Pads, tampons, cups, underwear… We’ve been taught to protect one of the most sensitive parts of our body during our period with a wide array of materials. However, no one knew exactly how human blood could affect those products until last year. Up until that point, researchers always tested period products with salty water.

According to Mother Jones, on August 7, 2023, a team of four women took matters into their own hands. They decided to do what no male researcher had thought about doing. Dr. Bethany Samuelson Bannow and a group at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland published a study after testing saturation and capacity levels in menstrual products. They hoped to better understand how to diagnose heavy menstrual bleeding, or HMB, which impacts millions of women.

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“I think with women’s health, including menstrual health, we’ve been a little bit behind the eight ball,” Dr. Bannow told Mother Jones. “They didn’t even require women to be included in NIH studies until 1993. I think that’s telling of what we prioritize as a society.”


Scientists finally tested period product absorbency with actual blood. The study revealed that the liquid capacity of pads, tampons and other menstrual products is significantly different than labels suggest. ???? Link in bio to learn more ???? Have a science question? Tag us @scientificamerican and askSciAm! ???? Kelso Harper ✏️ Annie Roth, Joanna Thompson ????️ Chris Schodt #scientificamerican #sciam #science #sciencetok #menstrualcycletiktok #menstruation #womenshealth #periodproducts #talkaboutperiods #reproductivehealth

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Once again, science failed to take women’s issues seriously

We’ve reported before what happens when doctors and researchers actually explore and study women’s bodies before coming to conclusions for all genders. The deem treatments, medication, and general comprehension of how our bodies function with a broader margin of error due to our hormonal cycles.

But not testing period products properly is a whole other level of negligence. One that, unfortunately, women have experienced, whether they knew or not, about the way period products are tested.

Back in 1980, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) implicated Rely tampons, produced by Procter & Gamble, as “the single tampon most contributing to the onset of toxic shock syndrome.” TSS is a potentially life-threatening illness. Researchers think it is caused by infection with certain types of bacteria associated with tampon use. 

Between 1970 and 1980, there were 941 confirmed cases of toxic shock syndrome in the U.S. Most of them were diagnosed at the onset of menstruation, in which 73 women died. While TSS can still happen to men, children, and nonmenstruating women, the wave of cases amongst women who used tampons was worrying.

The FDA withdrew Rely’s tampons in 1982, and the CDC recommended using the least absorbent tampon. However, this was difficult to follow when tampon boxes were not labeled to indicate actual absorbent capacity. But how could they accurately determine this if they didn’t test the products with human blood?

That’s why the work Dr. Bannow and her colleagues did with period products was so crucial

At the FDA’s request, The Tampon Task Force was convened in 1982 by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), a neutral organization established to promote the setting of standards across industries.

Following numerous discussions, the Tampon Task Force dedicated its efforts to defining the absorptive capacity of tampons in terms of the gram weight of fluid retention. They established absorbency categories and created standardized terms for each category. 

This initiative led to complications for manufacturers as it resulted in discrepancies between the established absorbency ratings and the terminology used in marketing materials. Manufacturers faced the choice of altering the absorption qualities of their products to align with the new categories—adjusting them higher or lower on the scale—or using precise terms in their advertising. 

For instance, what was previously marketed as a “super” tampon would now be classified as “regular” under the new guidelines. This raised concerns among manufacturers about potential loss of sales from consumers who might be disappointed by changes to products they were familiar with.

Again, profits have been above the general health of women until now.

According to Mother Jones, Dr. Bannow’s team took 21 products and saturated or filled them with expired human-packed red blood cells. While this wasn’t an exact match to menstrual blood, it was “a lot closer than salty water.” Their research found that “how the companies were labeling the boxes did not match up with their results.” 

While Dr. Bannow’s research focused on heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB), the team started testing cups and period underwear to see how much they absorb. According to the team, “Typically, anybody who changes a pad or tampon more often than every two hours probably has HMB.” But how could you know if the labels are wrong?

While tampons are more highly regulated because of toxic shock syndrome, “there’s actually not really any regulation for the absorbency of pads,” Bannow said. “And so we thought to ourselves, well, that made sense for what they were doing, in terms of just trying to stratify tampons by observancy, but that doesn’t really make sense for what we are doing in our clinic, which is trying to estimate how much blood loss a patient is having during periods. So we decided just to start from scratch and do it all with blood to give us some more accurate data.”

So, how can you choose the period product that works best for you?

Many people might be intimidated by all this information when it comes to choosing their period products. But there’s a smart way to determine what works best for you and your pocket.

According to Dominique Boadwine, MD, and Avera Medical Group OB-GYN, there’s no one-size-fits-all when choosing a product. The best approach is to consider your flow (heavy or low), anatomy (narrow or wide opening to the vagina), lifestyle, and finances.

“Everyone’s needs are different,” said Boadwine. “The goal is finding what fits your lifestyle and understanding how to use it.”


What do you use and why?! I want to hear about it in the comments! #learnontiktok #tiktokpartner #periodproblems #obgyn #periodproducts

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For example, menstrual pads are a better option to wear while sleeping. However, you need to wear them only for the recommended time and change them every four to eight hours. If you’re concerned about the eco-effects of disposable products, consider trying reusable menstrual pads. Just wear them for the recommended time of no longer than four to eight hours. Clean them by running them under water and throwing them in with your regular laundry.

Similarly, if you choose tampons, wear them only for the recommended time and change them every four to eight hours.

Avoid wearing them at night, as the tampon can be in for too long. This is one of the leading causes of toxic shock syndrome. And if you worry about when to start using a tampon, Boadwine assures, “You can use insertable menstrual products — tampons and cups — as soon as you start having a period.” Contrary to many beliefs, “there’s no medical reason to wait if this is the option you want to use.”

If you choose a menstrual cup, and while there’s a learning curve, it might be the most comfortable choice. Change your menstrual cup twice a day or more, based on your flow. Wash your menstrual cup daily with soap and water, and boil it to sanitize it just before your period starts. “Just one cup can last for years if cared for correctly,” said Boadwine.

Finally, if you choose period panties, rest assured that most brands are made with moisture-wicking material. This material pulls moisture away from the skin and toward the clothing surface for evaporation. Changing your period panties depends on your flow. Just be sure to clean them every day.