If you’re a millennial—or a gen Z’er with great taste in movies—you can likely quote the Mean Girls line by heart.
After the infamous Burn Book, a scrapbook full of gossip, goes public, a character says, “Someone wrote in that book that I’m lying about being a virgin ‘cause I use super-jumbo tampons, but I can’t help it if I’ve got a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina.”
For girls at the time, the line was funny, but also a revelation: Here was somebody in a movie, talking openly about menstrual flow, when most other onscreen mentions of periods were highly euphemistic. In fact, frank conversation about menstruation was considered so scandalous at the time, the ratings board nearly forced Mean Girls’ directors to cut that line. The directors fought back. After all, the line was about a basic fact of anatomy.
This back and forth over a simple movie line reveals the stigma that, nearly twenty years later, we continue to attach to frank conversations about menstrual flow, maxi pads, and tampons. But menstruation is totally normal. Each person who menstruates has a different flow and different needs for menstrual hygiene—and thus, for those of us who use tampons, tampon size.
If you’ve just started menstruating—or are just using tampons for the first time—it can feel overwhelming to decide what size tampon to use. To make that process a little less intimidating, we spoke to Alyssa Dweck MD, gynecologist and author of The Complete A to Z for Your V. Here are her tips for how to choose the right tampon size for you.
Why Are There Different Tampon Sizes?
Light, regular, super, ultra, oh my! While the sea of tampon sizes can seem a little more intimidating than pads at first, Dweck says there are four major considerations in choosing the right tampon absorbency.
The line from Mean Girls was accurate: Just like each of us has a different and unique vulva, each of us has a different vagina, too. Variations in vagina size and shape are natural, but our vaginas can also become larger after childbirth. The particular size and shape of your vagina will impact the best tampon size for you.
Tampons are meant to absorb menstrual blood, so the amount of menstrual flow each of us has will determine the tampon size we need. Variations in menstrual flow volume are totally natural, and—unless the flow volume is unusual for you or extremely heavy, in which case it’s a smart idea to go see your gyno—nothing to worry about.
It’s also normal to have variations in our flow over the course of our period. You may notice a lighter period at first or a lighter period toward the end. It’s a good idea to choose tampon sizes that are suited to your flow at different points in your period.
You may be more or less comfortable inserting tampons into your vagina. It’s totally okay to choose smaller tampon sizes and change your tampon more frequently if that is more comfortable for you. You can also choose to use tampons with applicators or applicator-free digital tampons, depending on your comfort level.
What Tampon Size Should I Use?
Which tampon you should use depends on the factors named above. There are five major types of tampons across the industry: light, regular, super tampons, super plus, and super extra or ultra.
Tampons are regulated by the FDA, with absorbency measured in grams of fluid the tampon can hold, but each brand uses its own jargon. Finding the right absorbency may take a little time and practice.
“Most women go by the ‘amount of flow,’ rather than measurement, and [use] trial and error to pick the appropriate size,” said Dr. Dweck. Dweck advises using the least absorbent tampon for your flow. That may vary throughout your cycle. “It should be comfortable to insert and remove,” said Dweck.
If your tampon is still dry after about 6 hours, you are probably using too large an absorbency for your flow. If, on the other hand, your tampon begins to leak after an hour or two, or becomes so saturated with fluid it begins to slip out, you likely need a larger absorbency.
Here is the range of absorbencies, as well as how much fluid they are designed to hold.
The lowest absorbency tampon, light tampons hold up to six grams of blood, the equivalent of a light flow.
These hold from six to nine grams, or a moderate flow
These bigger tampons hold nine to 12 grams of fluid, for a heavy flow.
These are tampons for an extra heavy flow, and they hold 12 to 15 grams.
The ultra tampon size holds 15 to 18 grams of absorbancy for a “heavy, heavy” flow.
You may see some tampons marketed with terms beyond these standard descriptions, like “slim fit” or “sport fit.” “These aren’t medical terms,” said Dweck. Rather, they’re designations that vary by manufacturer.
The meaning of “slim fit” tampons varies depending on the manufacturer, but usually, this designates a more slender design that may be more comfortable for first-time users.
“Sport fit” usually describes a tampon that has an added layer of protection, like a leak guard on the string, to prevent leakage during active movement.
Tampon Sizes FAQs: 5 Factors to Consider
Flow and absorbency aren’t the only considerations. Here are answers to commonly asked questions regarding different tampon sizes and types.
What is the difference between light and slender fit?
“Light” describes the tampon absorbency rather than the width. Light tampons are low absorbency, holding up to 6 grams of fluid. “Slender fit” isn’t a medical description, but a manufacturer designation. It usually describes the width of the tampon, rather than its absorbency. Slender fit tampons are typically narrower than standard tampons but may have a “regular” absorbency of 6 to 9 grams.
What’s the difference between sport tampons and typical tampons?
