Feminine products: Pros and cons of each type

While tampons and pads are the most common feminine products, there are other options available. Menstrual cups, discs and period underwear are all reusable hygienic options with different benefits. With so many options available, which one should you choose?
The “right” choice is the one that gives you the best protection, is the most comfortable for you and brings you peace of mind. We’ll walk through the pros and cons of each feminine product, teach you how to use them, and explain the benefits and potential risks of each.
Tampons
Tampons are one of the most common menstrual products. They are typically made of an absorbent material (usually cotton, rayon or a combination of the two) and have a long, thin, cylindrical shape with a string on the end. They are inserted into the vagina to absorb the blood from your period and to prevent leaks. Tampons come in different sizes depending on how heavy the flow of your period is.
How to use a tampon
Tampons are inserted into the vagina. Most tampons come with an applicator to help with insertion, and directions are located on the box. However, using a tampon for the first time can be overwhelming.
Here are some tips for inserting a tampon:

Use a tampon with a light absorbency. These are the thinnest types.
Using a tampon with a plastic applicator, especially one with a rounded top, can be smoother and more comfortable to insert.
Practice pushing the tampon out of the applicator before inserting.
Once you’re ready to try, make sure you wash your hands to keep bacteria out of your body.
The applicator should be angled toward your back rather than inserted straight up.
It can help to insert it while standing with one foot up on the side of a tub or chair, or while sitting on the toilet with knees spread wide apart.
Try to relax! Tense muscles can make it harder to place a tampon. Take some deep breaths and go slow.
After it is inserted, there is a string that sits outside of the vagina for removal.

You will feel the tampon as it’s inserted and it could feel uncomfortable, but you should not feel pain if it’s properly placed.
If it hurts or feels uncomfortable, it’s likely that you didn’t insert it far enough in. Only the string should be dangling down. Slowly take it out and try again.
How long to leave in a tampon
It’s important to remove and replace tampons every 4-8 hours. If you are able to leave a tampon in for 8 hours without leaks, you might be using too high of an absorbency.
Using a tampon for longer than recommended could lead to toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which we cover below.
Do tampons expire?
Yes, most tampons expire after five years. While you likely won’t have a box that sits in your cabinet for that long, it’s possible that tampons can grow bacteria and mold if left in a moist environment, like near your shower, for too long. Usually the mold would start to grow inside of the tampon, so you might not see it.
Pros of using tampons

Tampons are sanitary. Even though you should always wash your hands before application, most tampons come with an applicator, so your hand never touches the part that is inserted in your vagina, unlike with a menstrual cup or disc.
They’re low maintenance. You do not need to spend extra time cleaning the product like you do with a menstrual cup or disc. After you have used it, you simply wrap it in toilet paper and throw it in the garbage. This can be especially helpful when traveling.
Removal is clean and easy. When you are disposing your tampon in a garbage can, it’s likely that it absorbed most of the blood, so you don’t have to worry about spilling it on the floor – or on yourself.
You can use several sizes. The flow of your period can change, so you can use a light tampon one day and a super tampon on your heavier days.
They’re comfortable. When placed correctly, you should not be able to feel a tampon, so you can do any activity as you normally would.
Tampons are safe to use with an intrauterine device (IUD). You can use tampons if you use an IUD form of birth control. An IUD is placed into the uterus, while a tampon is placed lower, into the vagina. Just be sure to wait to use a tampon (or menstrual cup or disc) for 24 hours after getting an IUD placed.

Cons of using tampons

It might be uncomfortable. Tampons absorb blood, and some brands will expand more than others, which could cause discomfort. It might also be uncomfortable if you use too big of a tampon size, as it could make your vagina too dry.
Tampons need to be replaced frequently. Compared to menstrual cups and discs, a tampon needs to be changed frequently, which means more trips to the bathroom.
They’re not environmentally friendly. Because tampons are single use and need to be disposed, they use more resources and contribute to waste.
They’re not as budget friendly. While the cost of a menstrual cup or disc will be higher upfront than a box of tampons, the savings add up over time – especially if you have a heavier flow, as you will need to use and buy more tampons. It’s also possible to run out of tampons and have to make an inconvenient stop at the store to buy more.
There’s a risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Though very rare, TSS can be life threatening. It’s caused by Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria that can accumulate when a tampon is left in for too long. There tends to be a higher risk of TSS in tampon use than from other feminine hygiene products because blood is absorbed by the tampon rather than sitting in a cup or disc.
Tampons should only be used when you have your period. If you have irregular periods and can’t predict when you will bleed next, you cannot regularly wear a tampon to prevent leaks. This could increase your risk of TSS.
They can’t be worn during sex. While it’s not possible to “lose” a tampon inside you, a tampon could be pushed further up in the vagina during sex, making it more difficult or painful to remove the tampon. It could also increase you chance of a vaginal infection or TSS.

