Living Well

Panty liners vs. pads. What’s the difference?

With the passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, flexible spending account (FSA) and health savings account (HSA) users finally got what they had long clamored for: feminine hygiene products like tampons, pads, panty liners and more now finally eligible for purchase with FSA and HSA funds.

It's a whole new world of eligibility out there, and the 70+ million Americans with tax-free health care accounts can now budget menstrual care into their expected yearly health expenses, which can help them save hundreds on taxes each year versus paying out-of-pocket with taxed funds. But having options can be difficult when it comes to something as personal as menstrual care, where comfort and effectiveness can lead to years of brand loyalty.

But if you find yourself with extra FSA funds in the coming months or overestimated your HSA contribution for 2020, this may be the perfect opportunity to explore what's new in feminine hygiene. From organic products to reusable, sustainable solutions, there's more options than ever on the market, and this could be your opportunity to try a break from your routine that may turn into something lasting.

First up, pads vs. panty liners!

Pads

You may be surprised to hear this, but according to the market research firm IMARC Group, menstrual care pads, also known as sanitary pads, are the most popular feminine hygiene segment in 2020, holding the largest market share compared to other menstrual care options. With that said, consumer attitudes have changed in recent years and the pads of the past are not quite the same as the ones you can find on the shelf today.

Pads encompass a huge category of feminine hygiene products, so we can't treat them with a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, let's explore each of the most popular versions and their pros/cons.

Pros and Cons of Menstrual Pads

1. Disposable Pads

Pros: Ease of use by far - disposables are the most common type of menstrual pad that is easier to find in stores thanks to greater variety in shapes, sizes and absorbency levels. There's no need to wash or store them, so they are particularly helpful when traveling.

Cons: Disposable pads are probably the least sustainable option out there, as they end up in the garbage after use and cannot be recycled or reused. Additionally, some disposable pads may contain chemicals or dyes that could be harmful for those with sensitive skin or allergies.

2. Organic Pads

Pros: Organic pads are part of a larger industry trend of women seeking out safer feminine hygiene products made from natural materials. By far, one of the biggest benefits is breathability. Organic pads do not use synthetic fibers that are found in most disposable pads, and are also free of dyes, fragrances and other additives that could cause allergic reactions in some wearers.

Cons: According to Nannocare, some women have reported that they notice an increased level of wetness when using organic versus synthetic products. As compared with synthetic fibers that have perforated surfaces, organic pads that typically use cotton may take a bit longer to absorb wetness. But, they have the added benefit of being able to absorb more flow than a disposable pad. So overall, organic pads seem like the better buy, but may require a bit of getting used to!

3. Reusable Pads

Pros: If you care about the environment and sustainability, this is the perfect choice for you! Reusable pads - usually cloth pads - are the most cost-effective, safe, and sustainable menstrual care option available. They come in sizes and absorbency levels to suit any flow, and many are made with organic materials to make them safer than disposable options.

Cons: Reusable pads are a great way to save money, but they require some work on your part to keep them clean and ready for reuse. According to TreeHugger, this can be accomplished by soaking them overnight (with some hydrogen peroxide) and put on a machine wash cycle on hot.


Panty Liners

As we've seen above, pads are a bit of a do-everything type of feminine hygiene product with varying sizes and absorbency levels, while panty liners are a bit more specialized. Panty liners are much smaller and are designed to be worn in the beginning and end stages of a woman's period to help absorb lighter flow. Let's dive into the pros/cons of this common, and sometimes misunderstood, menstrual care product.

Benefits of Panty Liners

Panty liners may not be the menstrual care product that you wear on a daily basis or during your highest flow periods, but it's certainly helpful to have at certain stages. In addition to the beginning and end stages of periods where liners can handle lighter flow, they are also helpful for women who have unexpected vaginal discharge or occasional bouts of incontinence. According to Flo, panty liners can be a great option in tandem with tampons or mono-cups, as they can handle any excess discharge that may occur. This is also another area where organic cotton panty liners have increased in popularity, so you can do your part to help the environment.