“Sport” isn’t a medical definition for tampons and it doesn’t indicate a particular standard absorbency. Rather, it’s a marketing term some brands use to indicate a tampon design that is specifically meant to accommodate motion. This may include, for example, added protection against leakage or greater expansion of the tampon in the vagina.
Should I use scented or unscented tampons?
Some tampon brands market scented tampons and pads to consumers with claims of “added freshness.” This is just marketing language to describe perfumes and other chemical additives. These additives can throw off your vagina’s natural pH balance, leading to a greater risk of infections like bacterial vaginosis.
The idea that we “need” to mask the scent of our vaginas with perfumes perpetuates harmful stigma against our vaginas as they naturally are, according to gynecologist Jennifer Conti in a previous Public Goods interview. “The vagina is not meant to smell like freshly laundered sheets or lilies. It’s a vagina,” she said. “It’s a normal body part with normal bodily function, and does not need to be douched, flushed, or scented.”
What’s the difference between organic and regular cotton tampons?
Tampons are regulated by the FDA as low-risk medical devices. Tampons are generally made of a mixture of cotton, rayon, and synthetic fibers. In the past, manufacturers used chlorine gas to bleach tampons, which resulted in a deposit of dioxins, a group of harmful chemicals that can have negative effects on the reproductive system.
Today, the FDA requires that manufacturers disclose the bleaching process they use on their tampons, and recommends that tampons be free of dioxins, pesticides, and herbicide residues. They also require manufacturers to disclose if chemical residues are present.
In contrast, most organic cotton tampons are made without the use of pesticides or synthetic fabrics, and, depending on the brand, are chlorine- and BPA- free. They’re a good choice if you want to know exactly what is in your tampons and minimize potential exposure to harmful chemicals.
Should I use a tampon with or without an applicator?
Tampons can come with plastic applicators, cardboard applicators, or can be applicator-free. Applicators are small pumps that contain the tampon, which you press to insert the tampon into your body. In contrast, you insert applicator-free tampons directly with your finger.
Whether you use tampons with or without an applicator is a personal choice. “Some prefer an applicator, others prefer to insert without,” said Dweck. Using an applicator may be more comfortable for menstruators who don’t want to insert their fingers into their vaginas, and it can also be safer in a situation where you don’t have as much access to hand hygiene. On the other hand, tampons without applicators produce less waste and are a great choice if you want to have a more environmentally friendly period.
Do’s and Don’ts for First Time Tampon Users
For safety’s sake, there are a few things newbies need to know. While most of the time tampons are completely safe and comfortable, there are a few mistakes new users might make. Let’s start with how you should use tampons.
Do: Start with a Light Tampon
If you’ve never used tampons before, it’s a good idea to start with the lightest possible absorbency. Light tampons may be more comfortable to insert, and they allow you to gauge your flow and protection needs.
Do: Use Different Size Tampons for Different Levels of Flow Throughout Your Period
Your flow will likely change throughout the course of your period, so it’s a good idea to adjust the tampon size you use accordingly. Once you get the hang of your flow, you can keep a couple of sizes on hand and in your bag for different parts of your cycle.
Do: Change Your Tampon Every 8 Hours or Fewer
This is the most important piece of advice about tampon use. Tampons have been linked with Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare but potentially fatal infection that has been associated with high-absorbency tampons and with leaving tampons in for too long. The best way to prevent TSS is to change your tampon every 4 to 8 hours. If your tampon is not fully saturated after 8 hours, that’s a sign that you should be using a lower absorbency for your flow.
Now, let’s get into what you shouldn’t do with a tampon.
Don’t: Use a Heavier Than Necessary Tampon for Your Flow
“TSS risk increases with increased absorbency,” said Dweck. To minimize TSS risk, be sure to use only the minimum required tampon absorbency for your flow. Using too high an absorbency can also irritate the vagina and actually cause chafing of the vaginal wall. “If too absorbent, the vagina can dry out and a dry tampon removal can be painful.” It’s better to simply change a tampon more frequently than to risk irritation!
Don’t: Flush Tampons Down the Toilet
While some manufacturers may label their tampons “flushable,” flushing a tampon is actually deeply harmful to the plumbing system—and, ultimately, to the environment. Tampons are designed to absorb liquid, meaning they actually swell up when flushed down your pipes, rather than breaking down. They can cause large blockages in the plumbing system—creating a difficult job for neighborhood sewer workers—and, ultimately, end up in our rivers and oceans.
“You should only flush the three P’s: pee, poop, and toilet paper. Everything else should go in the trash,” said Cynthia Finley, Director of Regulatory Affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents public wastewater utilities across the United States.
So, when in doubt, throw it out.
You’ve Got This.
Whether you’re just starting to menstruate or are an experienced menstruator making the switch from pads to tampons, you’ve got this! The wide variety of tampons may seem overwhelming at first, but after a few cycles, you’ll get the hang of your flow and what you need to have a happy period.
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