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Ob/Gyns: Don’t Ever Use a Tampon With Damaged Packaging — Here’s Why

Even a tiny tear can open the door to dangerous bacteria

If you’ve ever discovered an old box of tampons lurking in the back of your bathroom cabinet or vanity or found a wrapped tampon in the depths of an old purse, you may have wondered, do tampons expire? It’s a common question, and it turns out the answer isn’t quite so straightforward. So we decided to bring it to ob/gyns to find out the answer. What they told us was surprising. Read on for their advice on what to worry about and what to let slide.

Understanding tampon expiration dates

You know things like milk and cheese expire, making them unappealing — and dangerous — to eat, and you know that expired medicines can be ineffective. What you might not realize is that dates matter when it comes to tampons, too.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates tampons as medical devices, but manufacturers are not required to include “product dating,” the term the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service uses for expiration dates on packaging. That lack of industry standards means many products might not have a “use by” or “best by” date stamped on the box.

Related: A Doctor’s Advice: ‘Can I Use Expired COVID Tests?’

Do tampons expire?

According to Procter & Gamble, maker of Tampax tampons, tampons do not expire, but they do have a shelf life. (Playtex says the same about their tampons.) What’s the difference? The term “shelf life,” which may be listed as “best by” or “best if used by,” generally relates to the amount of time the item is expected to meet the manufacturer’s standards for quality and performance an item’s quality over a specified period of time, if it’s stored and used according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

According to Procter & Gamble, the shelf life of tampons is generally three to five years (depending on the product). But you won’t necessarily see that information printed on your package, as not all feminine products stamp an expiration date on the product. However, if yours does have one, you’ll find it on the outside of box or on the top inside flaps. Some manufacturers voluntarily print two dates on the boxes: One is the date of production; the other is the month and year your tampons’ shelf life ends.

How do you know if a tampon is safe to use?

Regardless of how old a tampon is, if it looks discolored or dirty or smells contaminated, don’t use it, advises Michael Green, MD, an ob/gyn at Mountains Community Hospital in Lake Arrowhead, California. “You should never use any tampon that has any visible discoloration, patchiness or odor.” The same goes for tampons that have gotten wet or been exposed to excessive moisture…you know like in a bathroom where you take steamy showers every day (more on that below).

ALso smart: “Pay special attention to the wrapping to see if any areas look water damaged, have been torn or might have become fused to the product because of heat or cold damage,” says Greg Marchand, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn in Mesa, Arizona. If you see any of those things, toss the tampon.  

If the packaging has been ripped — even just a smidge — you don’t want to use the tampon, because cotton in the tampon is prone to becoming bacteria-laden and moldy over time. Worse yet, that mold and bacteria tend to form on the inside of the tampon where you can’t see it.

What are the risks of using out-of-date tampons?

Mold and bacteria in feminine products can cause serious irritation and itching “down there,” as well as increased discharge, cautions Greg Marchand, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn in Mesa, Arizona. “Feminine products that have been exposed to extreme heat or cold or moisture, or if packaging has been damaged, could develop mold and bacteria, or possibly introduce specks of debris like dust, into your body, causing irritation or worse.”

If you do experience those symptoms after inserting a tampon, doctors advise removing the tampon and say the irritation and itching should subside. However, if your symptoms worsen, it’s a good idea to book an appointment with your gynecologist.

But there’s another surprising risk of using a tampon that’s past its shelf life, says Dr. Marchand. “Along with posing health risks, these tampons may not provide the same level of leak protection.” In other words, that super absorbent tampon may not work as well as it would have in its prime, leading to embarrassing leaks and stains.

3 ways to ensure your tampon is safe to use

Spare your tampons from the perils of mold or damage that shortens their three to five year shelf-life with these simple strategies hacks.

1. Move them out of the bathroom

Liudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

Many women tuck their menstrual supplies in a medicine cabinet, vanity or bathroom closet. But Dr. Marchand advises against it. “Because of the moisture level, the bathroom is not the ideal place as it’s more likely to breed bacteria.” Your best bet to ensure your tampons don’t develop mold or bacteria is to store them in a cool, dry, and clean space far away from dust or other debris, like a hallway closet.

2. Keep them safe in your purse

Alicia Fdez/Getty Images

“Rolling around in your purse for long periods can rip the packaging, exposing tampons to bacteria, dust and debris,” says Rakhee Patel, MD, FACOG, an ob/gyn with Pinewood Family Care Co. Instead of tossing those spare tampons into your gym bag or purse, tuck them into a small make up bag or zip-top plastic bag you can seal completely to prevent tears and damage to the packaging and the tampon. Just remember to keep them separate to preserve the packaging — which means no stashing your gym card, lip balm or handful of tissues in the same bag with your tampons.

3. Grab a sharpie

It’s also a good idea to get in the habit of checking new boxes for shelf life dates. If they don’t list one, Dr. Green, cofounder of Winona, a female-founded anti-aging wellness center, suggests writing the month and year that you bought them on the boxes, especially if you tend to buy feminine products in bulk. Can’t find a date anywhere for a particular box of tampons you’ve had laying around? Time to go with the ol’ “when in doubt, throw it out.” As painful as it is, since tampons are pricey, it’s better than risking bad bacteria and mold in your private parts.  (Click through to learn how to save money on tampons, toiletries and beauty products.)

Do pads, cups and other period products expire?

Psst: In case you’re wondering, experts say pads also usually last for about five years, too. So doctors advise following the same protocols for sanitary napkins as tampons: Check for dates, jot your own on the box and toss them if the packaging is damaged.

The one menstrual product that doesn’t have a shelf life or expiration date? A menstrual cup, a small, flexible cup that you insert into your vagina that collects your period flow instead of absorbing it like a tampon or pad. Because these cups are usually made of medical-grade silicone or rubber, Dr. Patel says they’ don’t expire and can last for several years with proper care and cleaning per the manufacturer’s guidelines.However, if you notice any tears, a change in the texture, persistent odors or if the cup becomes sticky or brittle, it’s time to replace it.”

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

For more down-there health news, keep reading:

Balancing Your Vaginal pH Can Put an End to Odors, Itching and Discharge, Say MDs

Can You Have BV & a Yeast Infection ? Yes! Ob/Gyns Give the Best At-Home Remedies for Both

A Gynecologist Reveals How To Spot a Vaginal Boil — And What To Do If You Find One

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