A tampon is a plug of cotton or other absorbent material inserted into a body cavity or wound to absorb bodily fluid. The most common type in daily use(and the topic of the remainder of this article) is a usually disposable plug that is designed to be inserted into the vagina during menstruation to absorb the flow of blood. Several countries, including the United States, under the banner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate tampons as medical devices.


The ancient Egyptians invented the first disposable tampons made from softened papyrus. The ancient Greeks invented tampons made from lint wrapped around a small piece of wood, recorded in writing by Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C. Other materials used for the first tampons have included: wool, paper, vegetable fibers, sponges, grass, and later cotton.

As a medical device, the tampon, (from the French for plug, or stopper) has been around since the 19th century, when antiseptic cotton tampons treated with salicylates were used to stop the bleeding from bullet wounds, and there have been reports of modern menstrual tampons being used for the same purpose by soldiers in the Iraq War.

The applicator tampon with removal cord was invented in 1929 and submitted for patent in 1931 by Dr. Earle Haas, an American man from Denver, Colorado. Dr Hass later sold the patent of the applicator tampon to Gertrude Tendrich, who founded the Tampax Company for the mass production of the lengthways expanding tampon It is documented that Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag a gynecologist developed, during her studies on the female anatomy, the digital design of tampon. In the late 1940’s, Dr. Carl Hahn, together with Heinz Mittag worked on the mass production of such a tampon. Dr. Hahn sold his Company which included the digital style tampon range to Johnson and Johnson in 1974.

Design and packaging

Tampons come in various sizes, which are related to their absorbency ratings and packaging. The outward appearance of a tampon is similar for all brands, but once used some will perform differently to others. The two main differences are in the way the tampon expands when in use; for example Tampax tampons will expand, in the main lengthways, whilst OB and Lil-lets tampons will expand width-ways. All tampons have a cord for removal and some have an additional outer cover to aid insertion and withdrawal. Some women prefer to use a tampon which is contained within an applicator to further aid insertion. The majority of tampons sold are made of cotton, or rayon, or a blend of the two. Tampons are sold individually wrapped to keep them clean, and because the vagina is not a sterile body-cavity, and for the vast majority of ladies contains “good bacteria”, there is no need for any menstrual device to be sterilized.

Tampon applicators may be made of plastic or cardboard, and are similar in design to a syringe. The applicator consists of two tubes an ‘outer’ and ‘inner’. The ‘outer’ tube has a smooth surface to aid insertion and sometimes comes with a rounded end that is petalled.

The tampon itself sits inside the ‘outer’ tube, near the open end. The ‘inner’ tube is encased inside the ‘outer’ tube and held in place by a locking mechanism. The ‘outer’ tube is inserted into the vagina, then the ‘inner’ tube is pushed into the outer tube (typically using a finger) pushing the tampon through and into the vagina.

Digital or non-applicator tampons are tampons sold without applicators; these are simply unwrapped and pushed into the vagina with the fingers.

Absorbency ratings

Tampons are available in several different absorbency ratings, which are consistent across manufacturers in the U.S.:

  • Junior absorbency: 6 grams and under
  • Regular absorbency: 6 to 9 grams
  • Super absorbency: 9 to 12 grams

Higher absorbancies have been banned due to the link to T.S.S

In the UK absorbencies range as follows:

  • Lite (light flow) 6g and under
  • regular (light to medium flow) 6-9g
  • Super (medium to heavy flow) 9-12g
  • Super plus (heavy flow) 12-15g
  • Super plus extra (very heavy flow) 15-18g


Some common tampon brands include:


Tampons are a menstrual device worn completely inside the vaginal canal with the exception of the string. Thus they offer discretion and freedom to women allowing activities such as swimming to continue without interruption. It is usually not necessary to remove a tampon before urinating or having a bowel movement. However, the hanging string may need to be pulled away from the genitals to avoid becoming wet from urine or feces during urination or having a bowel movement.

Unlike sanitary pads, menstrual blood is not exposed to the air with the use of tampons, so there is limited odour. There is no way to see that a woman is using a tampon when she is clothed, unlike sanitary pads, which have outlines that can sometimes be seen through fabric. As a disposable product, there is no need to wash anything in between use.

Toxic shock syndrome

Tampons have been shown to have a connection to toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but sometimes fatal disease caused by bacterial infection. The U.S. FDA suggests the following guidelines for decreasing the risk of contracting TSS when using tampons:

  • Follow package directions for insertion
  • Choose the lowest absorbency needed for one's flow
  • Change the tampon at least every 4 to 8 hours
  • Consider alternating disposable or cloth pads with tampons
  • Avoid tampon usage overnight when sleeping
  • Increase awareness warning signs of toxic shock syndrome

Following these guidelines can help to protect a woman from TSS, and cases of tampon connected TSS are extremely rare in the United States.

Other health concerns

Tampons may contain pesticides used on the cotton and chlorine which is used to bleach them. Some of the substances used to bleach tampons have been implicated in the formation of dioxin. A study by the FDA done in 1995 says there are not sufficient amounts of dioxin to pose a health risk; the amount detected ranged from undetectable to 1 part in 3 trillion, which is far less than the normal exposure to dioxin in everyday life. Additionally, tampons not using bleaching or chemical treatment are available to those concerned with potential dioxin exposure.

Fiber loss along with damage done to the vaginal tissue from fiber has also been a concern. Furthermore, as tampons are absorbent and placed within an area such as the vagina, this significantly increases the risk of bacterial infections.

100% cotton tampons contain lower levels of dioxin than using tampons with a cotton and rayon mix. Some researchers such as Dr. Tierno claim that switching to a 100% cotton alternative, such as Natracare, greatly reduces the risk of TSS.

Alternative choices

In Western culture, most women choose to use either tampons or disposable sanitary napkins to handle their menstrual flow. Other choices include menstrual cups, cloth menstrual pads, or a diaphragm.

Prior to the development of tampons, Western women generally resorted to reusable cloth rags. These would be soaked in a diaper pail after use. Rags continue to be used by women in some Third-World countries today, including much of Africa, out of affordability and distribution problems associated with other methods.

The Museum of Menstruation proposes that most premodern women used nothing at all, but bled into their clothing. It should also be remembered that many premodern women would have menstruated relatively little, being pregnant or breast-feeding most of their fertile lives.


  • Finley, Harry (1998)(2001). The Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health. Retrieved December 12, 2003 from http://www.mum.org/comtampons.htm
  • Khela, Bal (November 26, 1999). The Women's Environmental Network. Retrieved December 13, 2003 from http://www.wen.org.uk/gen_eng/Genetics/tampon1.htm
  • Meadows, Michelle (March-April, 2000). Tampon safety: TSS now rare, but women should still take care FDA Consumer magazine.
  • Sanpro. (April 8, 2003). The Women's Environmental Network. Retrieved December 13, 2003 from http://www.wen.org.uk/sanpro/sanpro.htm
  • Truths and myths about tampons http://www.snopes.com/toxins/tampon.htm
  • Using a Toilet for Tampon Disposal
  • Practicing Proper Sanitary Napkin Disposal
  • The effects of lactic acid bacteria: Bacterial Vaginosis: a public health review, Marianne Morris et al, British Journal of Obstetrics and Gyneocology, 2001, Bacterial Vaginosis as a risk factor for preterm delivery: A meta analysis, Harld Leitisch et al, General Obstetrics and Gynecology Obstetrics, 2003.

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