Pads and tampons are both great options for period care.
Tampons are inserted into your vagina. Pads are worn in your underwear, completely outside your body.
Pads can't be worn while you're swimming or taking a bath, while tampons are an option.
Tampons are associated with an increased risk of a rare condition called toxic shock syndrome.
The tampons vs. pads debate has been around for what feels like forever. They're two of the most common period products out there, and many people have strong feelings about which one is better.
If you're still on the fence, the choice can seem intimidating. Your decision will depend on things like your personal preferences, flow and the length of your period, and lifestyle.
According to research surveys, tampons seem to be more commonly used than pads. Many people also use a combination of the two.
Here, we've put together a complete breakdown of tampons and pads (as well as a couple other period care options), so you can decide for yourself which one you'd like to try.
Quick answer: Is one product better than the other?
While menstrual tampons and pads are completely different products, they both do the important job of absorbing period blood. Both come in different sizes and absorbency levels to match your flow.
The biggest difference between the two is tampons are inserted into the vagina, while pads are worn outside of the body.
Quick comparison: tampons vs. pads
Tampons absorb menstrual blood before it has a chance to leave your body. They're great at staying in place during intense physical activity, such as working out, dancing, or playing sports. Plus, you can swim while using tampons. You can't do that with pads.
Pads line your underwear and catch the blood as it leaves your vagina. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of inserting and leaving a tampon in your vagina, you may prefer pads. Some may prefer using both---either a pad or pantyliner---along with a tampon.
Brief overview of toxic shock syndrome
Tampons, especially high-absorbency ones, may increase your risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. It affects 0.8 to 3.4 per 100,000 people. (TSS used to be more common before the Food and Drug Administration took high-risk tampons off the market.)
TSS doesn't come from just tampon use. It is a bacterial infection that can happen for many reasons such as a cut or an insect bite.
Using the lowest absorbency tampons needed*
Changing tampons every four to eight hours
Switching between tampons and pads
Only using pads when your flow is light
*Note: Consider wearing a pad or pantyliner for additional protection
What are your period care options?
As more people talk openly about this natural bodily function, brands have stepped up to create more period care options for people who need them. Some of the main ones include tampons, pads, menstrual cups, and period underwear.
Menstrual health used to be a taboo topic often whispered about in bathrooms and nicknames such as Aunt Flo or Monthly Visitor.
What are tampons?
Tampons are small, cylinder-shaped products that go inside your vagina. They're made of absorbent material, usually cotton. Some tampons come inside plastic or cardboard applicators that help with insertion. Others can be inserted with your fingers.
Tampons absorb blood inside your vagina before it leaves your body and drips onto your underwear or pad. They sit completely inside your vagina, except for a dangling string you'll use when you're ready to take the tampon out.
What are pads?
Menstrual pads, sometimes called sanitary napkins or sanitary pads, are rectangle-shaped products that you can use to line your underwear during your period. On one side, they have absorbent material that catches the blood as it leaves your vagina. On the other, there's adhesive backing that makes the pad stick to your underwear.
Pads sit completely outside of your body, between your vulva and your underwear. Some pads have extra "wings" on the sides that fold over the edges of your underwear. These wings help hold the pad in place and prevent leaks.
What are menstrual cups?
Menstrual cups are a newly popular option for catching blood during your period. They are small cups often made of silicone or rubber. Worn completely inside your vagina, menstrual cups form a seal around the inside of your vagina and catch period blood before it can leave your body.
What is period underwear?
Period underwear, also called period panties or menstrual underwear, is another relatively new period care option. These may look and feel like regular underwear, but they're made of an absorbent material that catches period blood and acts as sort of a built-in pad.
What are the main differences between these period care options?
The main difference between the options above is whether they're worn inside or outside the body. Both tampons and menstrual cups are worn inside the vagina. Pads and period underwear are worn outside the body.
Another main difference is that tampons and menstrual cups may increase your risk of TSS, though this is rare.
Pros and cons of using tampons, pads, menstrual cups, and period underwear
Now that you know the difference between the main period care options, let's take a look at the pros and cons of each one.
What are the pros and cons of using tampons?
