The site Lifehacker suggests that women could hack their periods by using make-up sponges vaginally as menstrual hygiene products. This could even give one “bloodless” period sex.

This information comes from our learned expert, nameless “sources.” 

(Takes three deep cleansing breaths).

Make up sponges are most commonly made of polyester foam (polyurethane) although apparently there are latex sponges as well.

(Takes three more deep cleansing breaths).

After there was some concern raised online about the safety and sanity of this recommendation the reporter asked an OB/GYN who said “makeup applicators and sea sponges aren’t particularly worse than a tampon” and tampons are “nothing special” when it comes to bacterial infections so insert away.

(Gets light headed from all the cleansing breaths).

Cue the science…

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers tampons to be Class II medical devices and as such they have very specific safety testing requirements and standards. Menstrual hygiene products (including the sea sponge) and the contraceptive sponge have all been associated with toxic shock syndrome. So the FDA and the OB/GYNS I run with actually do consider tampons something special and as such they are deserving of our scientific attention. In other words, in an industrialized society with access to tested products menstrual hygiene should not be the stuff of “hacks.”

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1970s, when tampons were considered “nothing special” by the FDA Proctor and Gamble decided they wanted to get into the tampon game. To do this they wanted a tampon to set themselves apart from the others. They wanted one so reliably absorbent that it even absorbed “the worry.” Ha ha.

Proctor and Gamble wanted a new, bold, disruptive tampon so I guess you could say they wanted to hack menstruation. They innovated by changing tampon materials and design in essentially every way. The product that came from this quest for ultimate dryness was the Rely tampon made of polyester foam cubes and chips and carboxycellulose (a gelling agent) wrapped up in a teabag like polyester pouch.

Because the initial tests on Rely were completed by 1974, before tampons were legally a “big deal,” the product was allowed to be grandfathered in by the FDA with inadequate safety data. Guess what happened next? The incidence of menstrual toxic shock syndrome (mTSS) skyrocketed to 13.7/100,000 in 1980. For reference it is 1-2/100,000 right now.

The exact mechanisms that Rely increased mTSS is unknown. Hypotheses include increased bacterial adherence to the polyester foam or the gel agent (or both), the absorbancy may have helped with bacterial growth, or the impact of the significantly more air trapped by the polyester foam versus a cotton or rayon tampon. Oxygen is a co-factor in development of mTSS.

I popped a make-up sponge in a beaker just to see how much air might be trapped and I was astounded at the amount of gas released. I did the same experiment with a super plus tampon and I saw no bubbles.

What if polyester foam bothers you because McChemicals? No worries, Lifehacker suggests sea sponges without informing the reader that a study from 1982 found users of sea sponges for menstruation were significantly more likely to test positive for Staph aureus (the bacteria that produces the toxin that causes mTSS) during menstruation than those using tampons (24% of sea sponge users versus 5% of tampon users). As there was no difference in Staph aureus when the women were not on their periods (and thus not using menstrual products) this dramatic bump with sponges versus tampons can only be sponge related. 

It is not a “hack” to suggest women use make-up sponges or sea sponges for their period it is a gross disregard of the evidence that is currently available and a disservice to women. It is incorrect to say tampons are “no big deal” when the FDA requires extensive data regarding product safety, such as this.  

And lets not forget this specific attention to microbiology in the FDA menstrual product approval process. To me this says “big deal.”


Lifehacker should remove the article. It is not acceptable to fail to inform your readers about the fact the polyester foam material you are suggesting for menstrual hygiene has been implicated as a causative agent in mTSS. It is also not okay to imply that makeup sponges and sea sponges are the same as tampons safety wise because they are not. If your expert doesn’t know that tampons are class II medical devices, that they require safety testing, and that the introduction of oxygen is believed to be a critical step in menstrual TSS then there is an issue.

I advise against using make-up and sea sponges vaginally. Oxygen is not your vagina’s friend but I am.

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  1. I would be really interested to read a piece on your blog about the use of the mooncup as opposed to tampons, and whether they pose a TSS risk, and if so how that risk relates to the risk of tampon use. Seems to make ecological sense, but wondering if it’s good for the individual using a mooncup. Thanks for your brilliant blog. It’s a wonderful combination of straight talking, expertise and humour.

  2. How about sponge tampons that are marketed specifically as such? Like the Beppy soft tampon? I’m trying to figure out if they are safe to use, but cant find much information because my results end up being filled with info about sea sponges which is not what I am looking at. I live in Germany and we have several brands of “soft” sponge tampons like Beppy which have been on the market for many years and are sold at pharmacies. Could you possibly shed some light on their safety?