Sanitary pads and panty liners are one of the most commonly used feminine hygiene products. They are made of absorbent materials like cotton or rayon, are lined with plastic, and they contain an adhesive on the other side that adheres to underwear.

Types of pads
There are many varieties of pads to suit everyone’s needs. You can choose a pad based on several factors, including:

Absorbency. Depending on the brand, absorbency will be labeled differently, but you can find everything from super light pads (sometimes called panty liners) to maxi-pads or overnight pads that are ultra-absorbent.
Length. Some brands of pads come in different sizes, ranging from extra small to extra-large. Many pads come with “wings” that wrap round the bottom of your underwear to stay securely in place. Some pads are labeled slender, and some come in sizes that fit types of underwear such as thongs.
Scent. You can find pads that come in different scents to help mask the odor of menstrual fluid. Keep in mind that this odor is totally natural and doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong, but if your pad is starting to smell, it’s usually time to change it.
Material. Choosing a specific material for your pads may be important to you if you have sensitive skin or want to reduce plastic waste. There are many materials on the market, including organic cotton and reusable pads.

How long to leave in a sanitary pad
A pad can be left in your underwear for 3-4 hours. It should not exceed that amount of time due to the possibility that bacteria will build up and could cause odor. And you’ll need to change your pad more often if you have a heavier flow. Otherwise, it’s possible for a pad to fill up and soak through your underwear or leak.
If you are using a panty liner outside of the time of your period, it’s okay to wear it longer than four hours. It’s most important to change pads when they absorb menstrual fluid.
Do sanitary pads expire?
Like tampons, most pads expire after five years. But the bigger concern comes from their storage location – like tampons, it’s possible that pads can grow bacteria and mold if left for too long in a moist environment, like next to your shower.
Pros of using pads

They’re comfortable. Pads are applied to your underwear – nothing is inserted into your vagina, so you don’t have to worry about anything falling out and feeling uncomfortable.
They’re easy to use. While you might need to try a couple of pads before you find the brand you like best, they’re all applied the same way, so there’s no learning curve. And since you can see the menstrual fluid absorbed by a pad, it’s easy to know when to change it.
They’re also low maintenance. You don’t need to spend extra time cleaning a disposable pad like you do with a menstrual cup or disc. You simply wrap it up in toilet paper or the wrapper it came in and throw it in the garbage.
Pads come in several options. You can purchase different types of pads for the different volumes of menstrual fluid you might have during your period.
Pads can be worn all the time. You can wear a pad at any point in your cycle without it causing dryness like tampons can. This is helpful if you have an irregular period or experience spotting and aren’t sure when to expect menstrual fluid.
They’re often worn as a backup. Many people like to use pads in addition to tampons, menstrual cups or discs. There’s always a chance that a product can leak, so wearing a pad as a backup can keep unexpected leaks from soaking into your underwear or other clothes.
There’s a lower risk of TSS. Because pads are not inserted into the vagina, there is a lower chance of bacteria entering and causing infection. However, it’s still important to change your pad regularly.
They’re safe to use with an IUD. It’s possible, but rare, for an IUD to be pulled out from a menstrual disc, cup or tampon. But because pads are not inserted into the vagina, there is zero risk of dislodging your IUD.

Cons of using pads

They can feel bulky. Super absorbent pads are often likened to wearing a diaper. These types of pads may be better suited for wearing at night.
There’s a chance of leaks or soaking through. While all feminine products pose a chance of leaking, pads have a higher chance of moving out of place or soaking through when they absorb menstrual fluid externally.
You can’t use them while swimming or for some activities. Pads will soak up water if submerged. They might also not be an ideal option for activities that require a lot of motion because the pad could move out of place.
They can be smelly. Though odor from menstrual fluid is natural, it’s not always pleasant. Changing a pad more frequently can help cut down on the smell.
They’re not environmentally friendly. Because most pads are single use and need to be disposed, they use more resources and contribute to waste.
They’re not as budget friendly. Like tampons, you’ll need to regularly buy boxes of pads, especially if you have a heavier flow and need to change pads more often.

Menstrual cups
Menstrual cups are made of medical grade materials such as silicone, rubber or latex. Menstrual cups are shaped like a small funnel so they can catch and collect blood from your period, and they are designed to be cleaned and reused.

