Welcome to The V, our weeklong series devoted to all things sex and reproductive health. This is a safe space free from "taboos," because there's no reason anyone should feel awkward talking about their bodies. That said, we'll be clearing up any misinformation on the subject, starting with this huge misnomer: The "V" in this case doesn't refer to the vagina, but the vulva, which is the anatomically correct term for external female genitalia (including the opening of the vagina). Stay tuned all week for need-to-know guides on birth control, tips for taking your orgasm to the next level, real-life stories about endometriosis, and everything in between.
Two years ago, I made the life-altering switch from tampons to menstrual cups and swore I'd never go back. My new silicone period pal was better for the environment, saved me tons of cash, and could stay put way longer than a tampon without filling up (12 whole hours!), which was both more convenient and minimized my TSS paranoia.
However, since going the menstrual cup route in early 2016, the fem care revolution has exploded, and with newfound attention placed on the ingredients in our wellness products, lots of organic tampon brands have hit the market. Curious to see what all the hype was about, I decided to go off the cup one month late last year and try out one of these new brands. Let's just say it did not work out.
After about a day of being back on tampons, I was hit with a mysterious itching sensation, and even after I switched back to the cup, it remained for days. It wasn't unbearable, but it definitely wasn't fun or normal for me. I figured my body had just gotten so used to the cup that it developed a general sensitivity to tampons, even the organic ones, but period experts say there might have been an even more specific (and unpleasant) cause of my unwelcome itching: tampon shedding.
If you're a tampon user who experiences spontaneous vaginal itching around your period, you might be dealing with the same thing. Read on to learn what you can do about it.
The fact that tampons could leave behind irritating traces of material inside your vagina actually makes perfect sense—I'd just never thought about it before. And apparently, I'm not the only one. "Most women do not realize how delicate the tissue of their vaginas are," affirms acupuncture physician and holistic women's health expert Elizabeth Trattner.
The phenomenon of tampon shedding is exactly what it sounds like: "Tampons are often made of cotton and this can shed," explains body image and sexual wellness coach Felicia Clark. "Take a cotton ball, wet it with peroxide, witch hazel or any other product you rub on your skin. Did some of the cotton come off? Little pieces of cotton can easily shed or separate."
Nonorganic tampons are definitely riskier, of course: The cotton they use is treated with toxic chemicals like polyurethane. "If you read the ingredients, you will see that many tampons have fire-starting chemicals," comments Clark. And it's not as if these chemicals go away the second you remove the tampon, either. "For women menstruating, a lifetime of chemicals can become bioaccumulative in the system, meaning bleaching agents, antibacterial agents, and other chemicals can build up in this area," explains Trattner.
But organic or not, when a tampon leaves behind small bits of cotton in your vagina, that means it's leaving behind old period blood too. This can disturb the pH balance of your vagina, which can cause infections and/or weird odors. Even when the tampon isn't saturated with blood, the dry material can possibly, as Trattner says, "shred the vaginal lining."
In worst-case scenarios, toxic shock syndrome can occur, even with organic tampons. "Many people think that organic tampons protect against TSS, but this is a common misconception," Jane van Dis, an ob-gyn at Los Angeles's OB Hospitalist Group, told us earlier this year. "The unfortunate truth is there haven't been any long-term studies on whether organic tampons are healthier or safer."
Luckily, the vaginal wellness movement offers alternatives beyond tampons. After my traumatic itching experience, I'm now surer than ever that my Lena cup and I are in for a long, shed-free, TSS-free life together.