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How Many Women Don’t Use Tampons?

Dear Mona,

I use maxi pads exclusively and never tampons. Am I normal? Literally all of my female friends and family members use tampons primarily.

Chris, 35


Dear Chris,

You’re not so strange. More U.S. women use pads than tampons, according to a survey of 739 women conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, 62 percent of women said they use pads, compared with 42 percent who said they used tampons (those percentages include women who said they used both — unfortunately the survey didn’t ask women whether they used only one product). But that survey was conducted between 2001 and 2004, and the CDC tells me that it doesn’t have any more recent numbers. And survey companies — which are interested in questions like “What do you think will be the most likely cause of the apocalypse?” — aren’t so bothered about tampon trends.

MONAI did, however, get some up-to-date numbers from Euromonitor, a market research company that tracks sales of female hygiene products in 81 countries. It found that American women ages 12 to 54 bought, on average, 111 maxi pads in 2014 — but only 66 tampons that same year.1

Euromonitor has data on how many tampons, pads and panty liners women in the U.S. have bought since 2000 — and has even projected patterns all the way to 2019. So I have even more good news for you, Chris: Not only are your period product choices normal, but they’ve been normal for more than a decade. And it looks like they will be normal for a few more years — pads are way out in front as the most-purchased item.

chalabi-datalab-period

When I mentioned this topic in the office, my co-workers with wombs informed me of their own preferred products. Two camps, pro-pads and tampon-devotees, quickly emerged, and each was incredulously asking “why? why?” about the other’s choices.

I have some answers for them and you — albeit based on some very small sample sizes. In 2010, Ann Borowski analyzed menstrual product choices as part of her master’s thesis on environmentally friendly menstrual products using data from Mintel, another market research company. The most common reason for women who — like you, Chris — said they didn’t use tampons was that they found them uncomfortable (cited by 54 percent of these women). Other reasons given were: “I worry about Toxic Shock Syndrome” (40 percent), “I don’t know how to insert them or worry about inserting them” (27 percent), and “I think they’re unnatural” (13 percent).

Among those who said they didn’t use pads, 71 percent agreed that pads felt “bulky like a diaper,” and another 71 percent felt that tampons gave them more freedom. About a third of these women said that pads “seem unhygienic” or that they worry “that someone can see them through my clothing.”

It’s not just that your aversion to tampons is pretty normal in America — it would be even more normal elsewhere in the world. See, American tampon consumption is one of the highest in the world, according to Euromonitor. Of those 81 countries it looked at, only two had higher tampon consumption than the U.S. — Germany, where women ages 12 to 54 buy 92 tampons per year on average and Austria, where they buy 91. Meanwhile, not even one tampon is sold on average each year to women in Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Kenya, Morocco and Thailand.

chalabi-tampons-map-1

A little bit of period math for you, Chris (I know period math is the reason I first got interested in real math): Most women menstruate every 21 to 35 days, and their periods will last between two and seven days. That means that the number of days each year that a woman is handling business while bleeding can be anywhere between 21 and 122 days. I couldn’t find data on sanitary product use for all women, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has estimates for adolescent women that seem pretty reasonable: They use three to six pads or tampons every day of their periods. Annually, that works out to a range of 63 to 730 pads or tampons used per menstruating female. With all those sales, no wonder it’s a super big industry. In 2014, $3 billion in sanitary protection products were sold to women in the U.S. Euromonitor thinks that sanitary protection spending works out to $33.30 per woman per year (obviously women who are so irresponsible as to have heavy periods might end up paying more).

So, Chris, even though the U.S. has one of the highest tampon consumption rates in the world, these statistics show that there’s nothing strange about choosing pads. Go with the flow!

Hope the numbers help,

Mona

CORRECTION (Oct. 2, 12:15 p.m.): An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect estimate for the number of days a woman may menstruate each year; that estimate should be between 21 and 122 days, not 35 and 73 days. As a result, an earlier version of this article also gave an incorrect estimate for the number of sanitary products a woman uses in a year. That estimate should be 63 to 730 products, not 104 to 438 products.

CORRECTION (Oct. 2, 1:08 p.m.): Because of incorrect information supplied by Getty Images, an earlier version of the caption to the photo accompanying this article misidentified the actor holding the box of tampons. It is Giovanni Ribisi, not Eileen Brennan.

Have a question you would like answered here? Send it to @MonaChalabi or dearmona@fivethirtyeight.com.

Footnotes

  1. That age bracket makes pretty good sense. In the U.S., the median age at which girls get their first period is 12.4 years (this varies from country to country), and the average age of menopause is 51 years.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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