What is the difference between soft tampons and natural sponges?
People have been using sponges for menstruation, long before they became a readily available product on the market. The most frequently advertised have been natural sponges, which are marketed as eco-friendly and reusable. However, there are many issues which have resulted in them being challenged by many medical experts. Newer “soft tampon” products such as nevernot are attempting to be both eco-conscious and health aware, but this is a challenging frontier in the sexual wellness space. So what is a natural sponge? What is a soft tampon? And how are they different?
Natural sponges are sea creatures, whose bodies are made of an incredibly absorbent material called spongin. Sea sponges use their spongin structure to constantly filter sea water to support all their physiological functions. Sea sponges are harvested, dried, and sold on for their ability to retain liquid. Smaller sponges are often used as menstrual products. However these often have to be advertised as “cosmetic” rather than “personal hygiene” due to licensing issues, which is a good starting point to demonstrate why they are not suited for the job.
Research has shown that as creatures of filtration, even after death, sea sponges contain particles of grit, mould, sand, yeast, and bacteria – and that is after cleaning. One of these bacteria are Staphylococcus aureus, the leading cause of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). For those of you who don’t know, TSS is a rare but life-threatening medical condition whereby bacteria enter the bloodstream, releasing toxins with potentially catastrophic effect. It is most associated with super absorbent tampon use. Sea sponges also increase levels of Escherichia coli and Enterobacter colonies in the vagina, which are bacteria often associated with urinary tract infections. It appears that these traces of pathogens and dirt remain even after the sponge is washed or boiled, so it seems there is no safe way to use sea sponges intravaginally. The texture of sea sponges is believed to cause microtrauma to the vagina during insertion and removal. The creation of multiple small wounds to the vaginal wall increases risk of infection, discomfort, and vaginal dryness.
There are a few available brands of soft tampons, including nevernot. Soft tampons tend to be made from man-made foam, which means they come without the risk of pre-existing bacteria colonisation. nevernot soft tampons are made of polyurethane foam which is tested and certified to be free from harmful or damaging substances. In fact, this is the same material they use to make baby care products – so it is super safe for your vagina! The ergonomic shape, smooth texture, and flexible nature of nevernot soft tampons mean microtrauma is unlikely to occur. This is because the material adapts to your body and it’s movements. The soft tampon products even undergo regular quality assurance testing to ensure that the materials used do not damage tissues or cells.
nevernot soft tampons are intended to be single use. This greatly reduces the risk of TSS to levels comparable to standard tampons or a menstrual cup vs a sea sponge. This obviously poses questions in regards to the sustainability of the product, as they are not reusable. nevernot combats this through a variety of measures including packaging and manufacturing choices. In fact, you can read about it in this blog.
In conclusion, menstrual sea sponges and soft tampons could not be more different. Sea sponges contain the remnants of a lifetime’s filtration, which can alter the vagina’s biome, cause trauma and lead to infection. A quick side story – during my time working in occupational health for sex workers, I had to remove pieces of a disintegrated sea sponge from someone’s vagina… In comparison, a soft tampon such as nevernot is designed for vaginal use. They are made in a way to reduce microtrauma and infection risk. The biggest indicator of the vast difference between these two products is that sea sponges are cosmetic and soft tampons are licenced for personal hygiene. As a Doctor, I would not recommend that you use a product that is not even certified as safe for your insides! In comparison, soft tampons can offer you a comfortable and flexible way through your period.
Dr Elesha x
Read here the article about Dr. Elesha's work with sex workers.