On social media, some have noticed a worrying trend: They can’t find tampons in stores. While companies that make menstrual products have not acknowledged the shortage, Procter & Gamble told TODAY in a statement last week that there is “increased demand for our products.”
As people wait for more tampons to appear on the shelves, they may be turning to other menstrual hygiene products to help them navigate their monthly cycle.
“I think also old-fashioned sanitary pads are a good alternative that people are likely to use and have used before and are comfortable with. They’re easy to get right now,” Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an OB-GYN and author of “Let’s Talk Down There: An OB-GYN Answers All Your Burning Questions…Without You Feeling Embarrassed to Ask,” told TODAY. . “But there are some alternatives.”
Disposable tampons and pads should only be used once and no more than the directions say. While many people experiencing menstrual poverty or facing menstrual product shortages may feel this is their only option, doctors say it’s not safe to reuse disposable menstrual products.
“It’s important to use these products as directed,” Lincoln said. “Please don’t leave your products on any longer… your risk of infection and skin breakdown, irritation, increases.”
Experts share what people need to know about other period products and how best to use or avoid them.
Menstrual cups are funnel-shaped devices made of “medical-grade silicone” or latex that are inserted like tampons to collect menstrual fluid. They are reusable and people can use only one for the whole period.
“The good thing about them is that they actually contain more than the usual worth of a few tampons. So you don’t have to change them as often,” Lincoln said. “If you have one, you’re fine instead of needing a new box of tampons every time.”
Its absorbency and reusability are strengths of the cup.
“You can wear them for up to 12 hours,” Dr. Adi Katz, an OB-GYN and director of gynecology at Lenox Hill Hospital, told TODAY. “They usually have a little tab at the end to help with removal.”
But there are some downsides. Mugs can be expensive to buy up front, though they do save money over time. And, there are some reports that people using menstrual cups “has led to higher rates of IUD exit or expulsion,” Lincoln said.
“We don’t know exactly why IUDs are coming out because some people have said, ‘Well, just release the suction before you remove the cup and that should take away the effect of the suction,'” Lincoln explained. “But it’s also thought to happen because there’s suction while you’re using the cup, so that’s slowly dislodging the IUD?”
People also wonder if when removing the cup, people could accidentally grab the IUD strings and pull them out, too, though Katz said that can also happen rarely when people try to remove tampons. People can ask their doctor to cut the IUD string to prevent this.
“The good news is that most people will only need this if they have a copper-bearing IUD because many people who have progesterone-only IUDs don’t have periods,” Lincoln said.
People need to sterilize their cups after their periods. Lincoln says it’s like sterilizing a bottle, putting it in boiling water and letting it cool. During menstruation, people can rinse them with a little water and a mild soap (a fragrance-free one like the one they use to clean their vulva, Lincoln said).
“When you wear it during your period, you can wash it after use and put it back on,” Katz said.
Menstrual discs look and work a bit like birth control diaphragms. They are “essentially a medical-grade plastic bag with a lip,” Katz said. The circle fits against the cervix and captures the menstrual fluid. Most of them are disposable.
“The diameter is a little bit wider, you just fold it over and put it in there and use your finger to get it under the pubic bone,” Lincoln said. “It may take a bit of trial and error.”
Like cups, they last longer than a tampon.
“You could wear it longer because it absorbs more than a tampon,” Katz said. “You can use it throughout the day. But you can’t reuse it.”
Lincoln suggests that people first try inserting it in the shower and wear a pad or period underwear on heavy flow days until people feel comfortable with the disc placement.
“It’s actually pretty simple for most people,” Lincoln said.
Several companies offer period underwear, which looks like regular underwear but has something in the lining that wicks moisture away from the body.
“They have a higher initial cost, but over time they are definitely cheaper and menstrual underwear can be used as a replacement for traditional period products or used in addition to them, for example if you are worried about spilling around of a cup or a tampon,” Lincoln said. “They last a long time, so you can get your money’s worth.”
And, patients often find them more tolerable than a disposable pad, for example.
“They are much less irritating to the skin,” Katz said.
Like sanitary pads, period underwear (and reusable pads) come in different absorbencies, such as light, heavy, or night flow.
“You want to make sure that what you use is appropriate for the amount of bleeding you’re going to have,” Katz said.
These are cloth pads that can be washed and reused.
“It may sound a little weird, but it’s the same concept as cloth diapers. Both have been around for a long time,” Lincoln said. “It’s important to know that when you use them, you use them as directed.”
Some people may notice skin rashes or irritation. That’s because some materials used for reusable pads aren’t “that good at wicking away moisture,” Lincoln said. If that’s the case, she recommends simply changing them more often.
The sponges are often just sea sponges, Lincoln said. Some people like them because they look natural, but she urges people not to wear them.
“They are a terrible idea,” he said. “When you’ve actually looked at them under a microscope, they have little bits of sand, rocks, and other particles in them and they can’t be sterilized in the same way you can sterilize a cup or other menstrual products.”
They can cause toxic shock syndrome “because the sponges already have bacteria.” And they can cause cuts in the vagina. If there is a cut it allows bacteria to enter the bloodstream directly which can cause blood infections such as sepsis. The sponge pieces can get stuck in the vagina, altering the vaginal pH, which can lead to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
“Little pieces can break off, which can then be retained,” Lincoln said. “That could lead to infections.”