Behold, the humble tampon! An innovation so essential and effective that Consumer Reports named it one of the "50 small wonders" to revolutionize lives of consumers.
Historians credit the invention of modern applicator tampons to Earl Cleveland Haas, who patented the Tampax tampon in 1931 and sold his ideas to a sales conglomerate in 1934. But Haas was hardly the first person to think of internal solutions to managing menstruation. Women have been making their own tampons for hundreds — if not thousands — of years. Ancient Egyptian women used soft pieces of papyrus; Roman women used wool; Equatorial African women used bundles of soft grass. It seems as soon as women reach reproductive age, they're looking for ways — other than pads — to hide menstruation from everyone else.
That's one of the things that makes tampons so unique. They are discreet, super portable, and undetectable under clothing. They have a small waste footprint and, once governments finish getting rid of ridiculous luxury taxes, will be available for the same cost as pads.
But for as long as they’ve been available commercially, tampons have been the subject of concern and controversy.
It’s not surprising why. Using a tampon is deeply personal. It is closer to our body than anything else, and our use of it implies a massive amount of trust and good faith.
Which is why when stories come out about tampons being unsafe, they really resonate.
To understand some of the historical context around our relationship with tampons, we need to head back to the 1970s.
In 1975, Proctor and Gamble started test-marketing Rely, a tampon made, for the very first time, without cotton or rayon. Instead, Rely substituted a mix of synthetic fibers to create a super high-absorbency product promising women more freedom by allowing them to wear a single tampon for up to a day.
Rely made bold claims, and they should have been tested. But right at the same time, Congress reclassified tampons from "cosmetic products" to "medical devices" in order to impose stricter regulations. Somehow, Rely managed to slip through the cracks.
In 1978, the Berkeley Women's Health Collective raised concerns about Rely tampons, particularly over how their synthetic ingredients could damage vaginal walls and create a breeding ground for bacteria.
Sadly, their fears were warranted. By 1980, toxic shock syndrome caused by high-absorbency tampons, including Rely, had killed 38 women and sickened more than 800 others across the United States.
Since then, there’ve been big changes in how tampons are made and regulated.
Tampons sold in America aren't made with synthetic fabrics or additives anymore — only with cotton, rayon (absorbent cellulose fibers made from bleached wood pulp), or a blend of the two.
For some people, that's still cause for concern. The issue you've probably heard the most about is dioxin — a byproduct of chlorine bleaching that the EPA recognizes as highly toxic and cancer-causing — and which may be found in trace amounts in some tampons. However, the FDA assures consumers that on their own, these minuscule amounts of dioxin aren't a risk to human health.
Tampon manufacturers are required by the FDA to list a bunch of information on their packaging, including information about absorbency and the risk of toxic shock syndrome, but absolutely nothing about ingredients. Any tampon companies who list the ingredients in their products are doing so voluntarily. For that, we thank them, but many people also wish there were strong ingredient disclosure regulations for even more peace of mind.
In the last few decades, there's been a lot of progress on destigmatizing periods and making "that time of the month" more manageable for women.
It's understandable and encouraging that women are paying so much attention to and asking questions about what they're putting in their bodies. Think of it this way: The average woman's reproductive life lasts for 40 years, or about 480 periods. If she exclusively uses tampons, that adds up to an estimated 9,600 to 11,000 tampons.
With an increase in conversations around periods, there's also been an increase in options. Women have dozens of choices for managing blood flow during their periods — everything from super-absorbent underwear to silicon cups to organic tampons and everything in between. It all comes down to your preference and comfort level.
In the meantime, let's keep talking about our periods! The more open we all are about menstruation, the better.