Many women don’t consider how feminine hygiene products are made. If the brand says cotton on the label, most automatically think it’s safe. Since feminine hygiene products are classified as medical devices, companies do not have to release materials used in the product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only regulates tampon absorbency, so all must meet the same guidelines.
Any chemicals, fragrances or plastics used in the manufacturing of the product do not have to be disclosed. However, these products sit right up against your skin, the largest organ in your body and also the thinnest. Less than one-tenth inch separates your body from potential toxins. What’s worse, the skin around your vaginal area is highly permeable.
Medication patches are used to deliver drugs through the skin, which is why I’m fond of saying, “Don’t put anything on your body that you wouldn’t eat if you had to.” When chemicals come in direct contact with your skin they are absorbed straight into your bloodstream, without the benefit of being filtered through your gastrointestinal tract.
According to Girls Helping Girls Period,1 approximately 70 percent of menstruating women use tampons, amounting to more than 16,000 tampons during her lifetime. But, there’s been very little research to confirm or refute their safety.
Alexandra Scranton, Women’s Voices for the Earth’s director of science and research, says tampons2 “are not just your average cosmetics because they are used on an exceptionally sensitive and absorbent part of a woman’s body.”
Tampons, Pads and Diapers Polluted With Phthalates and VOCs
A recent study published in Reproductive Toxicology3 confirms the results of a previous study4 from 2014 demonstrating how the feminine care industry sells products containing harmful chemicals, including pesticides, fragrances, dyes and preservatives.
In this most recent study,5 researchers measured three volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and four phthalates in commercial sanitary pads and diapers. The air inside the packaging was also measured and contained as high as 5.9 parts per billion (ppb) of VOCs.
The researchers found a considerable variability in measurements of VOCs and phthalates between brands. Researchers and advocates believe this uncovers a significant gap in regulation of diapers and is characteristic of societies’ discomfort discussing women’s reproductive health. However, the authors believe:6
“The physical location of the exposure site, the high absorption rate of the genitalia for chemicals, and the long-term exposure period demand a thorough investigation on the potential impact of the exposure to VOCs and phthalates.”
Sanitary pads and diapers are made of synthetic plastics, and while the study did not name the brands tested, products were collected from Japan, Finland, France, Greece and the United States. The researchers found the VOC methylene chloride in two brands of sanitary pads, toluene in nine, and xylene in all 11 brands tested.
In testing for phthalates, they found two types in all 11 brands of sanitary pads and all four brands of diapers. All four brands of diapers tested also contained the VOCs toluene and xylene. Scranton, who was not a part of the study, pointed out there were significant differences between the brands, when it came to the levels of the compounds found.
She believes these differences indicate there are a variety of ways to manufacture pads and diapers, and there is something intentionally being done during manufacturing to increase the levels of toxins.7 For instance, there was nearly a 6,000fold difference in levels of VOCs between brands and a 130fold difference between the highest levels of phthalates in sanitary pads and the lowest.
Women Exposed to Toxins at Least 7.5 Years of Their Lives
Used internally, the absorption of chemicals from tampons serves as a direct route to the bloodstream. In the 2014 report by Women’s Voices for the Earth, researchers found contaminants in tampons could include dioxins, furans and pesticide residue, as well as meltdown polymers, super absorbent shells and chemically stiffened fibers.8
Depending upon the number of hours a tampon is used, the average 16,000 tampons used in a woman’s lifetime may amount to between 7.5 and 10 years. This is a phenomenal amount of time to have products manufactured with toxic substances directly against permeable membranes.
The manufacturer’s aim is to produce a low-cost, highly absorbent material to satisfy their consumers and increase financial gain. This aim ultimately led to toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a complication from infection with Staphylococcal or Streptococcal infection.
The commercial tampon hit the shelves in 1930 and by 1970 manufacturers were in a race to give tampons an edge over sanitary pads.9 Deodorant tampons, plastic domed applicators and ultra-absorbent products were manufactured and released.
In 1978, Procter & Gamble began selling Rely, made of a fully synthetic, hyperabsorbent food-grade thickener. By May 1980 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had 55 cases of TSS reported, with the number continuing to mount.10
By June 1981 researchers had identified continuous use of tampons as a risk factor and found a link between the ultra-absorbent Rely tampon and the outbreak of cases.
However, even after Rely was taken off the shelves, women continued to suffer from TSS, and reports of TSS and allergic reactions have led to a growing movement for transparency and disclosure of ingredients in both the U.S. and abroad.
Toxic Shock Syndrome
Today’s tampons contain a blend of cotton, rayon and synthetic fibers. Most cotton is genetically engineered (GE), and while the risks are unknown, inserting GE cotton into your vagina several times each month is likely no different from ingesting GE food. Pesticide contamination and any number of undisclosed chemicals and by-products also contribute to your risk of exposure to toxins.
