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The two main categories of tampon applicators are cardboard applicators and plastic applicators. There may be variations in size, color, and shape within these categories, but they all function similarly. The construction for both types of applicator is essentially the same, consisting of a larger tube holding the tampon itself with a smaller tube behind it to force the tampon out when pushed. Most brands include raised bumps or ridges around the back end of the larger tube to provide a surface that is easy to grip. Other options include non-applicator tampons, sometimes called digital tampons, and extendable tampon applicators.
Cardboard tampon applicators typically do not stray very far from the most basic construction of two cylindrical tubes. The cardboard is generally coated on the outside, giving the applicator a smooth surface to make inserting it easier. It is not recommended that cardboard tampon applicators be flushed down the toilet after use, but many women prefer cardboard over plastic because they are usually flushable if there is no other option available. Additionally, cardboard applicators are sometimes preferred because they are more biodegradable than their plastic counterparts.
Plastic tampon applicators may have a rounded end to make them easier to insert. The rounded ends usually are split into “petals,” which open when the tampon is pushed out of the applicator. Many women believe that inserting a tampon using a plastic applicator is easier than using a cardboard one, but others prefer the cardboard applicators for the convenience, biodegradability, and lack of petals around the opening, which can sometimes bend and scratch the skin.
Digital tampons are tampons that do not come with an applicator. This kind of tampon is meant to be inserted with a finger and does not require any other equipment. They generally have a smaller, more subtle package that is easier to conceal in a purse or pocket, but they may also be more difficult for some women to insert.
For those women who want a small, discreet tampon but have difficulty using one without an applicator, extendable tampon applicators can be a good option. These are packaged with the applicator in the collapsed position. The applicator is then extended and ready for use just like a regular tampon applicator. Extendable applicators are generally not as common as the regular cardboard or plastic applicators, and may be harder to find or slightly more expensive.