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Are Sea Sponges Safe to Use as Natural Tampons?
Ask Dr. Jen
Is it okay to use sea sponges for your period?
Sea sponges are aquatic animals. As filter feeders, water circulates through their pores and channels allowing the sponge to extract oxygen, bacteria and small particles and also to remove waste. When dried for commercial use, sea sponges are very absorbent and unfortunately they are often marketed for menstrual use as a “natural” tampon.
I say unfortunately, because they are most definitely not recommended. Here are the five reasons why.
When several sponges were evaluated in the 1980s they contained grit, sand, dirt and bacteria, left overs from a life spent filtering the ocean. It is unknown how this grit, sand, dirt, and bacteria could change the ecosystem of the vagina, but it’s probably better off outside of the vaginal.
We do not know if sponges encourage the growth of harmful bacteria, including Staph aureus the bacteria that produces the toxin that causes toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Menstrual TSS is a serious condition, but fortunately rare. All new tampons must be tested to make sure that they don’t encourage the production of toxic shock syndrome toxin, and sea sponges have not been tested in this way. The sponge itself could be a good medium for bacteria to adhere and grow. Another far less theoretical concern is the air hidden in the pores and channels of the sponge and then introduced with insertion. Introduction of air into the vagina with menstrual products is believed to be one of the mechanisms by which tampons and menstrual cups are associated with TSS as the oxygen in the air creates an environment favorable to the growth of Staph aureus.
There is no known way to clean a sponge. This is important, because bacteria and/or the toxic shock syndrome toxin could be reintroduced into the vagina with the next use. While no one has actually evaluated how to clean a menstrual sponge (concerning), researchers have looked at kitchen sponges and they quickly become a bacterial nightmare. Even microwaving has little effect on significantly reducing the bacteria. Even more important, the toxin that produces TSS is quite resistant to both heat and bleach and it can be reactivated one year later after drying out. So no, no one at naturalyoni dot com or seapearls dot com knows how to clean a menstrual sponge.
The surface of the sponge is rough and sponges are almost always larger width-wise than a tampon. This means they can cause microscopic abrasions (tears) of the vaginal walls with insertion. Small enough that you won’t feel it, but large enough for bacteria or toxins to traverse. Why does this matter? If there is an abrasion it is easier for the toxin that causes toxic shock syndrome or other harmful bacteria that have overgrown because of the sponge to enter your body and cause harm.
Sponges absorb both width-wise and length-wise. This means they will get wider as well as longer as they absorb menstrual blood, so with removal there is a risk the wider sponge could cause minor skin trauma (abrasions or tears) to the vaginal walls. Again, this makes it easier for the toxin that causes TSS or harmful bacteria to enter the blood and cause harm. Tampons absorb primarily lengthwise, minimizing trauma with removal.
The Rely tampon, which was pulled from the market for being associated with TSS, was very similar to the sponge in two ways, width-wise expansion and air release (a foam core was used). So a sea sponge is basically nature’s Rely tampon, but worse because it’s reusable and can’t be cleaned adequately.
Products inserted vaginally for menstruation can change the ecosystem, and the assumption should never be that this is benign. Once you know the science, the answer is pretty clear. Just say no to menstrual sponges.
Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a complex condition and there are many factors involved with whether a person may become ill with it or not. Modern tampon and menstrual cup design has made menstrual toxic shock syndrome rare. Learning more about TSS is a good idea as it can teach you about the vaginal ecosystem and also lower fears for those who are afraid to use tampons. If you are interested in learning more, I have an entire chapter devoted to menstrual toxic shock syndrome in my book The Vagina Bible. You can find a link for buying from your book seller of choice here.