Tam-pondering: What I Discovered About Tampons… The Good, The Bad, And The Bloody

HealthOff BeatWomanhood 21 Comments

The tampon… something we’re so intimate with, yet know so little about.

Gift Aunt FloOf late I’ve had to become more up-close and personal with tampons than ever before in my life. For whatever the biological reasons, my “monthly gift” has decided to shower me with presents each month. No… shower is too mild. It’s more like a sudden and raging storm creating jaw-dropping moments of downpours, thunder and lighting, culminating with me yelling something like, “Surprise! You’re here early and I’m out to dinner in a white mini skirt!”

Not the kind of shower a girl dreams about.

The amount of tampons I go through each month is staggering. I can’t give you an exact number, but let’s just say I’m personally responsible for P&G’s rising stock trend. All of this extended tampon-time got me to thinking, “What’s the tampon story?” Clearly, it’s something that’s changed women’s lives and worthy of some historical investigating.

Here’s what I’ve discovered – the good, the bad, and the bloody.

Tampaxpatent_Earl HaasThe tampon as we know it, applicator and all, was first invented in 1929 by Denver doctor, Earle Haas, who described it as a “catamenial device” (ancient Greek for “monthly”). I say, as we know it, because apparently well prior to Haas, women have been plugging up with rustic forms of tampons for ages (“plug” being a literal translation of the French word tampion). As early as 15th century BC, there’s written evidence of Egyptian women using tampons fashioned out of softened papyrus. Tampons made from wool, moss and other natural materials have been used around the world since that time, and in some under developed nations, still are.

What likely inspired Dr. Haas’s tampon design were compressed cotton plugs used in surgery to absorb secretions and stop hemorrhaging. Even prior to that, in the 18th century, medical predecessors used similar cotton plugs treated with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory chemicals to stop bleeding from bullet wounds.

It’s interesting to think that our little period friends have such a noble beginning in the business of saving lives.

Moving along the modern tampon timeline, in 1933, articles reveal that Gertrude Tendrich, a Denver businesswoman, bought Dr. Haas’s patent for $32,000 and started manufacturing tampons at home on her sewing machine. She eventually founded Tampax and was the brand’s first President.

About a decade later, German gynecologist, Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag, developed an applicator-free tampon. An avid swimmer unsatisfied with the available feminine hygiene choices, she created her own “o.b.” version, ohne binde in German meaning “without napkins.” She designed these tampons to be inserted by finger – hence the term digital tampon. These effective, and inconspicuous bullets (as I call them) were eventually mass-produced and launched throughout Europe. In 1974, o.b.® was sold to Johnson and Johnson.

It makes me smile to know that it was two smart and successful women who initiated world tampon take-over, especially during a time when women were still so heavily oppressed by gender discrimination.

I personally can’t imagine what life would be like if we only had stick-on pads to rely on. How many beach days, soccer games, yoga classes, spa days, cute butt hugging outfits, etc. would I have missed out on? Even using Always Maxi Long Super Pads, I’d always leak. And as for “wings” the only ones that seem to help me come with an extra side of Ranch and get washed down with cold beers. Just the thought of having to straddle those soak-wads, for 6 days and nights makes me cringe. So thank you, Ms. Gertrude and Dr. Judith, thank you!

No disrespect to you pad lovers out there. It’s a personal choice to live un-plugged. I’m just happy we have choices and women don’t have to deal with those sanitary belt contraptions of generations past.

maxi pad

As much I’m team tampon, they do get a few thumbs down, even in my book. With technology and the increased ability of absorbancy, Toxic Shock Syndrome, a debilitating and even lethal condition discovered in the 80’s, occurs due to toxic bacteria growth speculated to result from prolonged tampon usage. Happily following TSS guidelines will totally prevent this life threatening condition.

The other tampon turn-offs are the plastic applicators and “scented” varieties. Plastic problem first – do we really need more plastic washing up on our beaches or filling our landfills? Is there anything more disgusting than strolling through the sand and having a tampon applicator wiggle up through your toes? Please ladies, use the biodegradable cardboard ones.

Is there anything more disgusting than strolling through the sand and having a tampon applicator wiggle up through your toes?

As for “with fragrance”, oh God, where do I start? First of all, why would you want an artificial floral scent wafting up from your lady garden, as it were? We all know during that time it’s no time to stop and smell the roses.

Floral scentAnd do we really need more chemicals absorbed in our bodies, especially via the vajayjay? I say nay-nay! As it is, the bleaching process involved in manufacturing the cotton and rayon used in tampons and it’s potential toxic affects to our health raise enough questions in certain medical circles. Why add to it?

What’s more, feminine “odor” blossoms after the menstrual fluid hits the air, so an internal deodorizer is pure nonsense, and in my opinion, just another way for companies to profit from women’s insecurities. So, when it comes to tampons, fragrance-free is the only way to be!