  3. I COULD see an ignorant guy who is squeamish about lady issues and sex publishing this and shrugging his shoulders, probably of the opinion that anything small and meant to absorb liquid will do just fine up the cooch. After all, the blood won’t show, what’s the big deal? (Uh…TONS!)

    But a woman? What the hell? And I can see some in the sex industry doing this just to make sure they make their money and revert back to regular tampons when they’re DONE–but that’s it. Still, even in an emergency that would be something I’d be too terrified to think about. Better to get the emergency pad out and go to the store ASAP than use those things. Gah!

  4. Thank you! That original article is disturbing, my girlfriend uses a product called Flex for period sex. No reason to risk your life over messy sex.

  5. The consistent thread I’ve seen in comments from the original article and Pharyngula involves sex workers using this idea, temporarily, while with a client when on their period. This suggests it is used as a sort of necessary evil, by people who need to disguise the fact that they are menstruating, as using a towel or discussing the idea with a trusted partner isn’t an option in this case.

    It is an incredibly foolish and risky idea to use something developed by people with limited options when most people reading the Lifehacker article wouldn’t be in that situation. What’s next, an article about how poor women in underdeveloped countries use rags, so anyone should be fine with it?

    Seriously, don’t put weird porous stuff in body parts with delicate oH balances.

  6. Unbelievable! I remember Rely very well, and was terrified! Between Goop and Lifehack, dippy women will surely screw up their vaginas AND possibly die. Come over to the educated, scientific EXPERT side, ladies, of Dr. Jen. She knows. Oh, she knows.

  7. I remember the TSS thing … hate admitting I’m that old, but truthfully, I’m much more flakey, my first thought on this was …why … no applicator, no string, no go! The very last thing I needed was to go digging for retrieval. Anyone who wants to save money on these products I would think would use a diva (or whatever) cup, shoving something designed for a totally different purpose up you vagina just seems stupid. Actually, most of the life hacks I’ve seen are not really that useful.

  8. I’m also old enough to remember Rely and all of the women who were getting mTSS. I just cannot comprehend how someone could think that a makeup sponge or sea sponges would be a good thing to have in their vagina?!? I guess it the “It’ll never happen to me” mentality. Until it does.
    THank you for calling out the morons in our society! You’re my hero!!!

  9. Writing from Europe: products are sold specifically for this here, and are called “Levant sponges” or soft tampons. They are not even cheap… so they would not qualify as a “hack”. I wonder in what regulatory field they fall and if the EU regulations would require specific testing (I hope so but would not bet on it…) and treatment (like sterilizing the sponges?)

  10. I couldn’t believe the irresponsible attitude both the writer and the editors at Lifehacker took toward presenting this potentially deadly idea for women to try. It is amazing that it was allowed to be published before it was checked by doctors, and not amazing in a good way. This is risking precious human life. Thank you for laying out so clearly what the dangers are.

  11. I tweeted this to you, but was sure everyone had been sending it your way. Thank you so much for doing the science on this. I legit love you.

  12. I actually had mTSS in my twenties about three weeks after coming to the US in the late eighties as a grad student and it came on so quickly (one day I was feeling iffy; the next morning I was too weak to stand up to take a shower) and my high fever left me so muddle-headed that if my friends hadn’t actually said to me “If you want us to take you to a doctor just call us” I don’t think I would have been together enough to realise how sick I was and to call a taxi. This was in the days before Uber and for that matter, much of an internet.

    I would have died.

    I was immediately admitted to hospital and pumped full of IV antibiotics and for the first twenty-four hours my temperature and blood pressure were measured every two hours because they didn’t know if I was going to live or die. And this was before MRSA or ever ORSA which would make it even more dangerous today.

    I wasn’t using a sponge, make-up or sea, and I don’t believe I was even using super-absorbent tampons, and yet I almost died.

    Thanks for pointing out that you really really REALLY don’t want to invite staph infections by “hacking” your period. That kind of risky behaviour just isn’t worth it, and spreading the disinformation of tampons being “no big deal” is a level of irresponsibility about which I cannot wrap my head.

  13. Thank you for this. I was gobsmacked to see the original article, and even more so when the author dug in her heels in the face of complaints.

  14. i knew jamming makeup sponges up the twat was dangerous and commented on it on facebook. i cannot believe they even posted that. and if you want period sex, put a towel or old blanket on the bed and shower afterward. most of my sexual partners were only too happy to get covered in menstrual blood. if a man is grossed out by the natural product of a woman’s body i don’t want him anyway.

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