Are feminine hygiene products safe?
It’s not something you may have thought about, which is why I wanted to bring it up.
These products are kind of hard to examine, because manufacturers don’t have to disclose all the ingredients they use when making them.
Yet it’s important to find out what we can, as obviously these products come in close contact with a woman’s body. Any potentially toxic ingredients could easily gain access to not only our skin and tissues, but our bloodstream as well. In addition to that, we use thousands of them over the course of a lifetime, so we’re exposed over and over again.
As part of our research on potentially toxic ingredients in personal care products, we wanted to look into this issue again (we covered it back in 2010), and see what we could find. We discovered that there are still some reasons to be concerned with conventional feminine hygiene products, but that some positive changes have been made. Best of all, there are more safe and natural options available today than ever before.
Potential Toxins in Tampons and Feminine Pads
Most feminine hygiene products are bleached prior to manufacturing, to make them appear white and clean to consumers. It used to be that the cotton and rayon used to make tampons and pads were bleached with a chlorine gas that was known to leave behind dioxin residues.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that dioxins are persistent environmental pollutants that are highly toxic, can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, disrupt hormones, and potentially cause cancer.
Fortunately, that practice stopped in the 1990s, and companies now use chlorine-free bleaching. There remain some concerns about these modern-day methods, though. A 2005 study, for instance, found detectable levels of dioxins in seven brands of tampons, including at least one 100 percent cotton brand.
The researchers noted that dioxin exposure has been linked to endometriosis in some animal studies, and that the “concern is real.” Even the FDA, which encouraged the change to chlorine-free bleaching, admits that this method may generate some dioxins:
“Some elemental chlorine-free bleaching processes can theoretically generate dioxins at extremely low levels, and dioxins are occasionally detected in trace amounts in mill effluents and pulp. In practice, however, this method is considered to be dioxin free.”
Another concern is with the cotton itself. The Pesticide Action Network states that conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. This affects the clothes we wear, too, but we can wash our clothes before wearing them, whereas feminine hygiene products are used right out of the box.
How much pesticide residue is left on feminine hygiene products? We don’t have a lot of studies on that, but Naturally Savvy did do a test on one brand of tampons in 2013 and found detectable residues of eight pesticides, some that have been linked to cancer. The levels were below those allowed in food, but they contradicted the FDA’s recommendation that tampons be free of pesticide residue.
Still, cotton is the safest material for making these products, according to other research. Synthetic products have been linked to “toxic shock syndrome (TSS),” a rare and serious medical condition caused when the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus gets into the bloodstream. It has been linked to superabsorbent tampon use, and cases spiked about the time manufacturers started using synthetic products.
Today, the most common synthetic material used is viscose rayon, which is usually mixed with cotton. According to Philip Tierno, a clinical microbiology and pathology professor at New York University, synthetic fibers cause “the production of large quantities of toxins absorbed by the vaginal mucosa, which is highly vascularized,” meaning that there are many blood vessels there that could come into contact with the toxins. Tierno concluded that cotton is the best product for feminine hygiene products.
Finally, we also have to be concerned about fragrances. Many feminine care products are heavily fragranced, but the ingredients used in these fragrances don’t have to be revealed to consumers. Fragrances typically are mixtures of many chemicals, and may include some that are linked to hormone disruption, allergies, irritants, and even cancer.
How might these chemicals affect women? We just don’t know. We don’t have studies examining the impact of these chemicals to vaginal tissues. Meanwhile women may be unknowingly exposed to a number of these chemicals over and over again for years.
There have been some case studies published of women who have suffered from rashes, dermatitis, and itching and burning because of scented menstrual pads. In most cases, the symptoms disappeared when the women switched to unscented pads.
Women Have to Be Their Own Watchdogs
Unfortunately, the FDA requires no specific tests on feminine hygiene products to demonstrate their safety before manufacturers sell them. There is no requirement for these products to be pre-approved before they go up on your store shelves.
Feminine pads and tampons are unique, in that the FDA sees them as “medical devices” rather than cosmetics. That’s why these products don’t have to list the ingredients used to create them. If you’re looking for that ingredients panel on the box, you’ll be looking for a long time.
A number of organizations are calling for change. Ami Zota, assistant professor of epidemiology at George Washington University, called for more studies to connect the dots.
“The big data gap is what are the adverse health effects [if any] arising from the chemical exposures from these feminine hygiene products and to what extent have we been underestimating exposures because we haven’t been accounting for this unique exposure route and the potential for the differential absorption. It’s now a call to the environmental health community to address some of these gaps.”
Meanwhile, what can women do? We have some suggestions:
- Search for safer brands. We recommend MyLola, which creates organic cotton feminine care. They advertise their products as containing no toxins, dyes or synthetic stuff. Another good option is Natracare.
- Avoid tampons. If you can, stick with pads. Tampons go inside the body, where they are more likely to create risk. Highly absorbent tampons are particularly risky, because of their link to TSS.
- Cut back on your exposure elsewhere. When we’re talking about toxins, what matters is overall, lifetime exposure. The more you can cut back, the healthier you’ll be. You can reduce your exposure to pesticides by buying organic, and your exposure to dioxins by being careful in your choice of personal care and home care products. Avoid air fresheners, cut back on your intake of animal fats (which are sources of dioxins), and avoid smoking and those who smoke.
Do you buy safe feminine hygiene products?
SourcesArcher JC, et al., “Dioxin and furan levels found in tampons,” J Womens Health (Larchmt), May 2005; 14(4):311-5, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15916504.Sherry Rier and Warren G. Foster, “Environmental Dioxins and Endometriosis,” Toxicol. Sci. 2002; 70(2):161-170, http://toxsci.oxfordjournals.org/content/70/2/161.long.Wendee Nicole, “A Question for Women’s Health: Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products and Personal Lubricants,” Environ Health Perspect., March 2014; 122(3):DOI: 10.1289/ehp.122-A70, http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/122-a70/.“Chem Fatale: Potential Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals in Feminine Care Products,” Women’s Voices for the Earth, November 2013, http://www.womensvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Chem-Fatale-Report.pdf.