Woman's hand holding tampon

This is what happens when you flush a tampon

What actually happens when you flush a tampon? It’s another one of those questions, like "how does the contraceptive pill actually work?" or "what does the thyroid actually do?" that will probably make you squint, mumble, and then give up and admit you’re not exactly sure. In fact, even the rule about flushing tampons is shrouded in mystery. You definitely shouldn’t flush sanitary napkins. But a tampon? We’ve heard whispers about the rules, but what’s actually the score?

Various Twitter users have asked this exact question, opening up the floor to ask fellow females what they do with their used tampons. But the responses haven’t exactly made for a coherent answer, often throwing out a 50/50 split. It’s easy to understand the confusion, given that anything tissuey seems like it should be flushable. At the same time, it’s hard to escape the fact that tampons have to be pretty damn durable. After all; they’re designed to soak up liquid without causing leakage, for up to eight hours.

According to Lunapads, an estimated 12 billion pads and seven million tampons are disposed of in the United States annually, although there are no hard figures on quite how many of these are flushed. In the UK, the picture is a little clearer, and the Marine Conservation Society estimates that between one and a half and two billion sanitary products head straight down the toilet annually. If we're applying the 50/50 split idea to the US figures, that's a potentially huge number of these products disappearing down the drain. 

For years, tampon brands have been labelling their products as "flushable", but now the official advice from Tampax, the biggest selling tampon brand in the US, is: “Don’t flush the tampon applicator or wrapper, and you really shouldn’t flush the actual tampon either.” Rival brand Kotex also gives the same advice, albeit a bit more firmly, with the instructions on the box declaring: “Don’t flush tampons and wrappers down the toilet – you might clog up the plumbing system and it’s bad for the environment. Just wrap it in some toilet paper (or put it in a bag) and place it in the bin or sanitary disposal unit.”

But if this is the case, what actually happens to them once they're in the system? Moon Valley Plumbing, who are based in Phoenix, Arizona, explain on their website the very thing that makes tampons so useful, their absorbency, is also what causes the problem: “Tampons, on average, absorb about 10 times their size in fluid. This makes them hard to dissolve and can cause serious plumbing problems later, especially in older plumbing systems if roots have grown into the pipes.”

For those that do make it through your own home's drainage system rather than getting caught up, the danger isn't over: “Sewage blockages can have a large-scale effect, causing plumbing problems for your nearby neighbors, and a more expensive tax bill for your neighborhood.” Those that get further down the line, arriving at water treatment plants, are fished and filtered out, then disposed of at landfill sites anyway. Essentially, by flushing, you're just risking clogging the pipes for the exact same end result. 

All in all, it seems like the experts agree on one thing you shouldn’t be flushing: tampons. They clog up the pipes, push up public bills and just generally cause a lot of faff. Plus, you really don’t want to have that awkward conversation with the plumber as they explain quite why your system is blocked up in the first place. Fortunately, there are other solutions, whether that's wrapping it in tissue, popping it in a (biodegradable) disposal bag or even switching to a different method, like a cup.

Oh, and for the record, there’s a whole load of other stuff you shouldn’t be flushing, including condoms, paper towels, Q-tips, medicines or wet wipes. Last year, authorities in London discovered a 130 tonne "fatberg" blocking the public sewer system that was 93 per cent compacted wet wipes and took nine weeks to clear. Basically, if it’s not one of the Three Ps - and you should be able to figure them out - then it shouldn’t be anywhere near the porcelain.