Tampons to Sponges, A Round‑up of Menstrual Options
While menstruation in different cultures is approached uniquely, one thing is common: We stick with the menstrual products we know. Because who wants to experiment when white pants are on the line? And we stick with what we first learned to use, because old habits are hard to break.
But that’s changing.
There’s a whole world of menstrual products out there, and while we’re lucky not to have to rely on hay and rags during our time of the month, we do deserve products as diverse as the lifestyles of the women who use them. Here’s a brief history of the some common menstrual products around the world — some familiar, some new, all worth considering.
The tampon, a plug of cotton or rayon or a cotton-rayon blend that’s inserted into the vagina, dates back to the 15th century BC, when Egyptian women fashioned tampons out of papyrus. Later, women in ancient Rome used wool, and African women rolled up grass. Versions of the tampon similar to what we use today were seen in Europe in the 18th century, but were used for contraception or to administer medicine.
The first commercial tampon entered the market in 1936, but faced much resistance from religious groups, since it was assumed to be pleasurable for women (what?!) or that it could rupture the hymen (it doesn’t) – concerns that exist to this day in India. Tampons are most popularly used in the US (with an applicator) and Europe (without).
Myth or fact?
- Tampons cause girls to lose their virginity: Myth. Though it is technically possible for the tampon to tear the hymen, it is highly unlikely. Also: Get over it.
- Tampons can get lost inside the body: Myth. The opening of the cervix is not large enough for a tampon to pass through. While it is possible for a tampon to get stuck (call the gynac), it certainly cannot get lost.
Consider if you are sick of pads, but still want something familiar.
The sanitary napkin or absorbent pad, which lines the underwear, has been mentioned as early as the 10th century BC, when Hypatia threw one at her admirer to discourage him. (Effective.) It’s the most widespread of all menstrual products — rags, hand-stitched or knitted cloth, and synthetic fibers are used all over the world in roughly the same fashion — and the most commonly used product in India.
The first disposable pads were created when 19th century nurses appropriated wood pulp bandages used on wounds to catch their menstruation. The first commercial disposable pads followed later that century. A bulky belt was used to hold the pad in place, but that gave way in the 1980s to the adhesive strip you see now. Today’s pads are slimmer and more absorbent, but still come in disposable or reusable versions.
Myth or fact?
- The materials used in synthetic pads cause cancer: Probable myth. Dioxin, which is used to bleach the cotton used in sanitary pads, has been linked to ovarian cancer but there is no research that confirms the amount that can be absorbed from wearing a pad.
- Reusable pads can cause infections: Fact. Cloth pads used beyond a particular length of time can trap bacteria.
- Cloth pads can make odor worse: Fact. But you run that risk using any product beyond the length of time it is intended for.
Consider if you like to play it safe.
Menstrual cups are bell- or cap-shaped cups worn inside the vagina to collect menstrual blood. The first menstrual cups were developed in the 1870s in the US but weren’t widely used. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, attempts were made by advertisers to promote the product, but it wasn’t until the 21st century, when medical grade silicone replaced latex as the material for menstrual cups, that they gained popularity.
Today, several brands manufacture disposable, 12-hour cups as well as reusable cups that are good for up to 10 years, and some are exploring Bluetooth-connected versions that would allow women to keep tabs on their health in real time. While not widespread yet, cups are gaining fans in the US, Canada and Europe. They’re also gaining popularity in developing nations, thanks to their low cost.
Myth or fact?
- Cups cause infections: Mostly myth. While there has been one documented case of TSS associated with a menstrual cup, there’s only been one. Beyond that, they are made of silicone, which unlike tampon material, doesn’t support bacterial growth (though blood does).
- It is linked to endometriosis: Probable myth. There is insufficient evidence that links the use of menstrual cups and the onset of endometriosis, though it’s possible it might up the chances for a woman already at-risk.
- It cannot be used by virgins: Myth. It might be a bit uncomfortable to insert at first, but most period products take some getting used to.
Consider if you are comfortable with the ins and outs of your body.
Also known as sponge tampons, these can either be synthetic, like the Beppy sponge, or natural sea sponges harvested from the ocean. They can be traced back to the late 19th century in America when they were used not just for absorption of menstrual blood, but also to hold spermicides. While sponges are reportedly popular among women in Greece, they have yet to gain a definitive following anywhere else.
Myth or fact?
- It’s more likely to leak than a tampon: Myth. The sponge is highly absorbent and unlikely to leak, though it might get messy during removal.
- It is difficult to insert: Myth. Once moistened, the sponge can easily be compressed, making it painless to insert and less likely to scratch the vaginal walls than a tampon.
- You can catch an infection: Fact. Sea sponges are currently not approved by the FDA in the USA, since tested samples turned up sand and grit.
Consider if you want tampons sans chemicals and environmental waste.
The latest in menstrual innovation, this 21st century product is exactly what it sounds like – panties you can bleed into. Invented and patented by THINX, these have had widespread media coverage, but are still pretty fringe when it comes to actual use.
Myth or fact?
Too new to have any myths associated yet.
Consider if you’re tired of pads, but don’t like the idea of wearing something inside you.
The oldest method of menstrual management: no management at all. Bleeding freely is gaining a bit of popularity, with drummer Kiran Gandhi running the 2015 London Marathon sans period product, though it’s still far from mainstream anywhere.
Consider if you’re comfortable with stains.
What do you use during your period? Tell us in the comments!