Here are some of the pros of using tampons:
Tampons are small and discreet. You can easily carry them in your purse or pocket without anyone noticing. (Having a period is nothing to be embarrassed about, though!)
They stay in place, no matter how active you are. Unlike pads or period underwear, tampons can be worn while swimming.
Tampons are easier to forget about while you're wearing them. You can't see or feel them as much as pads.
And here are some of the cons of using tampons:
Tampons can be intimidating to use at first. It may take a few tries (or a few cycles) to get the hang of inserting them and wearing them comfortably.
They can lead to vaginal irritation or dryness, especially if you're wearing one that's more absorbent than you need.
What are the pros and cons of using pads?
Some advantages of using pads include:
Pads are easy to use. They're a great option when you're first starting your period because they typically don't require any help or explanations to use for the first time.
It's easy to keep track of when you need to change your pad. You can see the blood collecting easier than with a tampon so you can change it before it starts leaking.
And here are some potential disadvantages of using pads:
Pads can be bulky. If you're wearing tight clothing, it may be possible to notice your pad through your clothes. Also, pads can't usually be worn with thongs or g-strings.
Sometimes, pads can get detached from your underwear. They may also shift position if you move around a lot, requiring you to readjust or change pads.
Pads can sometimes be uncomfortable. Some people may not like the feeling of an absorbent pad in their underwear rubbing against their skin.
What are the pros and cons of using menstrual cups?
Here are some pros of using menstrual cups:
Many menstrual cups are reusable. In the long run, they'll be cheaper and create less waste than tampons or pads. (Note: there are other eco-friendly options like reusable pads and tampon applicators, too.)
They can be used for up to 12 hours before they need to be emptied. Plus, they can usually hold more blood than a pad or tampon.
Disposable menstrual cups can typically be worn during sex without leaking.
And here are some cons of using menstrual cups:
Menstrual cups may increase the risk of an intrauterine device becoming dislodged, so check with your doctor before using one if you have an IUD.
These aren't a great option if you don't like looking at blood. Because you'll be carefully pulling a cup of blood out of your vagina, this option can get a little messy.
Like tampons, menstrual cups can be tricky to get the hang of at first. It may take some time to figure out how to position your menstrual cup so it's comfortable and doesn't leak.
What are the pros and cons of using period underwear?
Last, but not least, here are some benefits of period underwear:
Like menstrual cups, period underwear are reusable, meaning they cost less and leave less waste to end up in landfills.
Period underwear come in many different styles and colors, so you get to choose which ones you like best.
These can be worn all day or until they're fully saturated.
And here are some cons of using period underwear:
You can't really change your period underwear when you're out (unless you want to carry around dirty underwear with you for the rest of the day).
You'll need multiple pairs of period underwear to last throughout your whole period. Buying multiple pairs at once may get expensive.
You can't try these on before you buy them, so you may need to go through a few different pairs before finding which ones work best for you.
How to choose: Tampons vs. pads
When it comes down to it, the best period care products are the ones you like the most. You deserve to be comfortable during your period, and the right menstrual product will help you achieve that. Here are some things to consider when you're choosing between tampons and pads:
How heavy is your flow? If you have a heavy flow, you may notice yourself going through pads and tampons quickly. For heavy periods, you may find the best luck with a combination of tampons and pads.
If you have a light flow, tampons may make your vagina feel dry or uncomfortable. It may also be harder to remember to change your tampon on days when you have a lighter flow.
Pro tip: Pantyliners are a great option if you experience spotting before your period or you're worried about leakage when using tampons.
How active are you? If you are active in sports, especially swimming, you may prefer the security of a tampon.
How many hours do you sleep each night? It's not safe to leave a tampon in for more than eight hours. If you're in bed for longer than that, you'll need to get up in the middle of the night to change your tampon or wear a pad instead while you sleep.
Are you uncomfortable with the idea of putting something in your vagina? That's okay! If you don't want to insert anything in your vagina during your period, you may prefer pads.
Are you concerned about TSS? If you've experienced TSS or serious strep or staph infection, you should avoid using tampons. Likewise, if you're not comfortable with the risk of TSS and tampons (though cases are extremely rare), you'll probably want to stick with pads.
How do you use tampons and pads?
