By Meghan Hennessey
Tampons are a mass of absorbent material inserted into the vagina to absorb menstrual blood. They include a pull-string for easy removal. Tampons are disposable, as opposed to a menstrual cup or sponge, and worn internally, as opposed to a disposable or reusable pad or period underwear. They are available in various sizes and absorbencies, depending on the menstrual flow and relative size of the user’s vaginal opening.
A Short History of Tampons
Before the 1930s, tampons were very different than what we know them as today. JR Thorpe’s The History Of The Tampon - Because They Haven't Always Been For Periods says tampons were used to prevent uterine prolapse, and pregnancy, and to treat abnormal discharge. Tampons were made of different materials than we know today, from rock salt in India, used as spermicide, to goose fat and opium pessaries.
Tampons as we know them now emerged in the US market in the 1930s, as women took a more active role outside the home. There are several stories referring to the origin of tampons. Some credit John Williamson, others Earle Cleaveland Haas, who created the applicator, but Gertrude Tendrich was the first to patent and commercially produce tampons under the commercial name Tampax. Gynecologist Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag designed the applicator free (digital) tampon, founding the o.b. tampon company.
Risks and Hazards Lens
An understanding of the perceived and real risks and hazards surrounding tampon use highlights two opposite attitudes about women and women’s bodies. TSS and the idea that tampons will cause the loss of a young woman’s virginity contrast the lack of research done on the safety of menstrual products, and the symbolic societal value placed on the sexual debut of women.
Many women who choose not to wear tampons do so because of the threat of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). TSS is an acute illness characterized by fever, rashes, vomiting, and diarrhea. This fear is fueled by the cultural memory of the TSS outbreaks surrounding the Rely tampon manufactured by Procter & Gamble. According to Ashley Fetters’ article The Tampon: A History, this tampon was manufactured in 1975, and expanded length-wise and width-wide. Rely was made completely out of synthetic materials, including carboxymethylcellulose. Because of its synthetic components, retailers in Japan refused to carry Rely. Some women could reportedly use a single Rely tampon for their entire period. When taking out a Rely tampon, some blood was reintroduced into the vagina. This allowed for Staphylococcus aureus to proliferate inside the vagina. TSS-1, the strain of Staph. aureus that causes infection, was already present in women’s bodies. Vaginas naturally contain Staph. aureus, but only some have the TSS-1 strain. In 1977 there was an outbreak in Denver, CO. In 1979-80, 55 cases occurred, with seven women dying. A 1980 study showed that 75% of those who suffered TSS used Rely tampons, and that the risk of TSS hinged directly on the absorbency of the tampon.
A perceived risk to tampon usage is the alteration of the hymen, which is perceived to alter a woman’s virginity. This is unfounded, as the hymen is not a membrane covering the entire vagina, and in many women there are openings in the hymen of adequate size to insert a tampon. In some cultures, it is truly taboo for an unmarried woman to use a tampon. The concept of virginity is highly valued in such cultures. As the hymen is the result of development during fetal growth, it doesn’t have any meaning in and of itself. It is a representation that a woman hasn’t had sex. Why does this matter to people? According to Nolan Feeny’s article, Living Myths About Virginity, it is explained by the K-strategist theory. This theory states that men wanted to invest their time in rearing their own offspring, instead of someone else’s. The only way they could be “sure” a child was theirs was if that child was born from a woman who had only had sex with them. And the only way to “know” that a woman was a virgin was an intact hymen. The problem with this theory is the assumption (besides the variables of polyandry and infidelity) that the hymen would break during sex, and that the hymen could only break during sex. Both of these are misguided assumptions that in some cases prove outright false.
Environmental Ethics Lens
After the Rely tampon TSS outbreak, women began to seriously question what is in a tampon. Most companies do not disclose the material percentages and manufacturing processes used in their tampons. Some bleaching processes produce dioxin, and applicators may contain phthalates. Dioxins are persistent organic pollutants, and carcinogenic. Phthalates are known to cause genital birth defects in children of exposed women. With or without these dangerous chemicals, tampon use requires large amounts of resources for the fibers, packaging, and transportation of the product. Even a 100% cotton tampon can be contaminated with pesticides, and the average woman is estimated to use 16,000 tampons over the duration of her menses. Tampax, in its website, lists cotton, rayon, polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, and fragrance as possible ingredients in their tampons (What Are Tampax Tampons Made of and Are They Safe?). The applicators are “tightly wound paper or plastic with pigments for color”. Women want to know what is in their menstrual hygiene products. Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York has reintroduced the Robin Danielson Act, or Tampon Research and Safety Act, to Congress. The act aims to investigate health risks used posed to sanitary product users and their progeny. This will be the 10th time the bill has been proposed since it was drafted 20 years ago.
