What's in a tampon?

Mary Kubesh
23 January 2012

Did you know that North American women have used tampons since the 1930s? Ever wondered what they're made of now and what they were made of back then…or even earlier?

Today, menstrual tampons are made from fibres of cotton, rayon, or a blend of both. Rayon is a synthetic fibre made from cellulose, which comes from wood pulp. The type of tampon that you are probably familiar with is disposable and designed to be inserted into the vagina during menstruation (a woman's period) to absorb the flow of menstrual blood.

Disposable tampons were invented by the ancient Egyptians and made from softened papyrus. The ancient Greeks also made tampons, but from lint wrapped around a small piece of wood. Wool, sponges, paper, vegetable fibers and even grass are some of the other materials that have historically been used to make tampons. Aren’t you glad that we have moved past using grass for tampons!?

Did You Know?
The word tampon comes from the medieval French word tampion — a piece of cloth that blocks an opening.

Today, tampons come in different sizes, which are usually related to how much liquid they can absorb. Some tampons have applicators to make them easier to insert. These applicators can be made of plastic or cardboard. Dr. Earl Haas from Colorado invented the modern applicator tampon with a cord for removal in 1929. The Tampax® Company was later founded by Hertrude Tendrich, who bought Dr. Haas' patent for the applicator tampon.

Fast fact: Tampons are regulated as medical devices in Canada.

The main difference in the way tampon brands absorb liquid is how they expand in the body. Some tampons, such as those that come with applicators, like Tampax and Natracare®, expand axially (increase in length). Other tampons, such as those without applicators, like OB®, expand radially (increase in diameter).

Fast fact: The design of a tampon applicator is like a syringe. The applicator has two tubes — an outer barrel and an inner plunger to help push the tampon out of the outer barrel and into the vaginal cavity.

It is up to you to decide whether to use a tampon instead of external protection — like menstrual pads — during your period. However, you should know that using tampons may have certain health risks, such as an increased risk of the very rare, but very dangerous, condition called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TTS). TTS occurs when toxins made by certain strains of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (Staph) get into your bloodstream. It may seem like a good idea to use the most-absorbent tampon so you don’t have to change it as often, but when you keep a tampon in too long it gives the Staph bacteria more of a chance to grow. To help prevent your risk of TTS, you should use the least-absorbent tampon you need and change it as recommended.

Learn More!

Kids Health: Pads and Tampons

Health Canada It's Your Health:Menstrual Tampons

Article first published April 11, 2011.

Mary Kubesh

I received both my undergraduate degree in Zoology and my graduate degree in Developmental Genetics at the University of Toronto.  My research involved figuring out the signal that tells cells when to move and I did all my research on fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster).  Did you know that about 61% of known human disease genes have a recognizable match in the genetic code of fruit flies?  The purpose of my research was to determine why some cancer tumour cells move around (metastasize) and others do not. I am currently working as a Project Officer at Actua, helping to provide young Canadians with positive, hands-on learning experiences in science, technology and engineering.


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