By Dr. Mercola
The fact that personal care products like lotion, deodorant, and cosmetics often contain toxic ingredients is becoming more common knowledge. As a result, many men and women alike have chosen to opt for natural alternatives and some companies have even removed questionable ingredients.
The same cannot be said, however, for most feminine hygiene products, including tampons and pads. Classified as medical devices instead of personal care products by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), companies do not have to disclose the ingredients they contain.
Most tampons, for instance, are made from cotton, rayon, or another pulp fiber, but these materials may contain toxic disinfection byproducts from the chlorine bleaching process, including dioxins and furans, as well as pesticides from non-organic, often genetically modified (GM) cotton.
Meanwhile, from a sustainability perspective, disposable tampons and pads are far from being environmentally friendly, but available alternatives have not been widely accepted into the mainstream…
It May Take Centuries or More for a Tampon to Degrade in a Landfill
Feminine hygiene pads alone are a multi-billion dollar industry. Another 100 million women use tampons globally, and it’s estimated that one woman uses 11,000 tampons in her lifetime. Each of those tampons, along with pads, can take centuries to break down in a landfill, especially if they’re wrapped in plastic before being thrown away.1
While many municipalities are discussing methods to discourage the use of plastic bags, plastic-laden feminine hygiene products “add the equivalent of 180 billion bags to our waste stream,” according to Naturally Savvy.2 Alternative reusable options include silicone menstrual cups and cloth pads and liners. Sophie Zivku, communications and education director for DivaCup, told The Guardian:3
“The paper feminine hygiene industry has done a very good job of convincing women that their period is something [which] should be out of sight and out of mind, something they shouldn’t talk about…
Think about the advertisements we see – it’s all about silent wrappers, discrete and smaller products that are easier to hide or dispose of, and concealing the fact you have your period. Without opportunities for positive period talk, women and girls may not have the opportunity to learn about or even ask about other, more sustainable options.”
Your Vagina Is Especially Vulnerable to Chemicals and Irritants
If there’s one place where you want to be sure only the purest of materials are introduced, it’s your vagina. Vulvar and vaginal tissues are more permeable than the rest of your skin, making them especially vulnerable to chemicals and other irritants.
With mucous membranes, numerous blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels, the vagina provides a direct entryway for chemicals to circulate through the rest of your body. Plus, tampons are left in place for hours at a time, for several days each month, adding quite a bit of cumulative exposure time.
This is why, when creating my line of premium feminine hygiene products, my team sourced only 100% hypoallergenic organic cotton for tampons and covered them with a special cotton safety layer to help prevent fibers from remaining inside your body.
Research has shown that not only are chemicals rapidly absorbed and circulated through the rest of your body via your vagina, but some chemicals, like hormone-mimicking substances, may lead to “higher than expected exposures” in the rest of your body.
For instance, a vaginally applied dose of estradiol resulted in systemic estradiol levels 10 to 80 times higher than resulted from the same dose taken orally.4 Another area of concern surrounds cancer-causing chemicals, of which little research has been done regarding their direct exposure to the vagina.
Studies show that dioxin, a potential byproduct of the chlorine-bleaching process, collects in your fatty tissues, and according to a draft report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dioxin is a serious public health threat that has no “safe” level of exposure! Published reports show that even low or trace levels of dioxins may be linked to:
- Abnormal tissue growth in the abdomen and reproductive organs
- Abnormal cell growth throughout the body
- Immune system suppression
- Hormonal and endocrine system disruption
FDA Recommends No Dioxin in Tampons, But Trace Levels Exist
The FDA has stated that while bleaching of wood pulp was at one time a potential source of dioxin in tampons, chlorine-free methods are now used for bleaching and purifying the wood pulp used in many tampons. The Agency’s official stance is that there are no expected health risks associated with trace amounts of dioxins in tampons,5 but trace amounts do exist…
The FDA recommends that tampons be free of dioxin, including TCDD and TCDF, as well as pesticide and herbicide residues. But this is simply a recommendation, not a requirement.
“Chem Fatale,” a report on the potential health effects of toxic chemicals in feminine care products,6 revealed testing has shown that toxic chemicals do exist in tampons, despite the FDA’s recommendations:
- A 2002 study found small but detectable levels of TCDF in all four brands of tampons tested7
- A 2013 study detected pesticide residues in o.b. tampons (the only brand tested); the levels were low (some as low as 1 part per million),8 but still show that some exposure is occurring (and many pesticides are considered possible carcinogens and endocrine disruptors)
Non-Organic Cotton Is Considered the ‘World’s Dirtiest Crop’
What else is lurking in your feminine hygiene products? If you use non-organic versions, pesticides. One of the primary reasons why organic cotton is better, even for clothing but especially for tampons and pads, is because of what it doesn’t contain, namely a heavy load of some of the most hazardous insecticides on the market.
According to the Organic Trade Association:9
“Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop.
Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidophos, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous.
Aldicarb, cotton’s second best-selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater.”