Most menstrual cups are made of silicone, and some brands are more firm or more flexible than others. They typically come in two sizes, small or large. Sizes differ between brands and can be labeled differently, such as sizes A and B or models 1 and 2.
A good menstrual cup fit will form a seal to the vaginal wall, and you will hardly be able to feel it. Here are some tips to choose the best size for you:

Small menstrual cup size. Usually, people younger than 30 who have not experienced pregnancy or childbirth can use a small size menstrual cup. A small cup works best for a lighter flow, but if yours is heavy, the cup may not hold all of the menstrual fluid and could leak.
Large menstrual cup size. Larger sizes are a good choice for people with a heavier flow because they can hold a larger volume of blood. They are also a good choice if you have experienced childbirth. If a cup is too large, it may feel uncomfortable during insertion or removal.

A menstrual cup is inserted into the vagina, but is a little different than inserting a tampon, so it can take some time to get used to:

Wash your hands first to avoid potentially spreading bacteria from your hands onto the cup.
It can help to apply water or a water-based lubricant to the rim of the cup. This makes it smoother to insert.
Squeeze the sides of the menstrual cup at midline, then fold it in half lengthwise so it’s closer to the size of a tampon.
Insert the folded cup, rim first, into your vagina like you would with a tampon that doesn’t have an applicator. Insert at about a 45-degree angle towards your tailbone.
Then, rotate the cup in your vagina and let it spring open to create a seal. Tug the stem of the cup to make sure there’s a seal.

The cup should be fully inside your vagina. Like a tampon, if it’s properly placed, you shouldn’t be able to feel it.
To remove the cup, pinch the base of the cup or gently tug on the stem (if it comes with one). This breaks the suction to make it more comfortable to remove. Then, empty the fluid into the toilet.
How long to leave in a menstrual cup
With the right fit and depending on the heaviness of your flow, you can wear a menstrual cup for 6 to 12 hours, only having to remove and clean it twice per day.
Do menstrual cups expire?
With proper use and care, menstrual cups are usually good for 5-10 years, depending on the brand and material used. When purchasing a menstrual cup, be sure the material is of medical-grade quality and does not contain filler in the silicone, which can affect its lifespan.
It’s easy to properly clean and care for your menstrual cup
If you’ve been using pads or tampons until now, cleaning a menstrual cup can take some getting used to. But it’s an easy habit to build.
Really, cleaning your menstrual cup is as simple as rinsing it out with water and wiping it dry with toilet paper or a paper towel each time you empty it.
Some brands make wipes or sprays that you can use to properly clean your cup, which can come in handy if you’re away from home and don’t want to rinse the cup in a public sink. You could also bring a water bottle into the stall with you to rinse out the cup over the toilet.
Soaps and other cleaners are not recommended for cleaning a menstrual cup because they could break down the material or irritate the vagina. Water is all you need.
In between periods, you can sterilize your cup by boiling it in water for a couple of minutes (follow the directions depending on the brand you buy).
Pros of using menstrual cups

They don’t have to be changed as frequently as tampons. Menstrual cups hold more blood than tampons and pads, so you will have fewer trips to the bathroom and a reduced chance of leaks. You also won’t have to remember to grab extra feminine products when you leave the house.
There’s a decreased risk of TSS. Because menstrual cups collect period blood rather than absorb it, there is a lower chance of bacteria building up. Just be sure to properly clean your cup between uses and to sterilize it between periods.
Menstrual cups are reusable. This means you’ll save money from having to buy more boxes of pads or tampons – some cups last up to 10 years, which could be about 120 cycles! Using menstrual cups also reduces waste.
They may be more comfortable than a tampon. Because menstrual cups collect blood, they don’t absorb and expand like tampons. If you find that expansion uncomfortable, a menstrual cup might be a good alternative.
Cups can be inserted before your period. While tampons should only be used during your period, a menstrual cup can be used before your period starts if you want to stay ahead of first-day leaks. It’s also helpful to wear if you have an irregular period and aren’t sure when it will start.
They’re safe to use with an IUD. Like a tampon, a menstrual cup is only placed in the vagina, so it won’t interfere with the placement of an IUD.

