The Misunderstood Tampon: why much of the world chooses pads instead

The Misunderstood Tampon: why much of the world chooses pads instead

Tampons or pads? Ah, the age-old ‘dilemma’ that Nelly and Kelly didn’t sing about. 

Whatever you use now, chances are you’ve spent at least a few seconds in your life pondering which of these two cushty queens would be your period sidekick.

But did you know, globally, it’s pads every time? 

Seriously. The world goes mad for pads. In fact, according to Statista, as of 2018 tampons held a world market value of 4.25 billion USD, next to a massive 20.5 billion USD for pads.

But why the big tampon snub?

Well, let’s state the obvious first - the grim injustice of where period care is distributed. Period poverty is obscenely widespread, with access to pads alone still a luxury for too many menstruators across the world.

There’s more to it than that though, because when it comes to tampons, chat will always get political. In this piece, we're unpacking the cultural phenomena behind the tampon’s worldwide stigma.

Read on for five reasons why our controversial pal, the tampon, is quite so bloody misunderstood.

1. Tampons and the virginity myth.

We’re sure you’ve heard, ‘If you use a tampon you’re not a virgin’...? It’s seemingly a lie that just won’t die.

This baby has old roots; the first commercialised tampons of 1930s America were marketed to married women only for this very reason. At the time, the thought of an unmarried damsel (hell, any damsel) placing anything internally was scandalous. How self-aware! Breaking her hymen was risky  enough - but what if she accidentally pleasured herself sexually?!

Almost a century later the virginity thing still reigns*, but now it has a sister myth: that tampons = sexual promiscuity. This myth seems to persist particularly in communities with strong religious roots (such as those with Catholic, Hindu or Islamic beliefs), and is common throughout much of Asia, South America and the Middle East. Throw in the age-old notion that a woman’s sexual purity defines her value, and you understand why they may just opt for pads.

*Btw, whether you’re a virgin or a sex goddess, or you get some once a year (nice!) - your use of tampons and your sex life are completely separate things. Always have been. Plus, virginity is a social construct and is nobody’s business but your own. 

2. We aren't taught enough about our bodies or sexual health.

Deny a ton of the world’s women and people who menstruate a decent sex education and tampons become a bit mysterious; a box of fuzzy bullets to hold up to the light and ask, ‘But where would these even go?’ 

This mystery element leads to a fear of the insertion process, as many worry that tampons will change them internally, or even hurt them. Sex education isn’t compulsory in all countries and if it is, it’s often steeped in lessons about moral virtue and abstinence; the perfect environment for confusion and misinformation about the vagina to brew.

Welllll, would it benefit the patriarchy for us to know everything about our own bodies and therefore strengthen our journey towards sexual emancipation? *Dips tampon in the steaming hot, political tea.*

3. The belief that tampons are dangerous.

They say fear sticks faster than knowledge, and the pesky ghoul of Toxic Shock Syndrome certainly hangs around. 

In Latin America, for example (where yes, they stan pads), tampons weren’t introduced until the 1970s - awkwardly right as TSS was first hitting world headlines. Lugging along the risk of death makes for an awkward entrance onto the period care scene, and it’s a rep the tampon has struggled to shake. 

Many who menstruate opt for pads out of concerns for safety, and that’s a valid, personal choice - so long as it's based on the right information. The truth is, TSS is a potential risk but it’s rare and avoidable. Lack of awareness, education and low confidence with tampon usage is, again, what keeps this particular fear thriving. 

4. Many don't know tampons exist.

We know that tampons aren’t sold everywhere, but in countries like China, for example, it's because nobody would buy them! Only 2-3% of those who menstruate in China are tampon users, and not one Chinese factory made a single tampon as late as 2015. 

This tampon-shaped cultural vacuum was pointedly revealed in the 2012 Rio Olympics, when fearless Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, announced to the world that her period had hindered her performance. While thousands cheered her public smashing of taboos - much of China was baffled; how’d she swim on her period in the first place? 

There is a budding tampon scene in China but it hasn’t been thriving. The country is a prime example of the ‘lack of education / awareness = lack of interest’ loop: there can be no interest if there is no awareness. (Oh, and again with the damn chastity thing.)

5. Menstruation shame still runs rife.

The UK and a handful of other countries have just been permitted a drop of realistic blood in our period care ads (but only by a smidge). Also, we got an emoji. But it’s always a battle. An all-round disgust towards that lil' red trickle permeates almost every culture and corner of the globe. 

In India, for example, those on their period are considered ‘impure’ and aren’t permitted to enter temples. In Senegalese communities, menstruating women are prohibited from cooking, doing laundry and eating ice cream. In rural Nepal, women have died from ‘chhaupadi’, an illegal practise which casts menstruating women out to a shed. That’s only to name a few examples of an endless list of period oppression.

Society has made sure to pile shame on anyone who has periods, and it sucks, to put it mildly. So it makes sense that if given the choice, many would avoid the scary, sex-obsessed, alien-outcast tampon, rather than add to the self-consciousness they already face when they menstruate. 


Woah, it seems the tampon is a conversation starter. Or stopper, depending on where you throw it.

At Here We Flo, we believe period freedom and bodily autonomy is a basic human right and should be the reality for all, which is why we donate sustainable period care and 5% of our profits to those who need it. So we hope that you feel empowered to research and choose whichever period care products feel right for you and your body, and that this article was useful in giving you a clearer picture of the olde tampon dilemma!

As for your FLO, our 100% organic cotton tampons and bamboo pads are letterbox-friendly and delivered straight to your door. If you want to ask about our sustainable tampons, bamboo pads or anything else regarding your periods, get in touch. We live for period chat and love a bloody good political Flo-down.