The Problem With Scented Tampons

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Research shows up to 86% of people who menstruate use tampons. Still, many people haven’t heard that scented tampons may contain unnecessary chemicals. There are also safety concerns about repeated internal exposure to some compounds found in both scented and unscented tampons.

Scented products may irritate and disrupt the natural, healthy environment of the vagina. And despite being considered medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is little testing or regulation around tampon manufacturing.

The marketing for scented hygiene products misinforms people that they should “correct” the smell of their vagina with perfumes and cleansers. This attempts to play on insecurities. But the vagina is a self-cleaning organ and doesn’t require the help of products to keep clean.

This article will discuss the composition of tampons, potential problems from using scented tampons, and alternatives.

Close-Up Of Woman Hand Holding Tampons

Isabel Pavia / Getty Images

Ingredients in Scented Tampons

Because of limited regulations on the tampon industry, companies do not always list all the ingredients used to make their products. Some of the main chemicals and ingredients in tampons associated with adverse health effects to look out for are:

  • Rayon: A highly absorbent material
  • Polyester: A highly absorbent material that is mostly off the market now due to the risk for toxic shock syndrome (a rare but serious and potentially fatal infection)
  • Fragrance: Chemicals to add scent to the tampon
  • Bisphenol A (BPA): A toxic type of plastic sometimes used in the applicators of tampons
  • Dioxin: A byproduct of chemicals known to cause cancer (was more common when tampons were being bleached, which is no longer a common manufacturing process)
  • Chlorine: May be used in bleaching or cleaning processes during manufacturing

Potential Side Effects of Scented Tampons

The vagina is lined with mucous membranes that can absorb chemicals placed into it. These chemicals may also be present in unscented tampons and can pose potential side effects as follows.

Disrupts pH Balance

The vagina naturally maintains a delicate balance of pH (acidity and alkalinity) and flora (a mix of microorganisms) to stay healthy. The types and relative numbers of microorganisms present factor into the pH balance.

The vagina constantly washes away dead skin cells, bacteria, and substances to maintain its health. No special products are needed to keep your vagina clean and healthy since it is able to remain clean on its own.

The vaginal balance can be delicate, and introducing products and chemicals can easily lead to an unhealthy imbalance. An imbalance in pH can lead to infections or skin irritation.

Endocrine Disruption

Little is known about how exactly the chemicals in scented tampons impact your reproductive health over time. Limited studies exist. Still, it appears there is a potential risk for hormone irregularities, changes to the menstrual cycle, and fertility problems from chemicals.

Companies don't have to disclose the ingredients in the term "fragrances" that appears in the list of ingredients on product labels. However, fragrances often contain chemicals called phthalates, which have been found in animal studies to interfere with the normal functioning of the hormonal and reproductive systems of research animals.

Neurotoxin Exposure

A neurotoxin is a compound that damages nerve tissue. Although tampons aren’t tested for heavy metals that may have neurotoxic effects. If the tampon is made with ingredients grown in an area with higher amounts of heavy metals in the soil, such as mercury, chromium, or lead, it could contain heavy metals. More research and testing are needed to understand this potential risk.

Toxic Shock Syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a condition in which the growth of specific types of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, or Clostridium sordellii produces toxins that cause a whole-body reaction called septic shock.

While this condition is rare, it can affect people who use high-absorbency tampons during menstruation. Symptoms of TSS include fever, hypotension (low blood pressure), and organ failure. It is not known if scented products increase the risk of toxic shock compared to unscented.

To decrease your risk of toxic shock syndrome, you should use the lowest absorbency tampon needed to manage your flow for the shortest amount of time possible.

Irritation

Fragrance and chemicals could lead to allergic reactions or skin irritation. This may cause symptoms like swelling, itching, rash, and redness.

Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) develops when the normal flora (mix of microorganisms) becomes disrupted. When the environment is imbalanced, one of the bacteria present in the vagina can overgrow and cause infection. Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include thin white or gray discharge, pain, itching, burning, and a strong fish-like odor.

Alternatives to Scented Tampons

Besides tampons and menstrual pads, there are other menstrual products available:

  • Menstrual cup: This is a flexible cup that is inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual flow. They come in both reusable and disposable versions.
  • Period underwear: Period underwear has built-in absorbent material. They are worn like any other underwear and can be laundered.

When searching for menstrual products, it’s best to read the labels and research the brand. Since there are limited regulations on these products, it may not be easy to learn which products are safest. Keep in mind the following when shopping for tampons or pads:

  • Avoid products with added chemicals.
  • Use tampons and pads for the shortest amount of time necessary.
  • Use a menstrual pad instead of a tampon while sleeping.
  • Never leave a tampon in longer than eight hours.
  • Use the lowest absorbency required to control your menstrual flow.
  • Look for tampons with applicators free of BPA.
  • Look for brands using organic materials.

Summary

Scented tampons are made with extra chemicals that are unnecessary because people don't need to correct the smell of the vagina with perfumed products. Fragrances have the potential to be irritating and disrupt the natural environment of the vagina.

Instead of scented tampons, consider using organic cotton tampons, pads, and BPA-free applicators. Always use menstrual products for the fewest hours necessary.

A Word From Verywell

The vagina is a naturally self-cleaning organ, so it's not necessary to use a scented tampon to cover up any odors. If you're concerned about a smell or unusual discharge, contact your healthcare professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should a healthy vagina smell like?

    A healthy vagina should have a slight scent to it. It may smell like a mild, musky scent. It may be different for everyone. If you notice a strong scent or a fish-like odor, it can be a sign of an infection and time to contact a healthcare provider.

  • Are scented maxi pads safe?

    Like tampons, scented feminine pads could interfere with the healthy environment in your vagina. The chemicals used in the fragrance could irritate the skin or alter the pH. Instead, look for unscented pads.

  • How common is toxic shock syndrome?

    Toxic shock syndrome is a rare condition, and it’s estimated it affects about 1 to 3 per 100,000 people in the United States. The number of cases has declined with changes to tampon manufacturing.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nicole W. A question for women's health: chemicals in feminine hygiene products and personal lubricantsEnviron Health Perspect. 2014;122(3):A70-A75. doi:10.1289/ehp.122-A70

  2. Jenkins AL, Crann SE, Money DM, O’Doherty KC. “Clean and fresh”: understanding women’s use of vaginal hygiene productsSex Roles. 2018;78(9-10):697-709. doi:10.1007/s11199-017-0824-1

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phthalates overview.

  4. Gaensbauer JT, Birkholz M, Smit MA, Garcia R, Todd JK. Epidemiology and clinical relevance of toxic shock syndrome in us childrenPediatric Infectious Disease Journal. 2018;37(12):1223-1226. doi:10.1097/INF.0000000000002002

  5. Gossack-Keenan KL, Kam AJ. Toxic shock syndrome: still a timely diagnosis. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2020;36(3):e163-e165. doi:10.1097/PEC.0000000000001310

  6. Food & Drug Administration. The facts on tampons—and how to use them safely.

  7. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Toxic shock syndrome.

By Ashley Braun, MPH, RD
Ashley Braun, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and public health professional with over 5 years of experience educating people on health related topics using evidence-based information. Her experience includes educating on a wide range of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, HIV, neurological conditions, and more.