For most of us, adopting a healthy lifestyle means cleaning up our diets and exercising at the gym 3 times a week. If we look deeper than just food and exercise, you’d find that the vast majority of modern products we use expose us to a significant amount of synthetic chemicals. It may surprise you to know that some of these common products include feminine hygiene items like pads and tampons.
How can they even be toxic? It’s not like you’re eating pads…
Skin is a semipermeable barrier, meaning that it has the capability of absorbing substances from the outside world while keeping the inside world intact. What makes feminine products so dangerous is that the vaginal area is one of the most permeable tissues of the body. On top of that, it’s also full of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels making it extremely easy for substances to cross the skin barrier and enter the bloodstream. In fact, it’s so easy that many drug companies are considering using the vaginal area as a drug delivery system because of how efficient chemicals can pass into the bloodstream.
Usually when you ingest something, it has to go through this process called “hepatic first-pass metabolism”. This just means that it has to undergoes some transformation before it can enter the bloodstream. Vaginal absorption of chemicals, on the other hand, bypasses this system entirely making it all the more dangerous.
“Thus, direct exposure to your system without first-pass hepatic clearance may increase toxicity of cancer-causing chemicals, for which little research has been done regarding direct exposure to the vagina. Pesticide contamination, toxic chemical byproducts and undisclosed chemicals therefore pose a hidden health risk to women.” (1)
So it seems that whatever goes on or near this area must be carefully scrutinized.
How can they even be toxic? It’s not like you’re eating them…
Pads are made up of a proprietary blend of cotton and rayon (a synthetic fiber) along with other miscellaneous substances like fragrances, colourants, dyes, preservatives, plastics and petrochemical additives like Super Absorbent Powders. It’s difficult however, to know precisely what’s inside these products because feminine hygiene companies do not have to disclose any of their ingredients due to their FDA status as a “medical device”. An advocacy group called Women’s Voices for the Earth privately tested P&G’s Always pads and found the product emits several different VOCs including:
- Styrene: considered by the World Health Organization to be a likely carcinogen
- Chloroethane: shown to have negative neurological effects
- Toluene: rated a 10 by the EWG (the highest level a chemical can reach on its toxicity scale)
- Chloroform: Possible human carcinogen, also rated 10 by EWG
- 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene: industrial solvent, in animal studies it’s been found to harm the adrenal glands (2)
It’s probably safe to assume that these chemicals are not just found in this brand alone but in most conventional products.
For a full list of the chemicals found in this study please visit the original study: https://www.womensvoices.org/feminine-care-products/detox-the-box/always-pads-testing-results/
So what’s actually in those pads?
One of the main fibers used in pads and tampons is a synthetic fiber called rayon. Wood Pulp is transformed through several chemical processes to form the flexible material that’s used to line the top and bottom layers of the pad. It should be noted that tampons made out of rayon seem to provide the ideal environment for bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, responsible for the lethal Toxic Shock Syndrome, to thrive. The microbiologist Dr. Philip M. Tierno, responsible for first discovering the link between tampons and TSS in the 1980s, believes that synthetic fibers are some of the worst offenders. Due to their high absorbency rates, manufacturers banned the use of 3 of the 4 major synthetic fibers which showed the strongest link to TSS. Although, the fourth fiber (a highly absorbent viscose rayon) is still used in production today (3). Tierno suggests natural fibers like cotton dramatically decrease the likelihood of TSS developing (4).
But is conventional cotton any better?
A few leading brands will blend small amounts of cotton into their product. The cotton being used is conventionally grown which means it’s genetically modified and sprayed with large amounts of pesticides and insecticides. When you consider that 10% of the worlds pesticides and 25% of the worlds insecticides are used on cotton alone, it becomes apparent why this is such a concern. Some of the most toxic pesticides like aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan, which were originally developed as toxic nerve agents in WWII, are regularly being sprayed on cotton (5). It’s frightening to think that such substances could be present on your tampon.
Andrea Donsky, founder of the site NatuallySavvy, also raised concern for GMOs in cotton as well. She theorizes that genetically modified cells might easily pass the blood-skin barrier far easier than ingested GMOs. Although no studies have been done to prove or disprove this, it’s still a plausible idea (6).
It should be noted that the use of any menstrual device, even the organic variety, could theoretically still cause TSS. The only way to truly prevent TSS is not have the S. aureus bacteria present in your vaginal flora (7). Since there is no way to consistently tell whether you carry the bacteria or not (about 20% of women do carry it) reducing your risk is of prime importance. Because of this, I tend to avoid tampons and menstrual cups entirely. That’s just my personal preference. Please contact your doctor if you feel ill with flu like symptoms during your period!
What about dioxin?
There’s been considerable buzz about dioxin also being present in pads and tampons. Dioxin is a highly toxic byproduct of industrial processes (although it can occur naturally as well) and has been found all over the world increasingly contaminating our water, food, soil and air supply. What makes this chemical so dangerous, besides its numerous health effects and carcinogenicity, is its long lasting persistence in the environment. It takes about 7-11 years for 50% of dioxin exposure to be expelled by the human body (8).
Due to the overwhelming data showing the toxicity of this substance, governments around the world enforced regulations in an effort to lower such emissions. One of these measures was the EPA in 1998 baning a bleaching process which produced a considerable amount of dioxins. The newer “chlorine-free” process is what’s currently being used but due to the nature of the bleaching process itself, trace amounts of dioxin are still produced. Most pads and tampons undergo significant bleaching to achieve their bright almost luminescent white colour. This means that newer pads and tampons can still contain traces of this toxin, even if the final product is labeled “dioxin-free” (9).
Dr. Tierno says: “Sure, one tampon is trace, but consider the menstrual lifetime of a woman. They use approximately 12,000 tampons in a lifetime. That means 12,000 exposures of dioxin … five, six, seven times a day. That’s a lot of dioxin absorbed directly through the vagina. It goes directly into the blood.” (10)
Given the toxicity of this substance and its bioaccumulative effects in our bodies; avoiding as many sources of dioxin (especially in highly permeable areas like the vagina) is strongly advisable.
And then there’s plastic too..
The plastic used in one pad is equivalent to 4 plastic bags. Considering that the average woman uses between 12,000 to 16,000 menstrual products in her lifetime, that is an overwhelming amount of plastic being thrown away. In just one day, the Ocean Conservancy collected 27,938 tampons and applicators off of shorelines around the world(11). Not only is the degradation of plastics in the environment a huge problem, but also think of the amount of toxins generated from producing the plastic in the first place.
From an environmental standpoint, reusable pads and menstrual cups seem to be the clear winner. If you do want to continue using disposable menstrual products, consider getting a special disposable bag to put your waste in.
For more information on plastics and the environment, please check out my other article here.
So what can you do?
- Avoid tampons in general, even the 100% cotton kind
- Use organic products when dealing with the vaginal area
- Avoid anything synthetic or overly fragrant
- Choose organic pads over conventional pads
- Use a reusable menstrual cup instead of a tampon. Although be aware that there have been 2 cases of TSS from menstrual cup usage (still extremely rare)
I will be discussing in more detail the alternatives to conventional feminine hygiene products and how to make your own environmentally friendly pads in another post.