Not to mention, 91 percent of the cotton planted in the US is genetically modified.10 The 2002 introduction of Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which is genetically modified to produce a toxin from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is deadly to the bollworm, was supposed to lead to a reduction in the use of insecticides on cotton crops for farmers in the developing world (where 99 percent of all cotton farmers reside).11
But Bt cotton requires more pesticide sprayings than indigenous cotton—MANY times more. Bt cotton has created new resistant pests,12 and to control these, farmers must use 13 times more pesticides than they were using prior to its introduction.13
Plus, with all of the health risks emerging from consuming GMO foods, what might the consequences be of inserting a GM tampon into your vagina for days each month? Such questions have yet to be answered…
Hormone-Disrupting and Carcinogenic Chemicals May Lurk in Tampons
Aside from pesticides, traces of dioxin, and GMOs, if you’re using scented tampons, be aware that such products may contain any of the nearly 3,000 fragrance chemicals in use. But, again, they probably won’t be listed on the label. An analysis by Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), which acquired public patent documents held by Proctor & Gamble (the maker of Tampax and Always), showed the following chemicals may also be in your tampons:14
Creped cellulose wadding Meltblown polymers Chemically stiffened fibers, polyester fibers, peat moss, foam Tissue wraps and laminates Super absorbent gels and open-celled foams Myreth-3-myristate (as lubricant) (US Patent # 5,591,123) Natural and synthetic zeolites (as odor-absorbing particles) (US Patent # 5,161,686) Alcohol ethoxylates Glycerol esters, polysorbate-20 (as surfactants to disperse fragrance) Unnamed antibacterial agents (US Patent # 8,585,668) Cancer-causing chemicals such as: styrene, pyridine, methyleugenol, and butylated hydroxyanisole (scented products) Phthalates of concern (DEP and DINP) (scented products) Synthetic musks (potential hormone disruptors) (scented products) Numerous allergens (scented products)
Superabsorbent Fibers in Tampons May Increase Toxic Shock Syndrome Risk
Tampons can create a favorable environment for bacteria growth. Micro tears in your vaginal wall from tampons may allow bacteria to enter and accumulate. One recognized risk from tampon use is Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), which may be caused by poisonous toxins from either Staphylococcus aureus (staph) or group A streptococcus (strep) bacteria.
However, TSS has also been associated with superabsorbent fibers in tampons, such as rayon, a cellulose fiber made from wood pulp. Many conventional tampons are manufactured with a blend of cotton and rayon because it costs less and absorbs more liquid. But according to the Mayo Clinic:15
“Researchers don’t know exactly how tampons may cause toxic shock syndrome. Some believe that when superabsorbent tampons are left in place for a long time, the tampons become a breeding ground for bacteria. Others have suggested that the superabsorbent fibers in the tampons can scratch the surface of the vagina, making it possible for bacteria or their toxins to enter the bloodstream.”
TSS can be a life-threatening condition, so it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms. Should any of the following symptoms arise while using tampons during your period, make sure you seek medical help:
Sudden high fever Vomiting Diarrhea Low blood pressure Seizures Rash on palms or soles of feet Muscle aches Redness of your eyes, mouth, and/or throat
To minimize your risk of this potentially life-threatening condition:
Avoid super absorbent tampons — choose the lowest absorbency rate to handle your flow Never leave a tampon inserted overnight; use overnight pads instead When inserting a tampon, be extremely careful not to scratch your vaginal lining (avoid plastic applicators) Alternate the use of tampons with sanitary napkins or mini-pads during your period Change tampons at least every 4-6 hours Do not use a tampon between periods
Safer Alternatives for Feminine Care
Many of today’s feminine hygiene products are made primarily from rayon, viscose, and cellulose wood fluff pulp… not cotton — let alone organic cotton. Rayon and viscose present a potential danger in part because of their highly absorbent fibers.
When used in tampons, these fibers can stick to your vaginal wall, and when you remove the tampon, the loosened fibers stay behind inside your body, thereby raising your risk of TSS. However, to be clear, the FDA notes that tampons made with rayon do not appear to have a higher risk of TSS than cotton tampons of similar absorbency.16
It is the absorbency level that appears to have the greatest association, with higher absorbency products linked to increased TSS risk. Fortunately, there are safer alternatives, and since the FDA regulates tampon absorbency, all tampons on the market must meet the same absorption guidelines. According to Dr. Philip Tierno, a clinical professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU Medical Centre, 100 percent cotton tampons “consistently test under detectable levels for TSS toxins.”
This is just one reason why my line of feminine hygiene products is made with only certified organic or natural cotton – more naturally breathable fiber that may be healthier for your body and the earth. Not only are there NO synthetic fibers in the Mercola line of personal products, but every tampon and pad also contains a special “security veil.”
This veil, a soft, breathable cotton cover, provides double insurance against any part of the cotton separating from the tampon or pad. My Premium Personal Care line, including organic tampons, natural cotton panty liners, and sanitary pads are also:
- Chlorine- and toxin-free – Keeps potentially dangerous substances away from your most intimate body parts
- Synthetic-free – For a softer and plastic-less feel
- Wood fluff pulp-free – Breathable, absorbent, and saves trees, too
- Hypoallergenic and soothing – especially for those with sensitive skin
- User-friendly – Easy and comfortable to use
If you want to get involved in the push for full-disclosure labeling, Naturally Savvy has created a petition asking Procter & Gamble to disclose the ingredients in their feminine hygiene products. You can sign their petition here.