Happily, there are all-natural tampons on the market today. Although not easy to find and more costly, I’m happy to know they’re out there and am confident we’ll be seeing more of them as we do other organic products on the shelves these days.


In doing my research I came across a feminine hygiene product I’d never heard of before. Intercourse tampons are string-less, soft, sponge-like tampons designed to be used during intercourse, swimming, sauna and bathing. Now… I’m open minded, but with no string, I can’t imagine fishing one out would be very, um, practical.

As the saying goes, there’s a cover for every pot, and apparently a tampon for every petunia.

Can someone please explain to me how the hell we’re supposed to choose a tampon size through absorbency range… in grams? Are we supposed to stand over a scale, or drip into a cup and weigh menstrual fluid?

I have two personal gripes relating to tampons, and I’m sure I’m not alone with them. First grievance: can someone please explain to me how the hell we’re supposed to choose a tampon size through absorbency range… in grams? Are we supposed to stand over a scale, or drip into a cup and weigh menstrual fluid? I’d bet all the tampons in the world that not one woman on the planet can actually tell me how many grams (ounces or tablespoons for that matter!) she’s secreting during her cycle. C’mon R&D folks, you must do better than that!

Queen_CleopatraMy second tampon tiff – why does Uncle Sam tax tampons in most states? Why are feminine hygiene products considered a luxury and not a necessity, therefore taxable? It’s a bloody outrage. I wonder if this kind of taxing travesty would exist if it were Aunt Sam wanting you and your tax dollars all these decades.

Complain as I may, if tampons were pulled from the market I’d be devastated. Undoubtedly I’d fashion some kind of stopgap out of God-knows what – likely from the hardware store given my background. Hey, if papyrus was good enough for Cleopatra…

To sum up my tam-pondering I’ve come to this conclusion: Tampons are a lot like relationships. They have interesting and sometimes surprising beginnings. They have their good and bad points. If you abuse the relationship, you’ll get hurt. Likewise, if you respect it, it can change your life for the better. But know going in, if you commit to it, there will usually be some kind of string attached, period.

About This Contributor

Norma VallyA seasoned veteran of home improvement and all around woman in the know, Norma Vally’s media career boasts four seasons as host of Discovery Home Channel’s series Toolbelt Diva and a radio show on Sirius Satellite by the same name. You can find her on Women You Should Know every Friday as the author of our Fix-It Friday column, which she delivers with her signature, lively commentary.

Norma is also the author of the book series Norma Vally’s Fix-ups; has appeared on Today, NBC Nightly News, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, TLC, HGTV, DIY, Hallmark, etc; has been featured in Women’s Health, People, Woman’s Day, Glamour, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and New York Times.

  • Diva Cup lover

    Use a Diva Cup! Better for you, better for the environment, less messy, AND you can figure out how much you actually bleed.

    • Norma

      Wow Diva Cup lover, thanks for sharing that info. Have you personally used these menstrual cups before?

    • Diva Cup Novice

      are they messy? what type of cleaning/sanitizing is required?

      • Norma

        I did some poking around the internet and it seems they simply get washed out with regular soap and water. As for the messy part, I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be…But then again it must depend on how much a gal is flowing.

  • lainey

    Diva Cup also contains the clots that bypass and are not absorbed by tampons. These clots can be a contribution to the heavy periods you describe. So you may not have to change as often. Great article!

    • Norma

      Thanks Lainey! Glad you liked the article.
      Have you personally used Diva Cups? If so, how do you manage in a public restroom stall when you can’t readily wash them out? I’m very curious to hear from anyone who actually uses them…

      • JAMJ

        Good question Norma… public restrooms seem like they would be a NIGHTMARE!!!

        • Norma

          I’m ALL for trying new “green” things, but they have to make sense. I bet washing a bloody instrument in a public sink may even break some health code. WOAH, I just grossed myself out.

          • JAMJ

            Thanks for the visual… my personal “Nightmare On Public Restroom St” would be to saddle up to the sink only to see another woman washing out her used period cup. It’s bad enough when I head into a stall only to find any number of used things and/or waste floating in an unflushed toilet (how hard is it to flush ladies?). Nasty doesn’t begin to cover any of this!

          • Faerie Fey

            I used one for years. These cups are not for everyone for a lot of reasons. One of which is the sorts of public restrooms one finds oneself in. In a densely populated area where public restrooms are terribly busy, or in a place like a bar, I could see it not being the best choice.

            Graphic imagery ahead:
            When I used them in the public restroom and there wasn’t much privacy available, I wouldn’t wash the cup out. I would often just remove it, empty into the toilet, then immediately reinsert it and reserve washing out for when I was home. Then I could clean up the bits “down there” using toilet paper and get the worst off my fingers that way, too. So I wouldn’t be dripping or anything when I came out of the stall, then I’d wash my hands thoroughly at the sink. Most people aren’t looking closely at your hands when you come out of the stall anyway.