Disadvantages of Panty Liners

Depending on the type of brand you go with, some panty liners may not be the most portable options. Additionally, they may not be able to provide enough absorbency to handle heavier flows. As a means of controlling occasional discharge or wetness, panty liners are perfect for the job, but should not be relied on to handle menstrual periods.


What's the verdict?

It's a tie! Panty liners and pads often get confused because they look so similar, but they perform different jobs at different stages of your monthly cycles. In some cases, it's not a matter of choice, as they can sometimes work better together!

The fact is, there's far more to think about these days when you're shopping for menstrual care: cost savings, sustainability, comfort, and absorbency are all important factors that should inform your decision. But good old-fashioned trial and error helps as well! With thousands of new feminine hygiene products now eligible for FSA/HSA spending, now is the perfect time to explore how to improve your menstrual care regimen,put money back into your pocket, and give yourself peace of mind daily that you're safe, comfortable, and protected.



Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! We'll keep you posted on all the FSA changes that may be coming in the foreseeable future, so be sure to to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the latest updates.

Living Well

Should tampons be free: Why are feminine products so expensive?

For many people, paying for tampons is a given. Why should feminine hygiene products be priced any differently than other hygiene products?

But when you start to think about the gender disparity involved, things get a little more complicated. A growing number of women are arguing that because men have no equivalent expense, menstrual supplies should be free in public restrooms just like toilet paper.

Let's take a look at the true cost of menstruating, and the argument for making feminine products more financially accessible.

How the Cost of Tampons Adds Up

Even though tampons and other period products are an essential need for women, consumers still have to pay a sales tax on them in 35 states. The average sales tax in the US is 5%, so a $7 box of tampons will cost about 35 cents in taxes. The average woman will use about 240 tampons a year, which comes out to about $50 each year with tax.

A $7 box of tampons may not seem like a huge expense for middle and upper-class women, but it can present a serious problem for low-income women suffering from "period poverty."

Research published in the "Obstetrics & Gynecology" journal found that about two-thirds of low-income women could not afford menstrual products at some point in the previous year. About 20% couldn't afford them every month. About half of the women said they had to choose between buying food or feminine products at some point in the year.

Government assistance programs like Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) don't pay for feminine care products, even though they're a medical necessity.

Women who live in poverty may also lack access to warehouse clubs, where tampons are sold in bulk. If there's no major grocery store in their area, they may be forced to buy period products at convenience stores and drug stores. They may also have less free time to scour around for the best prices.

What Other Countries are Doing

Many activists argue that forcing women to pay for period products is misogynistic, because there is no equivalent expense for men. After years of lobbying, the laws in some countries do seem to be slowly changing.

In 2019, Scotland passed legislation to make tampons and pads free for all women. The country already offered free menstrual products at high schools and colleges. So far, Scotland is the only country in the world to enact such a law, but other countries are starting to reduce taxes on period products.

Starting in 2020, Germany will reduce its tax on tampons and other menstrual items from 19% to 7%. Other countries like Australia, Ireland and Canada recently eliminated their tax on period products altogether.

Still, many nations maintain a high tax rate on period products. For example, Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden charge a 25% tax on tampons and pads.

Ways to Save Money on Tampons

Even if you can't reduce the cost of tampons, you can still find ways to save on them.

Buy a Menstrual Cup

In recent years, menstrual cups have become a common tampon alternative. These are reusable cups that women can use during their entire period cycle. There are different types of menstrual cups, which can last between six months to 10 years before needing to be replaced.

Menstrual cups cost between $25 to $40, depending on the brand and size. For the price of four boxes of tampons, you can buy a menstrual cup that may last a decade. Even if you lose your menstrual cup every few years, it will still be cheaper than buying tampons and pads.

Menstrual cups have a learning curve and may be difficult to insert at first, but most women adapt to them quickly. Plus, they're eco-friendly and can prevent hundreds of tampons from taking up space at a landfill.

Women with heavy flows may also benefit from menstrual cups because they're more leak-proof than tampons. For women who are used to wearing a tampon and a pad, a menstrual cup can be a game changer.

Opt for reusable products

Menstrual cups are just one example of a growing trend in feminine care: reusable and more sustainable options like reusable pads, period underwear and more.