Whether you choose tampons or pads, you'll need to use them correctly to maximize comfort and minimize leakage during your period. For a more in-depth how-to on using specific products, you can always check the manufacturer's website.
How to use tampons
There are a few different positions you can get in to insert your tampon. Some people find it easiest to sit on the toilet, while others may stand up with their legs spread or one foot on the closed toilet lid. Experiment with different positions until you find what works best for you.
When you're inserting the tampon, try to angle it so it's pointing towards your back instead of straight up. If you're using an applicator, make sure that you pull it out of your vagina once the tampon is in.
Pro tip: If it's your first time putting a tampon in, try doing it on a day when your flow is heavier. The added moisture in your vagina will make it easier for the tampon to slide in. Also, slimmer (read: less absorbent) tampons will be easier to insert than thicker, more absorbent ones.
When you slide the tampon into your vagina, make sure to leave the string dangling out. You'll pull on that string later to remove the tampon. Change your tampon every four to eight hours and use the least absorbent tampon you need to help reduce your risk of TSS.
Always throw used disposable tampons, wrappers, and applicators in the trash, not the toilet. These don't break down in water and may clog pipes and cause plumbing problems.
Don't worry about the tampon getting "lost" in your body. There's nowhere for the tampon to go after it's inside your vagina. At the top of your vagina, you have a small opening called a cervix that's too small for a tampon to get through.
Very rarely it can feel like your tampon disappeared. If you have tried finding it on your own in different positions and cannot locate it, be sure to have your medical provider do an exam.
How to use pads
To use a pad (or panty liner), wash your hands, unwrap the pad, and stick the adhesive (aka sticky) part onto your underwear. It may take a few tries to find a good placement to prevent leaks.
Your goal when placing your pad will be to put it under your vagina so it can catch blood as it comes out. Your underwear probably shifts a little bit when you're standing vs. when you're sitting, so try to put the pad near the middle of your underwear.
When you go to the bathroom throughout the day, check your pad to see if it needs to be changed. You'll be able to tell when it's full because it will feel heavier, you may see blood on the pad, and there may be a smell coming from the pad.
To change your pad, simply peel it off your underwear. You can wrap it in toilet paper before putting it in the trash can. Never try to flush a pad down the toilet. They can end up clogging the toilet or pipes and creating a big mess.
Pro tip: If you have a pet at home, especially a dog, you'll want to put your used pads somewhere they cannot reach them. Trust us, you will not want to clean up that mess.
Final thoughts: How to choose between tampons or pads
Tampons and pads are both great tools that help keep your period from interrupting your life. If you're trying to decide between the two, here are a few things to think about:
Tampons go inside the vagina and absorb the blood before it leaves your body. Pads sit on your underwear, completely outside of your body, and catch the blood as it leaves your vagina.
Pads are easier to use. Simply peel the backing off and stick the adhesive side to the inside of your underwear. Tampons may take a little longer to get the hang of.
Tampons may be better for people who are more active. They stay in place no matter how you move. Plus, you can wear tampons while you're swimming. You can't do that with pads.
Tampons may increase your risk of TSS. You can minimize this risk by using the lowest absorbency tampon needed.
The decision between tampons and pads is completely up to you, and (good news!) you can change your mind at any time. If you're not sure which one you prefer, you can try out both and see which works best with your flow, comfort level, and lifestyle. You may even end up using a combination of the two.
Did you know The Pill Club now offers period care products?
Whether you prefer tampons, pads, or a combination of the two, The Pill Club has you covered. Existing customers can choose to order period care products with their current birth control prescription. Our new organic tampons and pads are made with 100% certified organic cotton. Some period care products are made with harmful ingredients and chemicals. We think your vagina deserves better.
Our gynecologist-approved tampons and pads contain zero chlorine, zero dyes, and zero fragrance. No matter which you choose, you'll have the comfort of stocking up on quality products for your next menstrual cycle.
van Eijk AM, Zulaika G, Lenchner M, Mason L, Sivakami M, Nyothach E, Unger H, Laserson K, & Phillips-Howard P. Menstrual cup use, leakage, acceptability, safety, and availability: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health. Published August 1, 2019.
At The Pill Club, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Articles are written by experienced contributors; they are grounded in research and evidence-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and extensively reviewed by our team of experts to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.