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Some showdowns are just inevitable. Backstreet Boys vs. *NSYNC. Britney vs. Xtina. And, of course, tampons vs. pads. Remember feeling pressured to pick a side? Us too.
By now you’ve probably chosen your ride-or-die period product, but do you actually know the ins and outs of what you’re using every month? And how it stacks up against the competition?
We’re laying out all the pros and cons of tampons vs. pads (plus other period products too).
Flow: Light to heavy
Daytime use: 4 to 8 hours
If there was a period product popularity contest, tamps would take the gold. This cylindrical cotton product goes directly into your hoo-ha, where it absorbs your period blood like a little mop. Then you just remove it by its little pull-string. Easy-peasy.
- Good for various flows. They come in different levels of absorbency to serve light to heavy periods, but they’re usually more comfortable during your medium to heavier flow days.
- Fairly long-lasting. For both safety and hygiene purposes, the FDA recommends changing your tampon every 4 to 8 hours (4 to 6 is even better).
- Swim-friendly. Going for a dip? A tampon is your BFF. Just remember to hide that string.
- Sizeable environmental impact. Millions of tampons and their packaging end up in landfills every year.
- Irritation. They can occasionally make your vag dry, itchy, and uncomfortable.
- Not great for bedtime. After 8 hours of tampon wear, your chances of irritation and infections increases.
- Risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS stems from a bacterial infection that spreads toxins to the organs via the bloodstream. While it’s very rare with modern tampons (we’ve ditched most of the dangerous super-absorbent tamps), TSS can have life-threatening complications.
If you have a medium to heavy flow and are pretty active, tampons are a good choice. But they aren’t great for the environment or for overnight use. And they can cause irritation for some folks.
Most importantly, you need to change them every 4 to 8 hours to reduce your risk of TSS.
Flow: Light to heavy
Daytime use: 3 to 4 hours
Listen, pads can be rad too. These rectangular products are made of soft materials and usually stick to your undies like giant stickers. Kinda like diapers but more chic (and discreet).
- More absorbency options. Are you a heavy-flower getting ready for 8 hours of beauty sleep? There’s a pad for that. On the last day of your period and don’t want to waste a big ol’ pad for just a teensy bit of blood? There’s a panty liner for that.
- Almost no risk of TSS. One less thing to worry about.
- A good option for bedtime bleeding. You can even find nighttime-specific pads.
- Frequent changes. You should really change your pad every 3 to 4 hours, no matter how heavy or light your flow is. Changing your pads this often helps keep certain odors away and, of course, helps lower the risk of bacteria buildup. (It’s still OK to sleep in them, though!)
- Not swim-friendly. What’s that floating by? My pad?
- Not great for the environment. The environmental impact here is unavoidable, unfortch. But some reusable options do exist, and some pads are using less plastic film these days.
- Accident-prone. They can shimmy around, sometimes leading to a crooked placement and leaks.
- Pad rash. Thanks to something called contact dermatitis, you may occasionally find yourself with an annoying little rash from using pads. This might be because of chemicals, adhesive, or fragrance in the pads.
Pads can be useful for light to heavy days, but you have to change them every 3 to 4 hours during the day to avoid discomfort and period odor. They are a good option for bedtime use.
They’re not so great for the environment and can cause irritation. If your flow is on the extra-heavy side, pads can make an awesome addition to tampon-wearing.
Flow: Medium to heavy
Daytime use: 12 hours
Menstrual cups are a relatively new player in the game of menstruation. A 2019 study found that they’re safe and are likely just as effective as traditional period products like pads and tampons.
A menstrual cup is a flexible silicone or rubber cup that you insert into your vagina to literally catch your period blood. Most are reusable, but some products, like menstrual discs, are disposable.
- Long-lasting. You can wear a menstrual cup for up to a jaw-dropping 12 hours at a time. (But, as with any period product, wearing it too long increases the risk of TSS.)
- Good for heavy flows. Like tamps, menstrual cups are better for heavier flow days (even though you can use them on lighter days). They also come in different sizes for different flows and vaginal shapes.
- Cheap-o. While there’s an upfront cost that usually ranges from $25 to $40, a menstrual cup is less expensive in the long run when you consider how much pads and tampons run you monthly.
- More environmentally friendly. A reusable cup can last 6 months to 10 years if you take care of it.
- Might be wearable during sex. The flatter disc-style cups can be worn for mess-free period sex.
- Swim-friendly. Discreet like a tampon and won’t get soggy like a pad.
- Generally not irritating. Silicone cups don’t usually cause allergic reactions and won’t mess with your vaginal pH (whew!).
- Less period smell. Always a plus.
- Messy. Since you have to use your fingers to find the cup and pull it out, you can expect a bit of a mess when it’s time to dump the cup.
- Not fibroid-friendly. If you have fibroids, it may be tricky to find the cup once it’s inside you.
