The first time you learned about menstruation, you probably were taught the basics of what to expect and what to use to catch the blood flow. But there's probably still plenty of information about period products that you haven't been given. For example, does it matter whether you use scented products or unscented? Do tampons work for everyone's body? How much of a risk is TSS really?
You might only be familiar with tampons and pads as options to use during your period. But if those aren't the best fit for your body or your preferences, you have other choices. "Menstrual cups are menstrual collection products that are made out of silicone and are eco-friendly," Dr. Patrice Harold, director of minimally invasive gynecology at Detroit Medical Center's Hutzel Women's Hospital, tells Bustle. "They can be worn up to 12 hours. There are also reusable cotton cloth pads that are washable and made from organic cotton."
Another common issue is the cost of period products. "Over 30 states in the U.S. still classify period products a 'luxury,' and tax them accordingly," Yanghee Paik, co-founder and CEO of period product company Rael, tells Bustle. So if you struggle to fit single-use products into your budget, you might want to explore reusable options like a menstrual cup or washable pads.
Here's what you should know about period products, according to experts.
1. They Aren't Researched Enough
You might assume that every menstrual product that you're able to purchase has been thoroughly researched and tested before it's allowed to hit the shelves. But there's actually a lot left to be desired when it comes to research. "It’s disappointing that the effects of menstrual products on vaginal and vulva health are under-researched, given more than half of the population will use these products in their lifetime," Dr. Jessica Grossman, a trained OB/GYN and CEO of nonprofit women’s health pharma Medicines360, tells Bustle. "If you're concerned about whether the products that you regularly use are safe, take some time to look at what research has been done into the effect that they could potentially have on your vaginal or vulva health.
2. They Could Give You A Rash
"While there is minimal data, we know that tampons and pads can both cause irritation to the skin, such as a rash," Grossman says. Luckily, this isn't super common. But it's still important to monitor your vaginal health when using these products. "While uncommon, tampons can also cause small tears to the vagina, vaginal infection, and toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare and potentially fatal complication from a bacterial infection," she says. If you have sensitive skin, try to look for products that don't contain fragrances, as those may cause you more irritation than those that are unscented.
3. Tampons May Or May Not Cause TSS
If you're someone who uses scented tampons, pads, or panty liners, you've probably heard of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) as the most widely known negative impact of a menstrual product. Luckily, education about the condition and updated FDA regulations around the manufacturing of tampons have reduced this complication a lot, Grossman says. For instance, many people know that TSS can be avoided by not wearing a tampon for more than eight hours without changing it. But steering clear of scented products is still important. "Research on the causes of TSS is conflicting," she says, "but one thing we can agree on is to stay away from scented products, which can be irritating to the vagina and vulva."
4. They Might Contain Chemicals
Have you ever taken a moment to wonder what's really inside tampons? "In the past, the bleaching process for tampons used chlorine, leaving products with dangerous levels of a pollutant," Grossman says, "however, with increased FDA regulation, this process has been updated to remove the use of chlorine." While this is great news, the cotton part of a tampon isn't the only one that might contain something you don't want to put inside you. If you use a product with an applicator, that's also something to consider. "If you are still concerned about chemicals in your plastic applicator, you can use a product with a cardboard applicator," she says.
5. Not Everything Will Necessarily Work For You
Everybody's body is different, and that includes your vaginal structure. "No matter what option you choose, talking about your menstrual health is critical to finding the best product for your unique needs," Grossman says. You might assume that your only options to handle your period are tampons or pads, but the truth is, there's a lot more out there. You might find that using a menstrual cup works best for you, for example, or that you prefer something even less common like period underwear or a menstrual disk. If you experience discomfort with your current method, do some research and try out something new, which may feel better for your body.
6. You Can Use A Tampon With An IUD
Many folks who have an IUD are afraid to use tampons to control their period flow because they believe they can dislodge or even remove their IUD, Dr. Alyssa Dweck, MS, MD, FACOG, a practicing OB/GYN, tells Bustle. "This is just not the case since the actual IUD is in the uterus and the string (for retrieval) is actually quite short and hangs from the cervix at the top of the vagina." If you're still concerned about having in an IUD and a tampon at the same time, make an appointment with your gynecologist. But rest assured that it is safe to do, Dweck says.
7. Some Aren't Necessary
Many people believe that when they're on their period, they need to use special products like wipes or douches to keep their vaginas "clean" during menstruation. But this simply isn't true. "The vagina has mechanisms to keep itself clean and keep the pH in the normal acidic range, vigorous scrubbing not needed," Dweck says. "Any disruption to the pH (antibiotics, infection, douches, highly fragrant or chemically laden hygiene products), can alter this and cause infection with yeast or bacterial imbalance."
Whatever menstrual products you use, the most important thing is that they're comfortable and safe for your body. If they aren't working for you, talk to your doctor about other options.