While these products do require a bit more maintenance on your part, the cost savings for reusables makes a compelling argument to work them into your routine. According to Menstrual Cup Reviews, cloth pads for instance can last as long as 5 years with proper care, which may be a compelling option for women looking to cut their menstrual care costs as well as do their part to limit their carbon footprints.

Get an IUD

One drastic way to reduce your dependency on tampons, pads and other menstrual products is to use a hormonal IUD as your birth control method. Using a hormonal IUD may result in lighter periods, thereby reducing your need for tampons. About 20% of women stop having a period altogether one year after IUD insertion.

Most health insurance plans cover the full cost of IUDs, but you should verify this before making an appointment. Remember, only hormonal IUDs may result in smaller periods. If you use a copper IUD, you may actually experience heavier periods.

Use your HSA or FSA

You can use funds from your HSA or FSA to buy tampons and other period products. If you don't currently contribute to your HSA or FSA, you should start now.

Calculate how much you normally spend on those products and save it in your HSA or FSA instead. As an added bonus, you'll get a tax deduction on those contributions.

You can buy any kind of period product with your HSA or FSA card, including tampons, pads, panty liners, menstrual cups and period panties such as Thinx. Make sure to keep your receipt to prove that each purchase is an HSA or FSA-eligible item.

You can't use money from your limited care flexible spending account (LCFSA) or dependent care flexible spending account (DCFSA) to pay for period products.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Zina Kumok

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A Certified Financial Health Counselor and Student Loan Counselor, she also works as a money coach helping people one-on-one at Conscious Coins. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. She paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years.
Living Well

The Best Feminine Hygiene Wash for You

Few things cause more embarrassment than issues with your vagina. Whether you're reeling from vaginal discomfort, itch, or odor, you may feel too ashamed to talk about it, which may stop you from visiting a healthcare provider. The problem is, this can lead to an array of do-it-yourself solutions—including feminine hygiene products—which could lead to further complications.

To make matters worse, the feminine hygiene industry represents billions of dollars in sales in the United States. You may notice dozens of feminine hygiene products while walking down the aisles of your local drugstore and wonder if you should try one. But you can protect your wallet by understanding some of the basics. Here's what you should know about feminine hygiene—and which products may be right for you.

Feminine hygiene 101

Let's start with some of the basics of your anatomy and vaginal hygiene.

First, you should know the difference between your vagina and vulva. Your vagina is the inner muscular tract from your cervix to your vaginal opening. Your vulva is all the external parts—your inner and outer labia, clitoris, clitoral hood, the vestibule (around the vaginal opening), and the urethral opening.

To keep your vagina and vulva healthy, you need to maintain your pH and bacterial balance. Your body uses estrogen to keep your vagina healthy by encouraging lactobacilli to grow. These bacteria keep the pH balance of your vagina slightly acidic—which may protect your vagina from microorganisms that can cause disease. Your vagina may also have yeast but the acidity usually keeps the amount under control (ACOG).

Is my vaginal discharge normal?

Probably. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), your vagina produces a natural discharge at puberty. You will have vaginal discharge every month and it changes throughout your menstrual cycle. The discharge keeps your genitals clean by removing dead cells from the walls of your vagina.

Your vaginal discharge may be normal if it's clear or white—and it shouldn't have a noticeable odor. If the color, amount, odor, or consistency of your discharge changes, it may be a sign that something is off. A strong odor may be the sign of an infection that needs medical treatment. While it may be tempting, you shouldn't try to cover up strong odors with any type of spray, deodorant, or douche (ACOG).

How to identify and treat a vaginal infection

If your vaginal pH balance gets disrupted, it may cause an infection. The two most common types of vaginal infections are bacterial vaginosis (BV) or a yeast infection.

Bacterial vaginosis happens when too much bacteria grow in your vagina. You may identify bacterial vaginosis if you have more discharge than usual or a strong "fishy" odor. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection—which you may take by mouth or insert into your vagina.

Similarly, yeast infections happen when there is too much yeast in your vagina. Some of the causes for yeast infections may be lubricants, spermicides, some antibiotics (which may kill too much of your good bacteria), or being pregnant. The most common sign of a yeast infection is when your vulva burns or itches. A doctor may treat yeast infections with a medication—either taken orally or vaginally.

