Like me, you’re probably a health conscious woman. You read food labels, have cut back on sugar-laden sodas, you seek out “natural” beauty products, and you recycle. But one surprising area that might have slipped under your radar, is what you’re putting into (or up against) the most intimate (and highly vascular a.k.a. absorbent) part of your body for 3-7 days every month for 3 decades of your life – your menstrual products!
Contributing to a $3 billion dollar industry in the United States alone, it’s estimated that on average, a woman will use about 14,400 tampons in her lifetime (or a comparable number of menstrual pads). Let’s take that number in for a minute. It’s enormous. It's actually a major expense across a woman's lifetime – made pricier by the ‘tampon tax' which puts menstrual products into the luxury item category – how's that for irony!
Most of us purchase menstrual products based on cost, ease, or habit (hands up, if you spent the first several years of having periods bumming products from your mom or older sister’s bathroom stash – and are still using that same brand), rather than based on their ingredients label.
If you err towards easy, familiar, or affordable for your purchases, you’re certainly not alone. And the reality is, if we have ease in getting menstrual products, we're darned lucky – hundreds of millions girls and women around the world are without clean, accessible products – using whatever they can find – old rags, plastic bags, even sand – to manage their monthly flow. Many go without completely any supplies – lack of menstrual products is one of the leading reasons that girls in resource poor countries can't go to school. And many girls and women are damaged by pelvic infections due to lack of access to clean, safe menstrual hygiene products.
In more privileged countries, we face a different problem (though a shocking number of girl and women in the US, for example, can't afford pads and tampons) – it's the cocktail of chemicals used in the manufacture of the products we do have access to – especially tampons – that can be readily absorbed into the bloodstream via our highly absorbent vaginal walls. These potential toxins can disrupt our hormones causing serious health problems, including endometriosis and possibly even cancer.
Why haven't we heard about this? Well, partly because until recently, women weren’t talking about periods in public (hallelujah that this is changing!), let alone what we use to soak up our blood!
And besides, why would we have to question the safety of our menstrual products – they're well regulated for this, aren't they?
Well, here’s a crazy thing: Feminine care products, including tampons and pads, fall under the FDA regulatory category of “medical devices” – which are actually subject to a lower standard of scrutiny than even cosmetics. So, while according to laws in the United States, the products we put on our skin must be free of poisonous substances that could harm users; tampons (the products we put inside our bodies) are neither monitored nor assessed for similarly levels of ingredient safety. Furthermore, companies that produce menstrual products are not required to disclose any ingredients to the consumer, because, of course, the ingredients in a “medical device” are, considered moot. This makes it seemingly impossible for we, the ladies, to make informed decisions about the health of not only our hoo-ha’s but our bodies as a whole.
Wait, My Menstrual Products Could Be Harmful?
Yes, sadly, that’s exactly right. And while the hazards have been suspected for decades, calls for scientific research into the safety of toxins in menstrual products has been knocked down repeatedly by government agencies. It seems like our vaginas and hormonal health don't justify the research budget.
An important study titled, “Chem Fatale” by Women’s Voices For The Earth, outlining, the potential health risks associated with the use of menstrual products, found that tampons and pads, had the following possible ingredients, all unlisted on the packaging:
- Dioxins from the bleaching process
- Pesticide Residues
- Unknown Fragrance Chemicals
- Adhesive Chemicals, such as Methyldibromo Glutaronitrile
The synthetic fibers which are a large portion of what comprises feminine hygiene products increases the absorption of toxins by the vaginal mucosa. In case you’re not already familiar with the anatomy of your inner lady parts, that's the tissue that lines the walls of your vagina. This tissue is chock full of blood vessels and lymph glands. These allow for the direct transfer of chemicals into the circulatory system. And that’s exactly what can happen with any number of the chemicals found in tampons and pads.
Exposure to any or all of these endocrine disrupting, allergenic, and/or carcinogenic ingredients repeatedly over a women’s reproductive lifetime (5-7 days a month, every month, for 30+ years) – leads to the risks of negative health consequences, including:
- Heavy or Irregular Periods
- Allergic Rashes
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
- And more.
Many of these, for example, endometriosis, can cause severe pain and debility, and regarding their origins, the medical community says, “we have no idea what causes them.” But we do actually have answers – right at our fingertips – and steps we can take for prevention.
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Yikes, I Had No Idea!
So What Safe Option Can I Use During My Period?
Early on in my menstruating life, when I was a wee but precocious 15 years old, I read about the very real hazards of dioxins on our health (I wasn’t exactly your “typical teenager”). So I started out by making my own reusable cotton pads and in 36 years, I’ve never gone back to the conventional brands.