            You have to be comfortable with dealing with all of this though. Part of being able to deal is just seeing your flow as nothing negative or yucky, or just learning to be comfortable with getting blood on your hands. For some reason (and I can be really squeamish about a LOT of things) it just never bugged me in that way. So handling the cup and the fact that my fingers would get blood on them was no big deal to me.

            Of course, I’m also very conscientious and careful about not leaving a mess behind in the stall or trying to avoid making people see things that gross them out like that. I see that as a responsibility and part that goes with the cup, too.

            I found that I had less cramping when using the cup because the “clots” would come out more easily than when i was wearing a tampon. I just figured my body wasn’t having to work as hard to expel those bits.

            I stopped using it eventually because I was having a lot of yeast infections. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those were primarily due to my becoming a type II diabetic, and so I was more prone to yeast infections. I’ve since gotten rid of my diabetes, but didn’t go back to the cup because of fibroids, exceedingly heavy flows, and just life. Of course, now I’ve had an hysterectomy so I don’t have any flow at all (YAY). 🙂

          • Norma

            Thanks for sharing all of that info! Insightful about the cup…first time I heard someone speak to it from personal usage.
            Glad your health issues are resolved!

          • Faerie Fey

            Yeah, a hysterectomy is a wonderful thing. 😉

  • Faerie Fey

    Just wanted to note here: If you’re having such heavy flows (if you soak through the largest available tampon in an hour or less) for more than one day in your cycle, or if your cycle has gotten longer (mine went from about 5 days to around 9 days, and I was soaking an ultra sized tampon every thirty minutes) then you should consult with your gynecologist. You may have fibroids in your uterus that need to be removed. There are several options available for treatment, and a gynecologist should be able to discuss what they are.

    • Norma

      Thanks for this sound advice, Faerie Fey!

    • Norma

      Guess what Faerie Fey….I went to the Gyno and it turns out I do have fibroids! You were spot on! When my period came twice in one month I knew I had to go. Thanks again!

      • Faerie Fey

        I am very glad you’ve gone to the gynecologist! I hope zie’s given you some options for dealing with the fibroids. When I first starting having problems with flooding (it was many years ago), she offered me an ablation, which was basically cauterizing the lining of the uterus so it doesn’t produce much (if anything) each month. That worked for me for several years, but over time my fibroids grew bigger and I ended up getting an hysterectomy (I was SO HAPPY and I still am, nearly two years later). The issues with both of those solutions are that they mean no children. I didn’t care because 1) I was already in my late 30s/ early 40s and 2) I never wanted children.

        • Norma

          Well given the abundance, placements and sizes, there’s not much to do other than a hysterectomy. I’m just gonna focus on my overall health and fitness–I’ve gotten a bit off track this past year. I’m convinced if I work on my overall wellness I’ll feel better all around. The fibroids are uncomfortable but very tolerable, and the bleeding is to a point that I can deal with without any disruption of my life. Thanks again, Faierie, I really appreciate you sharing your experience with me and all of us WYSK readers. Bless you!

  • LizzyWhip

    I’m with Diva Cup Lover, I no longer use the Diva Cup brand, I’ve found that a brand out of Germany is cheaper and has a ton more choices to fit your body. (http://www.meluna.org/en_GB).

    I can not express how this little cup has revolutionized my life and created sooooo much less waste!

    • lizzyWhip

      and to everyone worried about the ‘mess’ and public bathroom issues, you don’t HAVE to choose one or the other. Most of the time my Cup is great, but if I know I’m not going to have privacy I may go the tampon route.

      As others have said, its not for everyone, but I do wish it was a more widely known option, I didn’t learn about them till i was 25. Could have saved tons of hassle, cash, and gross out on tampons over the years.

    • Cassie Williams

      I love the Me Luna cups. They have a wide variety of sizes, stem options (even no stem, which is optimal since you grab the cup on the rings at the base rather than the stem), and softness/hardness as well as lots of great information about the cups. They even show the actual measurements on the site, so if you have a cup that just feels too big, you can find a smaller version on the Me Luna site with confidence. Shipping to the U.S. is only six dollars and change unless you are in a major hurry (mine came in about a week to the east coast) and the cups are less expensive than a lot of the ones I can find stateside.

      I will never buy another tampon or pad. I absolutely love the Me Luna cups.

      As for mess, I don’t find them messy. Just dump and give a quick wipe out. If you keep two so that you always have a clean one to put in, just keep a little snack-sized plastic baggie in your purse to put the used one in until you can clean it out to your satisfaction. I’m a clumsy oaf and I don’t find them messy at all.

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