It’s important to remember, regardless of what they’re made of, tampons create a favorable environment for bacterial growth and micro tears in the vaginal wall, allowing bacteria to enter your body and accumulate. TSS can be life-threatening and is not predictable.
Read more about some of the other mystery ingredients in tampons, why your tampons are white, how to identify the symptoms of TSS and how to reduce your potential for experiencing the condition, in my previous article, “This Life-Threatening “Tampon Syndrome” Has Increased 5 Times Over Recent Months.”
Babies Exposed to Toxins by Diaper Manufacturers
Dr. Leo Trasande, professor in the department of pediatrics, environmental medicine and population health at New York University and a renowned leader in children’s environmental health, comments on the effects of these chemicals in this short video. (He was not part of the study.)
Samples of diapers for the featured study were gathered recently and indicate the focus on phthalates in children’s toys has not reached the manufacturing process for diapers.
Trasande believes11 very few studies have looked at infant exposure to these chemicals but points out exposure directly to the genitals is worrisome, since phthalates have a history of inhibiting male sex hormone testosterone.
Phthalates have also been associated with abnormal genital development in boys with prenatal exposure. Although health advocates have asked for stricter regulation on baby diapers for years, they are not considered medical devices by the FDA and therefore do not need to undergo medical testing to prove their safety.
The cost of using disposable diapers does not end there. It’s estimated a baby will use between 6,500 and 10,000 diapers before potty training at around 30 months of age. This can cost nearly $3,000 per child if you use disposable diapers and wipes.12
This generates 7.6 billion pounds of garbage and accounts for the third largest consumer item in landfills. It takes hundreds of years for disposable diapers to decompose when exposed to the sunlight and air, but since they are dumped into landfills and covered, experts are unsure how many years it could actually take, or how much of the toxins used in manufacturing reaches groundwater supplies.
Exposure to VOCs and Phthalates Have Short- and Long-Term Health Consequences
Many of the smells you associate with new carpet, new cars and some cleaning supplies are a sure sign the products are releasing toxic VOCs linked to headaches, nausea, nerve problems and irritation of your eyes, nose and throat. In the long term, VOCs have been linked to an increased risk of cancer in animal studies and reduction in lung function in humans.
Unfortunately, these chemicals are not only found in tampons, sanitary pads and diapers, but also in makeup, perfume and plastics. In other words, VOCs are in a number of products you likely use every day, and contribute to a rising problem with indoor air pollution that may be as dangerous, or more, than outdoor air pollution.
In one study13 with over 6,000 participants, researchers found women who used commercial cleaning solutions as seldom as once a week for 20 years experienced accelerated decline in lung function equivalent to those who had smoked a pack a day of cigarettes for 20 years.
Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and found in everything from cosmetics to shower curtains, food and household cleaners. They’re used to make plastics more flexible and durable, but are not strongly bound to the product. With heat, they tend to leach out and dissipate. Tampons and diapers increase your risk of exposure, as they spend hours up against your body, at nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system have been linked with testicular cancer, low sperm counts, genital malformations and infertility in a number of animal species. Pregnant women exposed to phthalates also experience an increased risk of miscarriage.14 Other studies found pregnant women with high levels of phthalates delivered babies at higher risk of developing asthma.15
Phthalates are also found in paperboard, cellophane and plastics that come into contact with food. Despite overwhelming demonstration of toxic effects on adults, children and developing babies, the use of endocrine disrupting chemicals is perfectly legal.
Consider Using Reusable Applicators and Organic Cotton Protection
Switching to organic cotton protection for your menstrual periods and for your baby’s diapers reduces your exposure to ubiquitous chemicals known to accumulate in your body and trigger dangerous health conditions. By reducing your exposure you potentially reduce your risk of disease.
Dame is one company committed to innovating feminine care, including the development of a reusable tampon. Celia Pool, cofounder of Dame, explained the criteria they used to create the product:16
“We ensured the design was familiar and intuitive, so women did not have to compromise on the convenience of established rituals. For example, we knew that hygiene could be a significant barrier to entry, so we worked with leading microbiologists and medical engineers and used the best medical grade, antimicrobial materials on the market.
As a result, the consumer only has to rinse the applicator in cold water after use to keep it clean. These are simple steps, requiring minimal habit change, but that in turn contribute to significant environmental change.”
Along with phthalates, dioxins, furans, VOCs and a number of other chemicals, the products are bleached to make them white. It is not necessary to take chances with questionable materials. My Premium Personal Care line includes organic cotton tampons, panty liners and sanitary pads with organic cotton, without chlorine, synthetic materials, perfumes or scents.
Also consider switching to organic cotton cloth diapers for your baby. They are a great way to save money, reduce waste and save multiple trips to the store. Pocket diapers have a waterproof, reusable outer cover accommodating a hemp liner and allowing you to customize absorbency. Organic cloth diapers are eco-friendly, sustainable and versatile.17