You may also experience vulvovaginal changes during different stages of your life—like during pregnancy and menopause. When you are pregnant, your levels of estrogen and progesterone may shift—which can make vaginal infections more common. There may be some vaginal changes after giving birth, as well.

You may also experience changes to your vagina and urinary tract during menopause. These changes may make your vagina dryer and thinner and may cause discomfort. Luckily, you can explore a variety of treatment options with your healthcare provider (ACOG).

Do I need to wash my vagina?

No, you don't need to wash the inside of your vagina because it produces its own natural discharge throughout the month—kind of like a self-cleaning oven. You do need to wash your vulva, though. As a reminder, this includes your inner and outer labia, clitoris, clitoral hood, the vestibule (around the vaginal opening), and the urethral opening.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you don't need to wash your vulva with anything more than warm water. Adding something else—like anti-bacterial soap or chemicals—has the ability to disrupt your vagina's natural pH balance.

Should I use feminine hygiene wash?

Feminine hygiene products may include feminine hygiene washes, intimate washes, feminine wipes, douches, or deodorants—and the short answer is no, you shouldn't use them.

Several studies have found douching—which involves flushing the vagina with water or cleaners—may be particularly harmful. By disrupting your vagina's natural pH, you may be more vulnerable to other infections, like sexually transmitted infections (STI). This may increase your risk of getting cervical cancer or pelvic inflammatory disease.

The same study found intimate washes may be risky, as well. These products may increase your risk of bacterial infections by 3.5 times and urinary tract infections (UTI) by over 2 times. Unfortunately, intimate cleansing wipes may cause the same problem by preventing the growth of healthy bacteria (Medical News Today).

How to practice good feminine hygiene

Are you noticing a vaginal odor that isn't from a vaginal infection? It may be coming from your inner thighs and skin folds—not your vagina. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following intimate hygiene tips to keep your vagina and vulva clean and healthy:

  • Skip any type of deodorant, perfume, gels, or powder in the vagina.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid tight-fitting underwear, pantyhose, girdles, or pants—especially at night when you are going to sleep.
  • White cotton underwear is the healthiest option.
  • Use a mild detergent and wash your underwear separate from your other clothing.
  • Consider using a menstrual cup or tampons during your period and change each one frequently to prevent leakage.

Good feminine hygiene and sex

Vaginal odors may be particularly troublesome in the bedroom. If you're worried about vaginal odor while having sex, don't use a feminine hygiene wash or start douching. Instead, consider taking a shower with warm water first. If you're experiencing vaginal irritation or abnormal discharge, consider using a condom and making an appointment with your healthcare provider.

After sex, you should try to urinate to avoid getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), particularly if you are prone to contracting them (The Mayo Clinic). If you use sex toys, make sure to clean the part that touched your body with hot water and liquid antibacterial soap—or follow the manufacturer's specific cleaning instructions.

Keep your feminine hygiene simple

When it comes to good feminine hygiene, there's one good rule of thumb to remember—less is more. You don't need costly feminine hygiene washes, perfumes, or deodorants to clean your vagina and vulva. If you're experiencing unpleasant odors, these products may only make your problems worse. Instead, you may keep your vagina and vulva clean with daily showering and cleaning your genitals with warm water. If you start noticing something is off—like more discharge, itching, or a strong odor—speak to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. While your issue may be common, you may need a doctor to prescribe a medication to clear up a vaginal infection.


Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner™ Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.

Eligibility

Tampon Sizes, Which to Choose and Size Chart

When you take a walk down the feminine care aisle, the tampon options can seem overwhelming. Do you stick with the regular size or go bigger? Do you choose a multipack with a variety of sizes? Should you try those organic cotton tampons you saw mentioned on Instagram?

Those are important questions to answer, but most women just stick with the same habits they've had since their teenage years. The problem is that our bodies change drastically as we mature into adulthood, and the best size and type of tampon for our bodies changes along with it.

So here's a simple breakdown to help you shop for feminine products - how to choose the right size and type, as well as which tampon alternatives and accessories to consider.

