampon,” Klein said.
This guideline is especially important to help lower the risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare infection that has been linked to tampon use. Using a slimmer size may also be more comfortable for you. If you try a slim size and then discover that you require more absorbency, you can always size up.
How Do You Properly Insert a Tampon?
If you’re a first-time tampon user, here’s the most important advice: relax! We know, trying something new can be scary, especially if you don’t feel comfortable touching or looking at your vagina. But the vagina is very resilient — it was designed by nature, after all, to deliver babies — so inserting a tampon is totally safe, easy, and should be pain-free.
You’ve taken the most important first step by reading this article. The more you learn about your vagina, your menstrual cycle, and menstrual products, the more comfortable you’ll be.
Learn About Your Body
“Before even attempting to use a tampon, the first step must be to understand the female anatomy and all of its parts,” Dr. Klein said.
She advised reading a book on puberty or female anatomy, having a conversation with your doctor or gynecologist or — especially if you’re an adolescent — checking out the great resources on Turning Teen. You can also ask a trusted mentor, like your mom, a friend, sister or cousin who is educated about menstruation and anatomy, or a sexuality educator.
If you’re wondering where to insert a tampon, you may also want to spent some private time looking at your vulva and vagina (“And yes, those are two very different parts of the female ‘private parts,’” said Klein) in a hand mirror, or exploring it with your fingers, to understand where your vaginal opening is.
How To Put In a Tampon With An Applicator
When it comes time to actually insert a tampon, Klein offered step-by step advice from her book, “Celebrate Your Body 2,” which is aimed at preteen and teen girls.
1. First, find a bathroom and wash your hands.
2. Sit on the toilet with your legs spread or with one leg up on the toilet. You may want to use a hand mirror so you can see what you’re doing, or you may prefer to just use your sense of touch.
3. Next, remove the tampon wrapper, but keep the tampon inside its applicator (if there is an applicator).
4. Take a moment to relax your body. If you’re feeling nervous or uncomfortable, notice your breathing and try taking long, slow breaths. Relax the muscles in your pelvis and vagina. (This meditation will feel like letting go when you have to pee.)
5. Hold the tampon in your favored hand with your thumb and your middle finger, on the grip section of the tampon’s applicator. Put your pointer finger on the plunger. Then, insert the tip of the applicator into your vagina until your thumb and middle finger touch your vagina.
6. Aiming toward your back, use your pointer finger to push the plunger until the plunger is totally inside the tampon applicator. This will in turn push the tampon into your vagina.
7. Take the applicator out of your vagina. The tampon will stay in your vagina, with the string hanging out of your vagina.
8. Throw away the applicator in the garbage and wash your hands.
How To Put In a Tampon Without An Applicator
To insert a tampon without an applicator, you’ll follow most of the same steps as above. But this time, when you unwrap the tampon, there will be no applicator at all — just a cylinder of compact cotton with a string at one end.
1. Using the same position as mentioned above, grip the tampon between your thumb and pointer finger, from the end with the string. The side with the string should be facing down.
2. Position the tip of the tampon at the opening of your vagina. Then, using your middle finger at the bottom of the tampon, push the tampon up into your vagina. Your finger should enter your vagina, too.
3. You should push the tampon far enough into your vagina so that you don’t see or feel the end of the tampon itself. You should still see the string.
4. As above, throw out the tampon wrapper and wash your hands.
How Do You Know If You’ve Inserted a Tampon Correctly?
The tampon should be far enough into your vagina that you don’t see the end of it. You should still, however, see the tampon string dangling out of your body.
“Once the tampon is in the correct place, you shouldn’t feel it,” Dr. Klein said. “If you still do, then you likely haven’t pushed the tampon all the way in.”
Do Tampons Hurt The First Time You Use Them?
When used properly, tampons shouldn’t hurt. However, there are some common reasons you may experience discomfort the first time you use a tampon.
First, tampons are only meant to be used during menstruation, and you should use the minimum absorbancy required to handle your flow.
“It is not comfortable to insert a tampon unless you have enough blood flow to act as a lubricant,” Klein explained.
If you’ve inserted a tampon and it’s uncomfortable, the reason may be that the tampon’s absorbency is too high for your particular flow. You can use a smaller sized tampon or menstrual pad instead.
