Updated: Aug 16, 2019
Just like 100 million womxn all over the world, I rely on tampons as my go-to menstrual hygiene product. Over the course of my reproductive life, I will use anywhere between 11,000 and 16,800 disposable sanitary products. I keep a stack of tampons and pads stocked in my bathroom, my purses (yeah - all of them), and in the glove compartment of my car. I depend on these products on a monthly basis, yet here’s something I never stopped to consider: what are my tampons made of?
Are these materials safe?
Are they clean?
I don’t know anything about how these sanitary products are made. I don’t even know what they’re made of. I also assumed that they were sterile because of the individually packaged wrappers, but I never thought to check to see if that was true.
In a similar vein, isn’t this why we’re told to wash newly purchased clothes before wearing them? Those garments may be covered in irritants left over from the manufacturing process, and they might have been exposed to bacteria from shoppers who tried them on previously. We don’t know where these clothes have been, or the types of unsafe substances they may have come in contact with. They aren’t new, and they aren’t clean. Which is why we should wash them before placing them on our bodies.
Getting back on track, the good news is that your tampons are not infected with bacteria, but they aren’t necessarily clean either.
To help us out, we have Zach Poczekaj, a representative from the organic tampon retailer, Aunt Flow, who can shed some light on the tampon-manufacturing process. If the company name sounds familiar, maybe you know one of the 350 schools and businesses that stock their products. Or maybe you’ve heard about their badass 22-year-old founder, Claire Coder, who started the company when she was 18.
Zach’s job at Aunt Flow is to spread the company’s message across the U.S., and help make menstrual products freely available in every public bathroom. Today, that means raising awareness about hazardous chemicals found in non-organic sanitary products, and how those contaminants impact your long-term health.
What should you watch out for?
Perhaps you’ve heard this advice before: a good rule of thumb is to avoid all scented products since those perfumes and fragrances can disrupt your vagina’s PH balance. Aside from this suggestion, it’s hard to know what else to look for. If you look at the ingredients found on most name-brand tampon boxes, you’ll notice that the list is quite sparse.
Zach explains, “Unlike cosmetics or other self-care products, the FDA actually classifies tampons as medical devices. So what that means is that there’s actually no labelling requirements for the ingredients that go into these products.” (Click to Tweet)
This reflects a huge flaw in the medical industry as a whole. Most people - health professionals included - assume that the FDA has properly ensured the safety of these medical products, but truthfully, regulations are much looser than we would like them to be. A recent episode of Last Week Tonight exposed the faults within the process of approving new medical devices for sale. Similarly, a documentary called The Bleeding Edge (available on Netflix) chronicled what was essentially an epidemic of thousands of womxn suffering painful, long-lasting damage caused by a defective birth control implant.
Focusing on the materials you can find listed, there’s a good chance you’ll see “rayon” somewhere on the packaging. It’s a manufactured material “made from purified cellulose fibers,” that has several versatile applications in the fashion industry due to its ability to pass itself off as different kinds of fabric.
Rayon is a very common ingredient in tampon production, and by itself, it seems harmless, which is stressed by those who argue against the need for organic menstrual products.
It’s a fair point. Your vagina does not sense the difference between rayon and all-cotton tampons. The material itself isn’t toxic. However, dioxin, which is a byproduct of the rayon-bleaching process, is very dangerous.
Dioxin is a known human carcinogen, and has been referred to as “the most toxic chemical ever made by humans” in the text Our Bodies, Ourselves. It has also been linked as a possible environmental cause of endometriosis, and other studies have found connections to the development of chronic conditions, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and reduced fertility.
In the late 90s, manufacturers switched to a chlorine-free bleaching method which was supposed to eliminate dioxin exposure entirely. Yet, we still find trace amounts in tampons made with this new process - even some that are made with 100% cotton. (Even though this piece is advocating for readers to switch to organic products, we still believe it’s important to include all of the information available, especially since the research is so limited.)
Last year, a nonprofit called the Women’s Voices for the Earth commissioned a third-party facility to test six popular tampon brands for volatile organic compounds. The sample was comprised of four “mainstream” brands that use rayon, along with two cotton-only options. (For a full breakdown, you can read more about the study and the methodology behind the testing process - if only to make sure your go-to brand isn't on that list.)
The results detected a reproductive toxin called carbon disulfide in all four of the rayon-blended tampons. Two of those four also tested positive for several other neurotoxins, reproductive toxicants, and a carcinogen called methylene chloride. The two samples made with 100% cotton were the only two brands to come back with clean bills of health.
Granted, this test didn’t screen for dioxin, and we warned earlier that marketing that emphasizes “organic” or “all-cotton” doesn’t always translate to being toxic-free. Still, we felt it was worth noting that it does seem more likely that these companies who voice a desire to offer clean, alternative tampons to their customers are following through on their promises.
Why do “nay-sayers” reject organic menstrual products?
For every advocate warning about the dangers of using these non-organic products, there is a skeptic ready with a counterargument. Their main point of defense is: even though these toxins are present, they have only ever been found in trace amounts, small enough to be considered negligible. In fact, we encounter significantly higher levels of dioxin in the food we eat than in the menstrual products we put inside our bodies.
And that’s true. Chemicals, like dioxin, have a strong presence in our environment. But this counterargument fails to acknowledge that there is a huge difference between ingesting food that has been exposed to these toxins and allowing them to make contact with the permeable skin inside our bodies.
“We love to say, ‘If someone is going to take the extra time to choose an organic fruit option, why would they want to put chemicals in their bodies?’”
Remember the statistic from the top of this piece? On average, one menstruating individual will use anywhere between 11,000 and 16,800 disposable menstrual products. Imagine that: allowing a “negligible” amount of a human carcinogen to come in contact with your semi-permeable vaginal tissue - every month, for the next 30 to 40 years of your reproductive life.
So, what can you do about it?
As far as call-to-actions go, this one is pretty easy: stop buying those toxic menstrual products!
You can find organic tampons at Target! Or reach out to Aunt Flow for a quote, and stock up your office or school. Zach emphasizes that Aunt Flow’s products are made with 100% organic cotton, and their tampons are completely biodegradable. They even use cardboard applicators with curved tips, to “mimic the comfortability of a plastic applicator.”
“On our team, we feel really fortunate that we can help people advocate to have products that they feel good about putting in their bodies.”
You can also take it one step further and switch to reusable products, like menstrual cups or reusable cloth liners. These items have a higher upfront cost (about $30), but they pay for themselves after a couple of uses. In addition to being cost effective, these options also reduce waste, which is another issue associated with menstrual products.
Before I was assigned this piece, I didn’t even know that organic tampons existed. If I did, I probably would have brushed off that information, assumed they were a bit more expensive than what I was willing to pay for, and moved on with my life. I wouldn’t have learned that organic tampons cost about as much as my usual brand. I wouldn’t have understood that there were actual health risks associated with these name-brand products.
As a creature of habit, I understand the instinctual wariness one might feel when presented with a pitch to change such an ingrained routine. But when I weigh the possible benefits versus the possible detriments, I realize that there’s a clear winner.
As far as health-related lifestyle changes go, this one is incredibly easy. It’s such a small change, and true, you won’t see its effects for the next few years. Or maybe even for the next ten years. But why should we wait for researchers to confirm whether or not these name-brand menstrual products are safe, when we could take initiative and seek out healthier alternatives right now?
Words by Jay Alba