How to Choose a Tampon Size

Consumers should pick a tampon based on their flow. A woman whose period is lighter should choose a Light or Regular tampon while a woman with a heavier flow should choose a Super or Ultra tampon.

Here's an easy guideline to follow:

Tampon Size Chart

LightRegularSuperSuper PlusUltra
Less than average flowAverage flowHeavy flowVery heavy flowHeaviest flow


Women may also need to consider their schedule when picking the right tampon. For example, a full-time teacher may opt for a Super tampon in case she doesn't get the opportunity to use the bathroom every few hours. A shift worker with regularly scheduled breaks may be able to get by with a Regular or Light tampon.

The strategy employed by many women is to use a mix of tampon sizes to accommodate flow variation. They'll use Super or Ultra-sized tampons the first two or three days, switch to Regular for the fourth and fifth day and then downgrade to Light for the last couple days.

The tampon size you need isn't impacted by your vagina. It also doesn't depend on your weight or height. It may correlate to your age because women who are close to menopause may have lighter or shorter periods.

You may have to experiment to find the right size. Here's how you can tell if you're using the wrong size: If you've removed a tampon after four to eight hours and it's mostly dry, then you can switch to a lighter size. If you have to remove a tampon every couple hours, then you should upgrade to the next largest size.

Tampons should never be kept in for longer than eight hours. Always remove a tampon at the eight-hour mark, even if it's still mostly dry.

Removing tampons more often is better. Even if you can go a full eight hours with a Super tampon, it's better to use a smaller size and remove it every six hours.

Some doctors say that using a tampon that's too big for you is also unsafe. If the tampon is still dry when you remove it, this can lead to vaginal micro-tears.

If you're still soaking through after using several Super Plus or Ultra tampons in one day, or more than seven to eight tampons total, you may need to see a doctor. Excessive menstrual bleeding can be a sign of other problems and should be checked out by your OBGYN.

Many women find themselves combining tampons with panty liners, pads or period panties. For example, you may add a panty liner along with a Super Plus or Ultra tampon during the first day or two of your period in case of leaks.

Different Types of Tampons

Size isn't the only way to differentiate tampons. Here are some other variations:

Applicators

Most tampons come with an applicator, which helps you comfortably insert the tampon. These applicators can be made from either cardboard or plastic. Tampons with plastic applicators are usually more expensive, but are often more comfortable to insert. Women who are eco-conscious may also want to avoid plastic applicators.

There are also some applicator tampons with no applicators, like those from the brand o.b. Tampons without applicators are more common in other countries, but most American women prefer tampons with applicators.

Organic

Tampons may also come in organic and non-organic, which refers to whether the company used organic cotton or conventional cotton.

Some people think that using organic tampons will result in a lighter period or prevent yeast or bacterial infections, but this hasn't been scientifically proven. Whether you choose organic or conventional depends on your personal preference.

Other Factors

There are also scented and unscented tampons. Most vaginal health experts recommend avoiding scented tampons because they may encourage bacteria growth.

Some companies sell compact tampons with shorter applicators that are easier to store in a purse. They should still have the same absorbency as regular-sized tampons.

Pad and Panty Liner Sizes

Like tampons, pads also come in a variety of sizes depending on your menstrual flow and panty size. These include light, moderate, heavy, and overnight. They may also come in extra long varieties. Panty liners usually only come in one size.

Both pads and panty liners can be made with organic cotton or conventional cotton. Pads may also come scented or unscented, and with wings or without wings. Wings attach to the underside of the underwear to help the pad stick better and prevent it from moving around during the day. You may also use period underwear!

Panty liners are a very thin type of pad, usually best for women having an extremely light period or who want another layer of protection with a tampon. Some women use panty liners a few days before their period is about to start, in case it comes early.

Menstrual Cup Sizes

Most brands of menstrual cups come in two different sizes, small and large. In general, you should use the smaller size if you have a lighter flow or if you've never given birth before. If you've given birth before or have a heavier flow, the larger size may be more appropriate.

Each brand will have its own recommendation on which size to choose, usually found on the back of the box.


Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Zina Kumok

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A Certified Financial Health Counselor and Student Loan Counselor, she also works as a money coach helping people one-on-one at Conscious Coins. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. She paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years.