When was the first time you sat out something you really wanted to do because you had your period?
For me, it was in fifth grade at my neighbor’s swimming pool. I was too embarrassed to say that I had my period and I hadn’t yet learned to use tampons. So my bulky menstrual pad and I sat in the heat on the side of that crystal blue water as my friends urged me to jump in.
While most people who menstruate have had that moment of awkwardness, we don’t have to miss our favorite activities for a week every month if we don’t want to. And we don’t have to be embarrassed or ashamed of not wanting to do an activity because of our menstruation or menstrual cramps, either.
While there are a plethora of options to choose from, including period panties and menstrual cups, many first-time menstruators will begin with tampons and menstrual pads. But what is better: tampons vs pads?
Public Goods asked Maddy Siriouthay, co-founder and Chief Content Officer at Ovee, a brand promoting health for people with vaginas, about the differences between tampons vs pads, and the pros and cons of each.
“It really depends on the person and what they prioritize in their menstrual care,” said Siriouthay, who tests menstrual products.
There are, however, some common considerations that menstruators may want to think about when choosing the best products for them, including safety, comfort, lifestyle, and environmental impact.
What Is a Tampon?
There is archaeological evidence of women using tampon-like instruments to help stem menstrual flow dating back to Ancient Egypt, where women used material from the papyrus plant to stop period blood. The first modern tampons, similar to those we use today, were invented in 1929 by a physician named Dr. Earle Haas.
Today, tampons typically consist of a small cotton stick with a string attached to one end. Some tampons have tampon applicators, thin plastic applicators or cardboard tubes that help users insert the tampons. Some tampons don’t have applicators, and menstruators simply push these into their vaginas using their fingers.
Tampons come in a range of sizes, from light to heavy absorbencies; can be scented or unscented (though most gynecologists advise menstruators to choose unscented tampons), and can be made of 100% organic cotton or cotton/synthetic blends.
What Is a Pad?
Maxi pads, like tampons, are made of absorbent materials that soak up menstrual blood. Unlike tampons, pad users wear them outside of their vaginas, usually using adhesive to stick them to underwear.
Because pads are simpler to use for menstruators who may not be comfortable inserting hygiene products into their vaginas, they are often the first menstrual hygiene products we are introduced to.
Is it Better to Use Tampons vs Pads?
There are several different factors that go into every menstruators’ product choice.
Some of us use exclusively one kind of product; many of us use a mix. It can take some time for you to experiment with what products are right for you. Here are some things to consider when choosing between the two most common products: tampons vs pads.
We all want to make sure we have a safe and happy period. We want to avoid vaginal infections or materials that could harm our reproductive health. Luckily, with a few simple guidelines, both pads and tampons are highly safe.
Tampons post a slightly greater risk than pads, as they’ve been linked to toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but potentially fatal infection caused by a buildup of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in the vagina. You can reduce your risk of toxic shock syndrome by using the least absorbent tampon required to manage your flow and changing your tampon regularly.
“Don’t leave your tampon in for longer than 8 hours!” advised Siriouthay. “Just don’t!”
Pads, meanwhile, are not associated with TSS. However, some users can experience skin irritation from menstrual pad use, especially in hot, moist weather conditions. You can reduce your risk of irritation by changing menstrual pads frequently, and choosing pads made from non-plastic materials.
Comfort is a personal preference, but there are some factors you may want to consider when choosing between tampons vs pads. Some users find menstrual pads more comfortable because they prefer not to insert a product into their vaginas.
Others find menstrual pads less comfortable. “Since they’re worn on the underwear, pads are known to shift around, and you can bleed on your clothes and undies,” said Siriouthay. “They can feel bulkier, especially as they absorb blood, and depending on the pad and clothes you’re wearing, can be apparent.”
Tampons, on the other hand, are less bulky and tend to stay in place, meaning you don’t have to worry as much about potential leaks.
Tampons can be more convenient for menstruators on the go.
“Tampons are compact and easy to transport — especially if you go without the applicator,” said Siriouthay. “I always carry about 3-5 on me.”