The reusables weren’t always convenient. For example, on an overnight home birth, imagine having to keep the used ones in a sac in my handbag for say, 48 hours – um not so pretty. Back then – pre-mainstream kombucha on tap and before yoga was the trendy way to spend your Saturday mornings – we were just in the early stages of our wellness revolution and sourcing such products required a little research and a bit more effort on my part. But by the time I was in my medical training – whoot- organic cotton disposable tampons and pads became readily available, at least at the food coop and eventually at places like Whole Foods – and I was really happy to have those for those long days and nights at work.
Now, thanks to concerned advocates and insightful product manufacturers, there are many safe and healthy options available to you that don’t require you to rinse and repeat with cloth if that’s not your thing.
On average a woman will use around 10,000 tampons in her lifetime (or a comparable number of pads). But do you know what your menstrual products are made of? Take back your reproductive health with these safe alternatives.
Natural menstrual products alternatives:
- Cotton Pads – Organic cotton day pads such as “Glad Rags,” are as close to the homemade ones I was making back in the day as you can get – except they don’t require a sewing machine. Made of super soft, breathable eco-friendly cotton, you can customize your pads to suit your flow with extra inserts for heavier days. While reusable, they do require a bit of maintenance and may not be as convenient as the toss-out tampons or pads you’re used to.
- Organic Tampons and Pads – Thanks to a new wave of conscious consumers, there are multiple natural menstrual product brands that make 100% organic tampons and pads, and do list ingredients on the box. Some come with applicators, carrying cases, and all kinds of helpful paraphernalia. Seventh Generation, Natra Care, and Maxim, are great options some of which are even stocked in grocers across the US. And if you’d prefer the convenience of have your natural menstrual products delivered to your door, Cora, Lola, and Sustain, are fantastic subscription-based services that allows you to customize your ideal flow packages, and Cora is committed to providing menstrual products to in-need girls and women around the world. And Target has come on board, too, with L. Brand – chlorine free, organic, and cotton menstrual products. We ARE being heard – even if at times progress seems slow.
- Menstrual Cups – The menstrual cup is having a moment; women who love using them love them, but not everyone likes being that up close and personal with their menstrual blood- particularly, for example, in public bathrooms. And with with heavy flow sometimes report that their cup runneth over, requiring a pad for back up. While it can take users a minute to get over the slightly squeamish bits – you know, inserting it, removing it, cleaning it – these reusable funnel-shaped devices are actually quite convenient and effective. Typically made of silicone, they are an environmentally-friendly option that provide up to 12 hours of continuous protection. Once you get the hang of inserting the cup, overall it’s actually less obtrusive than, say, a pad, and comfortable to wear when active. Some reputable brands include Diva Cup, Lunette, and Lena.
- Period Panties – Forget inserts and cotton swaths altogether, and let your panties be your bleeding buddy. THINX period panties look and feel just like regular old underwear, except they are capable of holding up to two tampon’s worth of blood. Not only are they machine washable and reusable, but they can completely replace your need for any other menstrual products. They're not inexpensive, but then, when you add up the costs of over 11,000 tampons, well, they come well in the wash!
- The Venus Mat – The Venus Mat is there for you when you’re ready to get ‘off the rag” (yes, this expression comes from women literally using rags for menstruation) and slip into (or more like onto) something more comfortable. Comprised of three layers of certified safe materials, it provides leak-proof protection for your after work activities – whether you are trying to keep your white sheets clean throughout a heavy flow night or if you want to dabble in some period pleasure time
Taking Matters into Your Own Hands
Unfortunately, mass consumerism isn’t always abundantly transparent. So, when it comes to our reproductive health, it’s important to take matters into our own hands and choose brands and products that have our better interest at heart. The good news is, the more we talk about this stuff, the more awareness we bring to the interest of our health in relation to our menstrual products – and just what exactly is going into them (and by extension, us) – the more we can create change in an industry that desperately needs disruption.
Are there other great natural menstrual products that you use that aren’t on my list? I’d love to hear about them!
Chandler, M.A. How do I know my tampons are safe?’: More women push for detailed labels on feminine care products. The Washington. June 20, 2017
Czerwinski, B.S. Adult Feminine Hygiene Practices. Applied Nursing Research. Vol. 9, No.3. pp: 123-129. August 1996.
Nicole W. A question for women’s health: chemicals in feminine hygiene products and personal lubricants. Environ Health Perspect. 2014 Mar;122(3):A70-5.
Scialli, A. R.. Tampons, dioxins, and endometriosis. Reproductive Toxicology. 2001. 15(3), 231-238.
Scranton, A. Chem Fatale: Potential Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals in Feminine Care Products. Women’s Voices For The Earth, 2013. https://womensvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Chem-Fatale-Report.pdf