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The Boyfriend’s Guide to Buying Tampons

The dreaded feminine hygiene aisle, demystified

If you’re in a relationship with a person who has a menstrual cycle, the odds are pretty good that you’ve been asked to go on a tampon run. And if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. Mastering the mysteries of the overwhelmingly pastel-floral feminine hygiene aisle, then checking out without making eye contact with the cashier, is practically a boyfriend/fiancé/husband rite of passage.

But how to tell all these identical-looking products apart? The best way, of course, is to have your partner give you a photo of the exact product they want and tell you where they usually buy it — after years of dealing with periods, women usually have well-developed preferences. But even with a photo, you still need to have some sense of what you’re looking for. Not every store stocks the same products, and those seemingly small differences can be a big deal to your partner, so let me help you out.

The Basics: Tampons v. Pads v. Cups

First, let’s talk about the standard options you’ll find in most stores: tampons and pads. Tampons are made of an absorbent material — typically a blend of cotton, rayon and other synthetic fibers — and are inserted in the vaginal canal (usually with an applicator) and have a string to make removal easy. They need to be changed at least every 4–8 hours (no messing about, they really do).

Pads, officially called sanitary napkins, are absorbent pads with adhesive backs that stick directly to a person’s underwear. Some of them have “wings” (sticky tabs that wrap around the edges of the underwear for a more secure attachment). They’re either worn alone or as backup for tampons. Because pads aren’t used internally, they can be worn as long as needed, but they also come with odor issues that tampons don’t.

Increasingly, stores are carrying a third option: menstrual cups. These flexible cups are inserted into the vaginal canal and do exactly what you’d expect: They conform to the user’s body and catch menstrual fluid for disposal in a toilet or sink. They can either be reusable (made of silicone or rubber, like the DivaCup) or disposable (made of a thinner polymer material, like Softcups), and can be worn for up to 12 hours.

Since most cups are reusable, it’s highly unlikely that your girlfriend will ask you to run to the store to pick one up, but if she does, make sure you know the brand and size she needs.

The Part Where It Gets More Complicated: Brands, Sizes, Applicators… Scents?

Brands: There are dozens of brands, but the most well-known for tampons are Tampax, Playtex, Kotex and O.B. For pads, Always, Kotex and Stayfree dominate the market. Ideally, you should stick to whichever brand your partner prefers — there’s usually a good reason, often tied to design, applicator style, scent and so on. Yes, the generic brands are less expensive, but trust me: If your wife says she needs Playtex, bring home Playtex.

Size and Absorbency: Before we get into this, let’s take a moment to explain why there are so many options here. While every woman’s body is different, periods generally tend to be heavier in the earlier days and lighter in the later days, so it’s likely more than one size/shape of product will be needed. The good news is that both pads and tampons are sold in variety packs meant to cover a range of situations. (Pro tip: If the store’s out of your partner’s requested size in single-size boxes, check the variety packs — you may still be able to get what you’re looking for.)

For tampons, “size” can be a misleading term. You might be tempted to think it’s about the actual size of the vaginal canal, but no — most vaginas can hold a range of sizes. It actually refers to the absorbency of the tampon itself, and the more absorbency required, the larger the tampon. The size names are pretty much standard across the industry. They’re usually marked by color-coding, which tends to vary by brand, and they come in Junior, Regular, Super, Super-plus and Ultra (lowest to highest absorbency).

The real take-home here: If your girlfriend needs ultra-sized tampons, it doesn’t mean she has a cavernous vagina — it means you should be extra-nice to her because she’s having a rough go.

Pads come in a bunch of sizes and shapes, depending on how they’re meant to be used: Smaller, thinner pads are worn on light days or as backups for tampons or cups, while larger, thicker pads are worn longer (e.g., overnight) and during heavier flow days. The terminology for pads can be baffling because it’s less standardized than tampons and often involves brand trademarks. Some variant of “panty liner” or the word “light” usually means a smaller size/lighter flow, while terms like “maxipad,” “regular” and “classic” refer to more average flow. “Super” and “overnight” are pretty reliable indicators of higher absorbency and larger size, but “long” usually means physical length and not duration or absorbency.

You also should watch out for words like “thin” because they don’t always mean lighter coverage — they’re referring to the thickness of the pad itself, which isn’t necessarily tied to absorbency.

Are you confused yet? So are we.

The upshot is that you’ll need to read the packaging carefully to make sure you’re getting the right product.

Applicators: Plastic and cardboard are the two main applicator options for tampons: This one comes down to your partner’s personal preference, which may be a strong one! Plastic applicators make insertion smoother, an important consideration when you remember that a woman will likely change a tampon 5+ times a day for several days running. Cardboard applicators are increasingly hard to find, but they’re the more environmentally friendly option — look for them on organic tampons and the CVS/Safeway store brand, according to sources in the know. The applicator type is usually identified on the front of the box, but it’s pretty small, so read carefully.

Of course, the most natural-resource-efficient tampon option of all is no applicator at all, but it’s also the option that most women don’t go for because it can be messier. (O.B. is the best-known brand for this and is pretty widely available; they come in much smaller boxes because they use less packaging.) If you only take one thing away from this entire article, however, it’s this: DO NOT buy applicator-free tampons unless those are your specific instructions. You’re welcome.

Scent/Material: Doctors are strongly anti-scent when it comes to feminine hygiene products. That’s because the chemicals used to create those scents affect the pH of the vagina and can cause rashes and swelling for some people. Companies still offer them because they know plenty of people are insecure about their scent, but you should never buy them unless your partner asks.

Undyed 100 percent cotton is the material most often recommended for tampons — some people also prefer organic cotton. These things will be clearly labeled on the box because they’re big selling points. If it doesn’t say “organic” somewhere in huge letters, those tampons aren’t organic.

In case you couldn’t tell, the overarching theme here is figure out what your lady likes, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Not everyone is into period sex, but showing your partner that you care enough about her needs to treat periods as the normal bodily functions they are, and know which specific things to buy for her? That’s deeply sexy.