Tampons are used by up to 85% of menstruating women in the United States alone. Whatever your weapon of choice when it comes to hygiene during your cycle, it’s important to know the facts about the products – and their chemical ingredients – that you’re putting in your body.
What Are Carcinogens?
When something is defined as “carcinogenic,” it simply means that it contains chemicals that can cause cancer in humans. Carcinogens are unfortunately more common than most of us realize – they make it into hair products, processed foods, and even furniture. There are many ways to greatly lessen your exposure to carcinogens, some obvious, like avoiding tobacco, and some creative, like selecting meat products that come from more natural sources or are less processed (uncured bacon is one example).
Carcinogens Have Been Discovered in Tampons
In one particular study, tests were conducted on several different brands of tampons available in stores in New York, including “organic, mainstream, and dollar store brands.” Some, but not all, of the brands tested contained methylene chloride, a carcinogen often found in paint strippers. Others contained dioxins, another known human carcinogen. The presence of carcinogenic materials in tampons is concerning for two reasons: first, that they’re present at all, but second, that women use these products regularly, for all hours of the day and several days at a time.
The study shared the concerns of medical professionals when it comes to harmful chemicals in feminine hygiene products. “It is concerning that we don’t have a clear picture of the chemicals used in tampons and other feminine hygiene products given that women are using these products regularly throughout their child-bearing years,” said Dr. Ami Zota, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at The George Washington University Milken School of Public Health. “These results underscore the need for more comprehensive testing to better understand the potential health risks that may arise from long-term product use.”
Some of the brands tested contained methylene chloride, a carcinogen often found in paint strippers.
Another physician said, “Millions use menstrual products on a monthly basis. It is unacceptable that there are so many unknowns about the ingredients, safety, and health impacts of products that come into contact with one of the most sensitive and absorbent parts of the body.”
Both physicians are identifying a key issue in the use of harmful chemicals in feminine hygiene: if we want to be aware of and address the complexities of women’s health, particularly those that have gone unnoticed in the past, why would we continue to allow feminine hygiene products to be a source of potentially harmful chemical exposure?
Other Chemicals Present in Tampons
Dr. Zota also highlighted that the use of many tampon brands increases a woman’s level of exposure to phthalates, which are known “endocrine disruptors.” Endocrine disruptors are essentially chemicals that can cause an imbalance in the natural hormone levels that our bodies attempt to keep in regulation. Endocrine disruptors have also been linked to “higher rates of asthma and lower IQ numbers” in children, as well as infertility in adult women.
The Chemicals Bypass Our Metabolism
The metabolic process of the body protects us from multiple exposures to toxins, particularly in the food we digest, so its defense against the toxins in tampons would be imperative – except that, because tampons are used in the vagina, the elimination process our metabolism can accomplish elsewhere is impossible. Instead, as Dr. Zota explains, “Tampon chemicals are absorbed by the vaginal mucosa, and from there are able to pass almost directly into your bloodstream.” Because of this more direct access to the bloodstream, the toxins contained in tampons are uniquely threatening.
Tampon chemicals are absorbed by the vaginal mucosa and pass almost directly into the bloodstream.
How To Avoid Chemical Exposure in Tampons
Because the FDA considers tampons and other period products to be medical devices, companies that develop them aren’t obligated to list their ingredients. For example, another known reproductive toxin, carbon disulfide, is a chemical used in the manufacture of rayon, and it can be present in tampons made with rayon. However, tampon companies aren’t required to disclose the presence of carbon disulfide and may simply list “rayon” as an ingredient.
Fortunately, multiple companies recognize the need for transparency in feminine hygiene and do their best to communicate what’s in their products or try to avoid toxic chemicals altogether. One of the main sources of dioxins in tampons, in particular, is the bleaching process, which some companies have abandoned in order to lessen the exposure to toxins for their customers. In addition, there are other options if finding chemical-free tampons becomes too difficult – products like pads or menstrual cups are easier to develop without toxic ingredients.
Lastly, we can help avoid chemical exposure for ourselves and others by continuing to demand better from the companies we’re purchasing from. By voicing our need for transparency and healthy product development, whether explicitly through legal action – like one congresswoman in New York has attempted several times – or implicitly by purchasing products that are in line with what’s healthiest for our bodies, we’re taking away the one thing these companies need to succeed: their customers.
Next time you’re shopping for products in anticipation for your next visit from Aunt Flo, take a closer look at who you’re buying from and what might be in the product. If there isn’t a transparent ingredient list, it might be a sign to pick up another option – even if it’s more expensive. You and your health are worth it!
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