The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A tampon is a (usually disposable) plug that a woman inserts into her vagina during her menstrual period to absorb the flow of blood.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates tampons as medical devices.



There is evidence which suggests that women have been using tampons made of various materials for thousands of years. The tampon with an applicator and string was invented in 1929 and submitted for patent in 1931 by Dr. Earle Haas, an American from Denver, Colorado. Tampons based on Dr. Haas' design were first sold in the U.S. in 1936.

Design and packaging

Tampons come in various sizes, which are related to their absorbency ratings and packaging. Virgins may for instance choose to use the thinnest varieties.

The shape of all tampons is basically the same; cylindrical. Tampons sold in the United States are made of cotton, rayon, or a blend of the two. Tampons are sold individually wrapped to keep them clean, although they are not sterile. They have a string for ease of removal, and may be packaged inside an applicator to aid insertion.

Tampon applicators may be made of plastic or cardboard, and are similar in design to a syringe. The tampon rests inside a hollow tube, which has a narrower tube nested inside one end of it. The open end of the applicator is placed and held in the vagina, then the woman presses the narrower tube in with her fingers. The narrow tube slides into the wider tube, pushing the tampon through and into the vagina.

Tampons are also sold without applicators; these are simply unwrapped and pushed into the vagina with the fingers.

Absorbency ratings

Tampons come 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
  • Super plus absorbency: 12 to 15 grams
  • Ultra absorbency: 15 to 18 grams

Toxic shock syndrome

A tampon in the vagina
A tampon in the vagina

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 for your flow
  • Change your tampon at least every 4 to 8 hours
  • Consider alternating pads with tampons
  • Know the warning signs of toxic shock syndrome
  • Don't use tampons between periods

Environmental impact

Tampons, their applicators, and wrappings are used once and then either flushed down a toilet, or disposed of in trash. If flushed down a toilet, they end up in sewage treatment plants where they are filtered out of the influent. If disposed of in the trash, they may end up in incinerators or landfills (where they can take up to six months to biodegrade).

Some tampons are made with genetically modified (GM) cotton. Chlorine bleach is also used in the manufacture of tampons. The bleaching of fibers with chlorine is implicated in dioxin contamination.

Among tampon users, each woman is likely to use about 10,000 tampons during her lifetime.

Alternative choices

In industrial countries, some women choose not to use tampons, due to health and/or environmental concerns. Several alternate ways of absorbing menstrual fluids are available. Women in developing countries are less likely to have these choices (including tampons) available.

Some women may choose not to use tampons because they fear damaging their hymen, regarded as a proof of virginity. In some cultures, the use of tampons by virgins is discouraged because of this.




  • Finley, Harry (1998)(2001). The Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health. Retrieved December 12, 2003 from
  • Khela, Bal (November 26, 1999). The Women's Environmental Network. Retrieved December 13, 2003 from
  • 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
Last updated: 08-19-2005 03:27:50