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Period Products: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

She’s not always a welcome guest, but like it or not, Aunt Flo is here to stay. Luckily, we live in a world with more period products available to us than ever before (and thankfully, those products no longer include lamb skins or rubber pantaloons). But with all the choices available to us, how do approximately 3.75 billion women know which product is right for them? There are many factors to consider when identifying the best product for your body and lifestyle:

  • Physical activity level
  • Cost
  • Sustainability - Reusable or disposable?
  • Ease of use
  • Time efficiency – How long can you wear the product before it needs to be replaced or cleaned?

And the list continues. We’ve compiled some helpful information on leading and emerging menstrual care products for you to compare and contrast to determine which products may be best for you:

Tampons and Pads

Love them or hate them, we’re all familiar with them. Pads, followed closely by tampons, are the most frequently chosen period product for maintaining menstrual hygiene. Pads and tampons are made with a combination of absorbent fibers, both natural and synthetic, including cotton and rayon. Pads are adhesive and rest on the inside of your underwear to absorb your flow. No matter the volume of your flow, you should change pads at least every 3 to 4 hours to avoid odor from bacteria growth. Voila!

Tampons can get a little trickier. First things first: insertion. Like many period products, tampons require internal insertion, which can be uncomfortable for some users. Tampons, like pads, are made from highly absorbent materials including rayon and cotton. Unlike pads, tampons rest inside the vaginal canal, so they don’t discriminate when it comes to the fluids they absorb. In addition to your menstrual flow, tampons absorb the vagina’s natural lubricant and bacteria. Introducing a foreign object into the vagina may disrupt its natural pH balance, causing irritation or discomfort.

Although Toxic Shock Syndrome, or TSS, is rare, tampon users should be aware of the risk. TSS is a life-threatening complication that results from an overgrowth of bacteria that naturally exists in many women’s vaginas (Staphylococcus). Be on the lookout for symptoms including high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, severe aching, feeling weak or dizzy, and rashes.

But folks, before you burn your tampons, the odds of suffering from TSS are 1 in 100,000 among tampon users. Consider opting for lower absorbency tampons, change your tampon at least every 4 to 8 hours, do not use tampons if you have a skin infection near your genitals, and seek medical assistance immediately if you experience symptoms.

If you are a tampon or pad user through and through, but are interested in a more sustainable option, reusable cotton pads and reusable tampon applicators are available. Additionally, the average cost of a tampon box is $7, at an average of 9 boxes per year. Pads average $6 per box at 12 boxes per year.

Menstrual Cups

Although menstrual cups have been on the market since the 1960’s (in the form of an aluminum cup, ouch!), menstrual cups are having a moment. Menstrual cups are made from medical-grade silicone, so they do not dry out the vagina’s natural moisture as a tampon would. Insertion is where many individuals tend to shy away from the cup. To insert the cup, fold it in half like a taco and pinch it between your fingers. Maintaining the pinch, insert the cup into your vagina, and release. The cup uses suction to create a seal between the rim and the vaginal canal, so manufacturers recommend rotating the cup 360 degrees upon insertion to ensure the seal is intact. To remove the cup, break the seal by pinching it before removing.

There are several benefits to using a menstrual cup. Many women say that their cramps are more manageable when using a cup because the flexible material moves with uterine contractions instead of pushing back against them. You can leave a menstrual cup in for up to 12 hours. Additionally, there is no external string or pad to get in your way. Perhaps most compelling of all, menstrual cups are highly cost effective. The cost of a menstrual cup ranges from $13 to $25 and can last for up to 10 years if properly taken care of (wash with a gentle soap between each use and boil once a month). What a bargain! For the same reasons, they are also a highly sustainable period care option.

Menstrual Discs

If there’s a period product you haven’t heard of, it’s most likely the menstrual disc. Menstrual discs emerged on the scene in 2015. The disc can be most closely compared to a cup, although their only real similarity is that they collect your flow instead of absorbing it. Menstrual discs are disposable (one-time use) and are made from a medical-grade polymer that heats up inside your body and molds to your unique shape. Unlike a cup, a menstrual disc rests at the base of your cervix, the widest part of your vaginal canal. To insert the disc, fold it in half and push it all the way up the vaginal canal so that it rests behind the pubic bone.

The menstrual disc has one benefit that is not shared by any other product - you can leave it in during intercourse. The disc collects your flow in a soft and malleable “bag,” so there is no risk of injury to your partner. Additionally, because the disc sits at the base of the cervix and not inside the vaginal canal, it’s not likely to be in your way. If you live an active lifestyle, you may want to consider the disc as a period care option. Women prefer the disc to the cup and tampons for exercise, as the the risk of slippage is next to none.

Menstrual discs are not cheap. Depending on the brand, a pack of 8-12 discs costs between $10 and $20, and women use an average of 8 discs per cycle.

Period-Proof Underwear

You may wonder, how in the world do these things work? Magic? Not quite. Period-proof underwear is made with multiple layers of microfiber polyester designed to wick moisture away from the skin and to keep moisture from leaking onto your clothes. Unlike many varieties of fabric, microfiber polyester is comprised of thousands of tiny filaments which act as a maze for liquid to meander through at a glacial pace. The outer layer of period-proof underwear is made from nylon and lyrca and topped off with a liquid-repellant film to further prevent leakage.

Like any relationship, you need to build trust with period-proof underwear. Unless pads are your go-to period product, you may not be used to feeling the flow of your menstruation, as tampons, menstrual cups, and menstrual discs all halt your flow. This feeling can be unnerving, but if used properly, you can trust that period-proof underwear will prevent leakage.

Depending on the style, period-proof underwear ranges from $24 to $65 per pair. Different styles offer different amounts of coverage, so you may want to invest in multiple pairs for various stages of Aunt Flo’s monthly visit. If cared for correctly (rinse before washing and hang-dry), period-proof underwear will last for 2 years. Users with a heavy flow can also pair period-proof underwear with their preferred period product for additional protection from leaks and peace of mind.

Remember that finding the right period product for you is a process of trial and error. What works for you now may not work for you in 10 years, as your needs change. You may find a winning combination of multiple products during each period to adjust for your activity level and unique flow. Whatever you decide, rest assured that with the proper care and usage, all period products are created equal, and all are considered safe by doctors. The next time Aunt Flow comes around, you’ll be ready for her!

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin, the group practice designed and managed by the faculty and staff of the Dell Medical School, focuses the expertise of a team of experienced medical professionals to deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality. Our experienced healthcare professionals treat each patient as an individual, with unique circumstances, priorities and beliefs. Working with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room, and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.