Cons of using menstrual cups

It can be messy. When using a menstrual cup instead of a tampon, there is a greater chance of spilling menstrual fluid. It’s possible to clumsily remove your cup, causing splashes or dropping it on the floor. For some people, this may be especially worrisome when in public.
It requires maintenance. The cup needs to be cleaned with water and dried after each time it is removed. It should also be sanitized each month between periods – this is extremely important to reduce your risk of infections. For some people, using a menstrual cup just adds more hassle to a busy day.
It may be difficult to insert or remove. Some people may not be as comfortable inserting a menstrual cup because there is not an applicator to assist like there is with a tampon – you must insert your fingers into your vagina. It can also be difficult to remove if the seal is not broken first, which could feel uncomfortable.
You may need to use lubricant. To help with insertion, some people use water or a water-based lube to help insert the cup. This is yet another step that some people may not want to have to take.
It may take time to find the right fit. For a menstrual cup to work properly and to feel comfortable, you may need to try a few brands and sizes before finding the right fit.
And it’s not recommended to wear during sex. While a menstrual cup may be a better option than a tampon for use during sex, it still has its downsides. A menstrual cup sits lower in the vaginal canal than a menstrual disc, so sex could cause pain by pushing the cup against your cervix or pushing it further back to make removal more difficult. And the suction of the cup could be broken, causing leaks.

Menstrual discs
Menstrual discs are thin, round, flexible period products made of medical grade silicone or polyethylene materials that collect blood from your period. They are mostly disposable, but there are some reusable styles available. A menstrual disc is placed high up in your vaginal canal, in the space between your cervix and pubic bone. This is located farther back than where you’d place a tampon or menstrual cup.
How to use a menstrual disc
While inserting a menstrual disc is similar to that of a tampon or menstrual cup, there are a few unique steps to ensure proper placement:

After washing your hands, squeeze the sides of the disc together at the midway point.
Position the pinched part of the disc so it is facing down.
Insert the disc into your vagina as if you were inserting a tampon or menstrual cup, making sure the disc remains folded.
Keep pushing the disc in as far as it can go, past your pubic bone, resting on the base of your cervix.

While you might be able to feel the disc after it has been inserted, you should not feel any pain.
To remove the disc, slide your finger into your vagina and feel for the rim or tab, then gently pull. Avoid pulling on the main surface of the disc to prevent damaging the material.
How long to leave in a menstrual disc
A menstrual disc can be left in for 8-12 hours before needing to remove it.
Do menstrual discs expire?
Reusable menstrual discs are made of medical-grade silicone or polyethylene materials. With proper storage, they can last about 5-10 years.
How to clean a reusable menstrual disc
Cleaning your reusable menstrual disc is the same process as with a menstrual cup. Simply rinse it out with water and wipe it dry with toilet paper or paper towel each time you empty it. Also be sure to sterilize your disc between periods in boiling water for a couple of minutes – follow the directions depending on the brand you buy.
Pros of using menstrual discs

They don’t have to be changed as frequently as tampons. Like menstrual cups, discs hold more blood than tampons and pads. A unique thing about discs is that they may leak some period fluid while urinating. This is normal and can actually make more room for fluid in the disc throughout the day.
There’s a lower risk of TSS. Like with menstrual cups, discs collect period blood rather than absorb it, so there is a decreased chance of bacteria building up. Just be sure to properly clean your disc if using a reusable one.
You can choose between reusable or disposable. If reducing waste is important to you, you can choose a reusable disc. And if you want to save the time it takes to clean and sanitize a disc, you can purchase disposable ones.
They might be more comfortable than a tampon or menstrual cup. For some people, a menstrual disc feels more comfortable than a cup or tampon. A disc does not form suction in the vaginal canal like a cup, which can feel uncomfortable, especially if the cup size is incorrect, and it doesn’t absorb anything like a tampon, so it doesn’t expand.
It’s easier to find the right fit than a menstrual cup. While menstrual cups come in different sizes, most menstrual discs come in a one-size-fits-all option because it sits in the top of the vaginal canal. These also fit most people with a lower cervix. And there are smaller discs available in case the standard size doesn’t work.
Discs can be inserted before your period. Like with menstrual cups, you can use a disc before your period to stay ahead of first-day leaks or if you have irregular periods and cannot predict when your period will occur.
They’re safe to use with an IUD. It’s possible, but rare, for an IUD to be pulled out from a menstrual disc, cup or tampon. However, some people who use discs feel more at ease that a disc will not dislodge their IUD because no suction is formed in the vagina like it is with a cup.
And they can be comfortably worn during sex. Of all the options for feminine hygiene products, a menstrual disc is the best choice to wear for penetrative sex. A menstrual disc sits higher up than a cup, so there’s more room and a lower chance of leaks.

