Image via Jade and Pearl.
Like most women, I have a vivid memory of my first attempt at wrangling a tampon. After twenty minutes of poking my vaginal walls with what felt like a weapon made of only sharp edges, I quit. I didn’t quiz friends or – god forbid – my mum for tips. Instead, I failed privately and that was the end of tampons and me for a long while.
Twenty years on, applicators have become much smoother for the 70 per cent of Western women who use them as their primary period product, and occasionally I’ll still use one. But regular tampons are not my go-to product anymore.
Mercifully, we ladies with periods are no longer burdened with a monthly Sophie’s Choice of pad vs. tampon. In fact, our modern period wonderland has reintroduced incredible alternatives, including the exotic sea sponge tampon, which, as far as I can tell, is the only one made from a dead sea animal.
Tales of cost savings, comfort and lack of waste drew me to these at a time when my go-to menstrual cup wasn’t fitting very well and I sought a new reusable solution.
Sea sponges seem to have first reappeared on the market in the 1980s as a “safer” alternative to tampons during the Toxic Shock Syndrome scare (TSS happens when Staph and Strep bacteria enter the bloodstream and shut down vital organs). In a Vice piece on model (and TSS amputee) Lauren Wasser, NYU professor of microbiology Dr. Philip M. Tierno says “synthetic ingredients of a tampon are a problem”.
TSS is rare even with widely available tampons made from hybrid natural-synthetic materials that are hyper-absorbent, which can foster bacterial growth and create micro-tears on vaginal walls… all women know the fingernails-on-chalkboard feeling of a dry tampon dragging down the inside of their vaginas.
Sea sponges, while not drying, are absorbent too and pose a rare risk of TSS – as is now the case with menstrual cups too apparently. However, my years of TSS-free regular tampon use left me feeling pretty good about my sea sponge odds.
Plus, expert opinion is that sponges are safe (particularly if sanitised, an activity forgone in the 1980 University of Iowa study indicating they harbour contaminants). In a recent Mashable article gynecologist Dr. Raquel Dardik at the Joan H. Tisch Women’s Health Center at NYU Langone Medical Center says “yes, they're absolutely safe… A tampon is just a piece of cotton that's shaped so that it absorbs blood so that it doesn't come out, and in that sense, menstrual sponges are doing exactly the same thing because that's what sponges do."
Fears of sponge bits stuck in your vagina should be put to rest too. The same happens with regular tampon use – tiny rayon, viscose and cotton fibers cling to the dehydrated walls of your vagina. Potato, Poh-tah-to. Luckily your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven.
It’s also hard to ignore the online anecdotes that make sea sponges sound like wonder plugs – instantly ease cramps! Lighten heavy flows! They’re imperceptible once inserted (damp sponges are soft and pliable). Most importantly (if we’re being honest), the $21 to $24 you pay up front will seem like a downright bargain six months later (the expected life of a sea sponge tampon), when you’ve halved the out-of-pocket cost foisted on you for needing physical period products.
Unlike non-organic tampons which “might eventually” break down (or pads, which are forever, like diamonds, but way less sparkly (although just as bloody), these things are compostable. There’s also the not-so-secret fringe benefit of using sea sponges to have mess-free sex on your period, much the way original lady boss Cleopatra did.
So do sea sponges really work? Yes and no, which is the answer for every period product I’ve tried. The first time I coughed while wearing one, I spent the next 10 minutes blotting up the mess in my underwear. User error. I swapped out the offending sponge – the smaller of the two Porifera I’d bought – for the bigger one and avoided further exertion-related mishaps.
There was none of the trauma with inserting the sea sponges that I had with my first foray into tampons. True, I’m more experienced now (and it should be easy for anyone who’s used a menstrual cup or masturbated before), but that aside, they still seem easier even sans applicator. (Post continues after gallery.)
If trying a sea sponge, first wash and soak it several times with hot water and something anti-bacterial, wash your hands, pluck the sponge from its bath and rinse it with plain water and squeeze out the excess before squishing it into a little ball and sliding it in.
Once inside you, the sponge moulds to the contours of your body and is barely detectable, which is the intended effect.It was so comfortable I ended up thinking “surely, it should feel worse if it’s working correctly?” Until that point in my life, I had unwittingly associated discomfort with properly functioning period products.
Ever few hours you remove the sponge, rinse and reinsert it. Yet, it won’t cause soreness – as happens when doing the same with tampons – because it’s damp and springy to begin with. However, on heavy flow days or when a sponge nears saturation, muscle contractions can accidentally wring it out. I’d opt for a different product if, say, you’ve scheduled a CrossFit class – and definitely no Kegels on heavy days, even though some accounts find sponges are more absorbent than regular tampons.
We’ve not hit peak period yet and there are plenty of women in public bathrooms who would gag at the sight of your used sponge. Thus, often the only option to deal with it while at large can be to remove it in a toilet stall and slip it, swaddled, into a plastic baggie, inserting a second sponge instead (thankfully most are sold in multi-packs).
Those issues are minor, though, compared to the main hurdle, in my mind, which is widespread disgust with one’s own period fluids. A sea sponge is inserted with the fingers and unless you’ve tied a piece of dental floss to it as a vaginal rip cord (whatever you do, don’t use a spoon to look for it like one blogger did), you need to use your fingers to fish it out of your vagina too. And you use those same fingers to wash it – mucous, blood and all. (Post continues after gallery.)
After a time using sea sponges, I actually ended up feeling empowered rather than disgusted. The voice in my head telling me my period is nasty is just another form of negative self-talk, after all, since my period is an inextricable part of me. And it’s not like using a sea sponge or cup you’re elbows-deep in blood. I’ve dealt with messier cuts of meat.
With those qualifiers out of the way, the generally positive sentiment towards sea sponges still seems to ring true (even if they’re not widely regulated yet). They’re absorbent, cost efficient, reusable, generally safe when used as instructed and the most comfortable period product on the market. Still wary? Why not try a synthetic menstrual sponge if you can’t get over the idea of having a dead sea creature in your vagina.
For now, I’m sticking with the creature.
Would you try a sea sponge tampon?