- Not great with IUDs. If you’re rocking an intrauterine device (IUD), the cup may pull on the string and displace it.
- More cleanup. A reusable cup needs some love (cleaning) after each use, although it’s not difficult.
- Might contain latex. If you have a latex allergy, you’ll need to read labels carefully to make sure a rubber cup doesn’t contain latex.
Reusable menstrual cups are good for medium to heavy flows and are a very environmentally friendly option. You can wear them for an amazing 12 hours at a time. If you’re looking to change your period products less often, a menstrual cup may be worth the mess.
They also save some monthly costs compared with pads and tampons. Plus, some styles allow you get it on during the crimson wave, mess-free.
Flow: Light to medium
Daytime use: 3 to 6 hours
Period underwear is trendy as all get out. And who doesn’t just want that free-bleed feeling without, ya know, the actual loose blood?
These absorbent underwear, typically made of antimicrobial fabric, catch your flow like a pad but give you the ease of just wearing undies.
- Environmentally friendly. Throw ’em in the wash and wear ’em over and over again.
- Good for light to medium flows. Most products claim to hold as much blood as a couple of tampons or pads can.
- Great for backup leak protection. Rock them in combo with tampons or a menstrual cup on your heavy days.
- Not great for heavy flows. They just can’t absorb your entire day comfortably.
- Laundry. You have to wash them, like, all the time. This may be time-consuming if you’re on the go and don’t want to buy too many pairs.
- Can be pricey. Since they’re reusable, they can make your wallet happier in the long run, but they can run you $20 to $40 per pair (and one pair won’t last you all day if you’ve got a heavy flow).
- Period smell. Things can start to get not-so-fresh after a few hours.
If you’re looking for some supplemental period coverage, these are a great go-to. But they can be costly and need lots of washing.
Don’t grab these in the hope of holding in a heavy day’s flow. But if you’re getting ready to start your period or nearing the end, they can offer comfortable leak protection.
Flow: Light to heavy
Daytime use: 3 to 6 hours
Reusable cloth pads are the ultimate hybrid of pads and period undies. They’re like regular winged pads, but instead of tossing them in the trash, you hang on to them and wash them like you would period undies.
- More environmentally friendly. These send less garbage to landfills than disposables do.
- Lots of flow options. Like regular pads, they come in lots of sizes and absorbency levels.
- Bedtime-friendly. Yes, they’ll probably be bulky, but there are nighttime options.
- Much more breathable and less chafing. The fabric is less irritating than your typical disposable pad and can help your bits breathe a bit more.
- Not as convenient. They’re a bit less convenient to change on the move, and you have to figure out a good system for storing the dirty and clean ones when you’re not at home.
- Laundry. Since you have to wash them, things can get messy.
- Big up-front cost. In the long run, you’ll save some moolah by going reusable. But even a multipack can be pricey, and you’ll need a lot of them.
- Staining. If you don’t wash/rinse them ASAP, they can stain.
If you have the time and patience for the washing, reusable cloth pads might be a good option for all your flows.
They cost more up front, but taking a load off your conscience in terms of environmental impact might be worth it. Plus, your bits may be less irritated.
Free bleeding is when you let your period blood fall where it may — no pads, tampons, or cups. Nada. You just go with your flow.
But is it always realistic? While staining is an obvious challenge, there are also health concerns to be aware of.
The biggest risk is infection. Viruses like hepatitis C and hepatitis B can be spread through dried blood on surfaces. Hep C can linger for 3 weeks, and hep B can still be infectious for at least 7 days.
Period panties can give you the best of both worlds. You’re free to bleed but don’t have to worry about the potential health hazards and staining.
Still worried about toxic shock?
Safety is also important when it comes to tampons and cups. Lower your risk if TSS with these tips:
- Go for the lower-absorbency tampons.
- Change your tampon often.
- Use tampons when your flow is heavy, but switch to pads when it’s light.
- Avoid using one tampon all night long.
- Boil reusable cups after each cycle to sterilize them.
- Clean your cup with soap and water between uses.
Looking for a more masculine or gender-neutral option for your monthly flow? We got you. If you’re looking to support companies with an inclusive vision, consider checking these out:
- Boxer Brief from Period Aisle
- Boyshort and Training Shorts from Thinx
A quick breakdown of all your choices would look something like this (keeping in mind your personal flow really determines what works best for you):
|Tampons||Menstrual cups||Pads||Reusable pads||Period undies|
|Low TSS risk||🩸||🩸||🩸||🩸|
Don’t be afraid to switch up your approach each cycle. Plus, depending on your flow and lifestyle, a combo of a couple of products may be in order.
More often than not, it’s best to keep in mind the stages of your cycle, the heaviness of your flow, and your plans for the day.
If you’re having a pool day, the tampon or cup might be your No. 1 draft pick. If you’re relaxing at home, a pad or period undies may be the comfy choice you need.