With the resource extraction necessary for the production of tampons, they already have a significant ecological impact. They require water for the production of fibers, petroleum for plastic applicators, more plastic polymers for the polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyester, and fertilizer use to promote the growth of any cotton fibers. Then we consider the bleaching process. Elemental chlorine-free, or peroxide, the use of these chemicals leaves the manufacturer with chemical waste to be disposed of.
One of the biggest problems of tampon use is the amount of waste produced. The amount of garbage generated by a lifetime of tampon use is enormous! Not only is there the product itself, but the wrapper, box, and (depending on the brand) the applicator. Applicators were added to tampons because the American public was uncomfortable with the thought of young women touching their genitals in order to insert a tampon. There was concern that women could experience orgasmic pleasure from tampon insertion. (Fetters) To create distance between the vulva and the hand inserting the tampon, applicators were invented. First, cardboard tubes were used, but companies later modernized their image by switching to plastic applicators. Applicator tampons have the largest popularity in America, while digital tampons are popular in Europe. This is an interesting dichotomy, as Europeans feel that their hands, which they can wash, are cleaner and safer than a synthetic applicator. Conversely, in America, the hands are seen as unclean, and the synthetic applicator viewed as sterile. Discarded tampons often end up flushed down the toilet, where they cause havoc on plumbing systems. All the waste and unanswered questions about how tampons are produced lead some women to opt for organic tampons, or for reusable menstrual cups or sponges. LOLA is a tampon delivery service that sells biodegradable organic tampons. They have been in business for two years, and have a growing business base, according to These women quit their jobs to disrupt the multi-billion dollar tampon industry — here's why, by Natalie Walters and Jaquelyn Smith.
Tampons are now available in many places around the world, but are not ubiquitous in every culture. Many cultural traditions, myths, and menstrual management practices exist. Some of these practices are harmful to women. According to Around the World in 28 Periods, one such idea is the Nepalese practice of confining menstruating women to sheds. There is also an Afghani myth that washing while menstruating will cause infertility, where as evidence shows that not washing makes a woman more prone to infection. One thing we see in many cultures, including our own as evidenced by the above discussion on the hymen and tampon use, is an absence of adequate sex education. In Malawi, mothers do not teach their daughters about menstruation and sex, and this falls to aunts. The problem with this lack of sex education is that it allows for the proliferation of misinformation. This misinformation can lead to unwanted pregnancies, untreated conditions in reproductive organs, sexually transmitted infections, TSS, and a host of other preventable problems. Because tampons intersect with menstruation and virginity, and therefore sexuality, they provide a catalyst for conversation about female sexual development and health.
By considering the attitudes about and history of tampons, we can gain a better understanding about how cultures around the world perceive menstruation, and how these perceptions shape the treatment of women. Whether it is taboo, celebrated or somewhere in between provides insight into the roles of women in a culture, and whether or not they are valued as givers of life, or marginalized, or in some cultures, both. The risks of tampons, real or imagined, highlight an interesting paradox in attitudes about women’s bodies. While we care enough about symbolic purity to encourage women to avoid tampons and avoid stretching the hymen, we did not care enough to perform adequate research into the safety of tampon materials to prevent the deaths of women caused by toxic shock syndrome. The environmental consequences of tampon use, inside and outside the human body, also carry important implications for women around the world and across many age and cultural barriers.
Around the World in 28 Periods
The History Of The Tampon - Because They Haven't Always Been For Periods
JR Thorpe - https://www.bustle.com/articles/124929-the-history-of-the-tampon-because-they-havent-always-been-for-periods
Living Myths About Virginity. Nolan Feeney - https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/living-myths-about-virginity/283628/ 12/11/17.
The Tampon: A History. Ashley Fetters - https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-of-the-tampon/394334/ 12/11/17.
These women quit their jobs to disrupt the multi-billion dollar tampon industry - here's why
Natalie Smith - http://www.businessinsider.com/women-start-an-all-natural-tampon-company-2016-2
What Are Tampax Tampons Made of and Are They Safe?