Second, you may feel discomfort if your tampon isn’t inserted far enough into your vagina. If the tampon is still hanging out your vaginal opening, you may feel a painful or pinching sensation. You can simply use a finger to push it further into your vagina, or remove it and try again.
Another common reason you may feel pain or discomfort when inserting a tampon is because you are feeling tense. When we’re anxious, we tend to clench our muscles — including the muscles of the vaginal wall. Before inserting a tampon, take a moment to check in with your body and your anxiety levels, to take a deep breath and to slowly relax your muscles.
Finally, there are a number of gynecological issues that may make it difficult to insert anything into the vagina.
“If you have persistent issues, please see a doctor to discuss the situation and have a gynecologic exam to make sure there are no other issues,” Klein advised.
Tampon Myths and Facts
Because of the stigma and lack of reliable information that continue to persist around menstruation, you may have heard a number of false and harmful myths about tampon use. “Rumors and ‘Old Wives Tales’ develop when there is a lack of available factual information,” Klein said.
Remember that menstruating and using tampons is totally normal, and what you choose to use for your period is totally up to you—no judgement, no shame.
Myth #1: Does Using a Tampon Mean I’m Not a ‘Virgin’ Anymore?
Historically, women and girls have often been judged based on society’s view of our sexual choices, rather than on who we are. This unfair standard has led to an emphasis on whether we have had penetrative, vaginal sex or not — often called our “virginity.”
Many people with vaginas are born with a thin tissue, called the hymen, that surrounds the opening of the vagina. Not everyone with a vagina has a hymen, and hymens aren’t a “seal” of the vagina — they’re just tissue surrounding it.
If you do have a hymen, it can be torn or worn away through many everyday activities, such as riding a bike or a horse, dancing or going to the gynecologist. It may wear away or bleed during penetrative sex, whether with fingers, a toy or a penis. It may also wear away or bleed when inserting a tampon, though this is not common.
Either way, virginity is something that you define based on your relationship to sexuality and what having sex means to you. Inserting a tampon is not the same thing as having sex, and neither is tearing your hymen or your hymen thinning over time.
Myth #2: Can a Tampon Get Lost in My Body?
“A tampon can’t go in your vagina and then come out your ear,” said Klein. “In fact, it can’t get lost in your body because it has to come out the same tunnel that it entered — your vagina.”
Your vagina ends with your cervix, which normally only has a tiny opening into your uterus — much too small for a tampon. The only time your cervix will open is when giving birth, not something you have to worry about when inserting a tampon.
If you’re about to take your tampon out and you can’t find the string right away, don’t panic.
“It’s usually there if you take an extra minute to feel around,” Klein said.
When Should You Remove a Tampon?
It’s important to remove or change your tampon every six to eight hours, or when it’s fully saturated — whatever comes first. By removing your tampon regularly, you can minimize the risk of TSS, which is very rare but becomes more likely the longer you leave a tampon in.
If you’re the forgetful type (aren’t we all!), Dr. Klein recommends setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to change your tampon. Once you’ve used tampons for a few cycles, you’ll likely get in the habit of changing them when appropriate.
How to Remove a Tampon
To remove a tampon, first go to the bathroom and wash your hands. Then, assume the same position sitting on the toilet as when you inserted it, either with your legs spread or one leg up.
Feel around your vaginal opening to find the tampon string. Normally, you will find it immediately. If you don’t, don’t panic. You may have to put your finger into your vagina to locate it, but you definitely will find it!
Gently tug the string in a downward motion until the tampon exits your body. If the tampon is difficult or uncomfortable to pull out, that problem may be because you used too high an absorbency for your flow. You can use a lower absorbancy next time, or use a panty liner instead.
Wrap the tampon in toilet paper and throw it in the garbage. Remember: never flush a tampon down the toilet! It will wreak havoc on your septic system.
Replace your tampon if needed, wash your hands, and continue on your merry way!
It’s OK To Ask
While the first couple times you insert a tampon can feel overwhelming, you will get the hang of it pretty soon. The more comfortable you get with your body and your menstrual cycle, the easier it will become.
And remember: it’s always OK to ask for advice and to admit that you’re not sure of something or you don’t know. It won’t be long before you, too, are the expert older sister or mentor giving great advice.
“If you have any issues or concerns, your doctor would love to be asked!” Dr. Klein said.
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