Similarly, some tampon users prefer them for movement-heavy activities like dancing or running, as sanitary pads can shift around and cause irritation or limit movement. Tampons are also a better choice for swimming.
Identity and Culture
Many people with vaginas have been brought up to experience shame around our menstruation. “There’s a lot of culture-specific stigmatizations around periods,” said Siriouthay.
We may hear stigmatizing beliefs about our bodies, such as the notion that tampon use can “take” our virginity. In truth, “virginity” is a cultural category that some people use to define whether we’ve had sex. It’s not a biological description of our vaginas. Using a tampon is not the same thing as having penetrative sex, and both having sex and using tampons are totally personal decisions.
Either way, says Siriouthay, “Periods shouldn’t be taboo.”
If you’re not comfortable inserting something into your vagina, that’s totally okay—you can choose to use pads instead. If you’re comfortable using tampons, but not inserting them with your fingers, you may want to choose tampons with applicators. And if you’re totally comfortable, you can choose applicator-free tampons, which are more compact and reduce menstrual waste.
Tampons and pads are both disposable products. They contribute to a serious waste problem, building up in landfills and sometimes even washing up on beaches. Many period products contain plastics and harmful chemicals. The best way to reduce the environmental impact is to choose reusable menstrual options, like period panties or menstrual cups.
If you do prefer pads or tampons, however, Siriouthay said there are a few things you can do to make your period more sustainable. You can choose tampons made of non-plastic materials, like 100% organic cotton, and pads made of quickly regenerating materials like bamboo. You can also reduce waste by choosing tampons without applicators.
Your choice of sanitary products actually has an effect on your menstrual cramps.
“Tampons expand as they absorb fluid, pushing against the vaginal canal, and this can actually contribute to cramp pain,” said Siriouthay. In contrast, “Pads catch the blood outside the vagina, so there’s no added discomfort from the pad itself.”
Are Tampons Better Than Pads For Heavy Periods?
Choosing the right menstrual product can be particularly challenging for people with heavy flows. That’s something Siriouthay, who has menorrhagia, knows firsthand. “I am the heavy flow queen,” she said.
It took Siriouthay some time to figure out a menstrual care system that worked for her. Now, that system includes using a tampon on lighter days and doubling up with a heavy absorbency tampon and a pad on heavier days.
“If you have a heavy flow like me, I would suggest a system like this or wear an extra absorbent, extra-long pad,” she said.
One word of caution: frequently changing high-absorbency tampons can cause some vaginal chafing, so you may want to rely on high-absorbency pads or even menstrual cups.
If you have a lighter flow, you may have more flexibility in your choice of product. “It’s user’s choice,” said Siriouthay. She cautioned, however, to remember never to use a tampon with a higher absorbency than you need, and to make sure to change your tampon every four to eight hours to reduce your risk of TSS.
Tampons vs Pads? There Are Other Options, Too
While tampons and pads are the most popular menstrual products, they are far from the only ones. Others include menstrual cups, cloth pads, menstrual disks, free bleeding, and period panties like Thinx. Each of these options is reusable, meaning they have less of an environmental impact than disposable pads and tampons.
Part of the reason it took so long for these alternatives to finally catch on, said Siriouthay, is the cultural stigma around menstruation.
“I think there’s a lot of hesitation to try these products because of how we’re trained to think about our periods: dirty, shouldn’t be seen, and evidence of having one should be discarded,” said Siriouthay.
Reusable products, on the other hand, challenge the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality of menstruation. And they challenge our culture’s emphasis on unsustainable, single-use products.
“They rework our relationship to periods by creating a sort of ritual of cleaning the products, keeping them to reuse, and, in a lot of cases, putting them on display,” said Siriouthay.
Reusable products aren’t for everyone, however: Menstrual cups can be difficult to insert for menstruators who aren’t as comfortable touching their own vaginas, and period panties require easy laundry access. But between these options, and the classic tampons and pads, menstruators today have so much to choose from.
We never have to repeat those early teenage memories of being too ashamed of our menstruation to spend a day at the pool.
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