They can be messier than a menstrual cup. A menstrual disc forms only a shallow bowl to catch menstrual fluid, whereas a menstrual cup is a deeper bowl to contain all the fluid. When removing a menstrual disc, it’s best to remove it over a toilet and try to keep the disc level to avoid spills.
Menstrual discs require maintenance. If you purchase a reusable disc, it will need to be cleaned with water and dried after each time you use it. If yours is reusable, it should be sterilized each month between periods. This is extremely important to reduce your risk of infection.
They don’t have a string for removal. Unlike tampons and some menstrual cups, discs do not have a string to help with removal. You’ll need to reach into your vagina and find the rim or tab to remove. It can help to “bear down” your pelvic muscles, as if you are trying to poop, to help nudge the disc out from your pelvic bone.
They may not be environmentally friendly. Some menstrual discs are disposable, so you’ll need to buy more as you use them. However, you won’t have to buy as many discs as you would tampons. There are also some brands that offer reusable discs.

Period underwear
Period underwear is like your everyday underwear except they’re made with extra layers of absorbent material in the crotch area. They can be washed and worn again each cycle.
Types of period underwear
Similar to pads, there are several factors you can look for when buying period underwear, including different absorbencies from light to heavy, different moisture-wicking and antimicrobial materials, and different styles from bikini cut to “boy shorts” to lacy thongs. Some period underwear brands also offer reusable pads for extra protection.
How long to wear period underwear
Depending on your flow, you might be able to wear period underwear for up to 12 hours before needing to change them. But this also depends on the brand and how absorbent they are. Some brands may only be good for 4-6 hours.
If you’re using period underwear outside of the time of your period, it’s okay to wear them longer than four hours. It’s most important to change pairs when they absorb menstrual fluid.
Does period underwear expire?
Period underwear does not have a formal expiration date, but they do have a lifespan. You can expect period underwear to last as long as a normal pair of underwear, and that will depend on how often you wear and wash them.
How to clean period underwear
After you have worn your period underwear, soak them in cold water or rinse in a sink or washer. Most brands of period underwear should be washed on delicate in a mesh bag. You can also hand wash them to extend the lifespan even more.
Period underwear is designed to be stain resistant and should not hold onto scents. But you can always soak them in a vinegar and water mixture if you’re concerned.
Pros of period underwear

They’re comfortable. You don’t need to insert anything in your vagina, and you won’t experience uncomfortable bulk from a large sanitary pad.
They’re easy to use. If you can put on underwear, you can easily use period underwear.
They don’t have to be changed frequently. If you have a lighter flow or use a max absorbency, you may only have to change your period underwear twice per day, which is much less often than a pad.
Period underwear can be worn all the time. You can wear period underwear at any time during your cycle without drying out your vagina, which is helpful if you aren’t sure when to expect your period.
They can be worn as a backup. Like a pad, period underwear can be worn in combination with a tampon, menstrual cup or disc for extra protection from leaks.
They’re friendly on the environment and on your budget. All period underwear is meant to be washed and reused, so you can reduce waste and you won’t need to buy multiple boxes. You might find it’s more convenient to buy several pairs of period underwear, though, which could result in a higher upfront cost.
They’re safe to use with an IUD. There is zero risk of dislodging your IUD when you wear period underwear.
And they have a lower risk of TSS. Period underwear is not inserted into the vagina, so there is a decreased chance of bacteria entering and causing infection. However, it’s still important to change and wash your period underwear.

Cons of using period underwear

There’s a chance of soaking through. If you have a heavier flow or forget to change your period underwear often enough, it’s possible that it can soak through onto your clothes.
They could be smelly. Like with a pad, it’s possible to smell odor from menstrual fluid in period underwear. Be sure to change and wash your period underwear at least every 12 hours.
Period underwear requires maintenance. Period underwear will need to be properly washed and cared for to keep it clean and make it last. It’s not as easy as disposing a pad after each use.
They’re tricky to change in public. If you’re away from home for a very long day or have heavy periods, it’s possible you may have to change your period underwear. This means you’ll have to carry an extra pair, plus bring a wet bag or plastic bag to store your used period underwear.
They’re not great for traveling. If you are traveling for a long time, you will have to pack many pairs of period underwear and have access to a sink or washing machine to properly care for them.

Deciding which feminine product to use for your period
Choosing the best product to use during your period is based on what’s most important to you. These factors can help you decide:

What feels most comfortable?
Do you have a heavy flow?
Do you have irregular periods or spotting?
Will you be very active or swimming?
Do you have time to clean and sterilize reusable products?
Is sustainability important to you?
Do you want something that can be worn during sex?
Will you be traveling?
What time of day is it?

All the products mentioned above are FSA and HSA eligible.
Get help with choosing the best feminine product for you
If you’re not sure about the best option, schedule an appointment with a doctor. An OB-GYN, midwife or other women’s health specialist can help answer your questions about your period, products to use or other concerns you may have about your period.