Everyone loves a good sale, but hold off before you stock up on enough half-price tampons to get you through a decade’s worth of heavy periods.
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As it turns out, tampons actually have an expiration date — and using them after they’ve expired can have consequences for your vagina that you’d surely rather avoid.
Wait, tampons expire?!
They can, yes. And while it might seem a little weird that a device made of cotton, plastic and cardboard has an expiry date, hear us out.
Just like so many other materials, cotton is prone to becoming bacteria-laden and moldy over time. And if you store your tampons in a bathroom that also has a shower in it, you’re unwittingly creating the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and mold to take hold.
“Bacteria thrive in wet, moist places,” says women’s health specialist Sara Youngblood, CNP. “You might never have thought about whether tampons could develop mold, but it can happen, especially if you store them someplace damp or clammy.”
How long do tampons last?
Tampons are good for about five years, but there’s a catch: If you store them someplace moist (again, like in your bathroom), they’re more likely to mold before their expiry date.
“Usually, people use their tampons well before they hit that five-year mark, which means the risk of inserting a moldy one is pretty low,” Youngblood says, “but it’s definitely something worth being aware of.”
How to know if a tampon has expired
Tampons are considered medical devices, so they’re regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And though the FDA doesn’t require tampon brands to include expiration dates, many brands choose to. In these cases, you can tell when your tampons expire by checking that date on the box.
Here’s the thing, though: Aside from that, you probably won’t notice if a tampon has expired before you put it in your body.
“A tampon that has gone bad would start to mold on the absorbent core,” Youngblood says. “That is to say, it would happen on the inside of the tampon, where you can’t see it before you insert it into your vagina.”
Of course, keep an eye out for any weirdness. If you unwrap a tampon that smells funny or looks discolored — or seems anything other than fresh and clean — don’t use it.
Do other feminine products expire?
If you’re putting something in or around your vagina, you want to be sure it’s in good shape. So, what about other period products?
- Sanitary pads: Like tampons, pads also have a five-year expiration date. They, too, can get moldy if exposed to wet, moist conditions.
- Menstrual cups: “These silicone or rubber cups don’t expire, per se, but they should be replaced every one to two years — sooner, if they start to tear, stretch or otherwise deteriorate,” Youngblood advises.
- Period underwear: These absorbent undies are delicate, like other undergarments, so you should replace them every so often. They don’t have an expiration date, though.
What happens if you use an expired tampon?
Your vagina is a sensitive place. Any change in bacteria can get things out of whack, and that certainly applies to inserting a moldy tampon.
It’s possible that if you accidentally insert an expired tampon, nothing will happen at all. But it could also cause some unpleasant symptoms, like:
- An increase in vaginal discharge.
“Most of the time, these symptoms will subside once your period ends and your vagina’s natural pH is restored,” Youngblood notes, “but it’s better not to risk letting that bacteria into your body in the first place.”
If you’re experiencing these symptoms and they don’t seem to be going away, make an appointment with a healthcare provider to get things checked out. Be sure to let them know if you suspect a moldy tampon might be to blame.
How should you store tampons?
Trying to keep your tampons in tip-top shape for as long as possible? Youngblood shares a few suggestions.
- Store tampons outside of the bathroom. Store your tampons someplace cool and dry, like a hall closet. “When you’re about to start your period, you can move a few of them into a bathroom drawer for easy access when you need them,” Youngblood says. Don’t worry: They’re not going to get moldy in there over the course of a week!
- Make note of your purchase date. If you buy a brand of tampons that doesn’t have an expiration date on the box, grab a marker and write the date of purchase on it so you can calculate that five-year expiry for yourself.
- Keep tampons in their original packaging. You know how you sometimes take cotton balls or cotton swabs out of their packages and put a bunch of them in a little jar so you can grab one on the go? Yeah, don’t do that with your tampons. “They come wrapped in individual sleeves for a reason: to keep them clean, hygienic and safe,” Youngblood says.
- Toss that tampon in the bottom of your purse! It’s normal to keep a tampon or two in your bag for leakage emergencies, but they can get forgotten in there. Rolling around with lip gloss, crumbs and old pennies. They’re prone to slipping out of their original packaging and getting dirty — which means they shouldn’t be going in your vagina.
“At the end of the day, expired tampons shouldn’t rank too high on your list of overall health concerns,” Youngblood reassures, “Unless you’re buying tampons in bulk, you’re likely to use them well before their expiration date.”
Instead, focus more on making sure you know how to properly use a tampon and on protecting yourself from toxic shock syndrome.