Did you know that sanitary products don’t need to disclose whether or not they contain unsafe chemicals? To organisations such as the Food and Drug Administration, tampons are regarded as a medical device and as such, they are not bound by the disclosure laws you’d expect.
Historically, period products contained chlorine bleach which is a known carcinogen and the most well quoted health risk. Over the span of my lifetime however, period products have been cleaned up and now most tampons or pads that find their way to your underwear won’t contain chlorine. (Mostly. We hope.) Yet pads and tampons can still contain many different chemicals that come with health risks, and manufacturers are not legally required to disclose the levels of those substances found in the final product.
Studies that have tested supermarket or pharmacy brand products have found a number of carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Carcinogens are substances that cause cancer by corrupting your DNA or your cell function. Endocrine disruptors are substances that interrupt the body’s hormone production which can result in anything from cancer to birth deformities to developmental disorders. When referring to carcinogens or endocrine disruptors we’re most often talking about plastics, pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs. Synthetic chemicals, that when in contact with the human body, can cause unpredictable outcomes.
Disposable menstrual pads are typically made of 90% petroleum-based plastic and 10% bleached wood pulp. Each plastic pad contains the equivalent of four plastic bags. Typically, the top layer is polypropylene or polyethylene, the core is a polymeric foam, and the bottom layer is a polyethylene again. Conventional supermarket brand pads also include a lot of undisclosed substances such as synthetic dyes, moisturising lotions, fragrances, adhesives, odour neutralisers and absorbency gels.
A consumer group tested pads from popular brand ‘Always’ that are produced by Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest supplier of menstrual products, and found three known carcinogens: styrene, chloroethane, and chloroform. While Procter & Gamble wasn’t able to isolate which of the previously mentioned substances are actually responsible for the identified carcinogens, the levels were low enough to be considered within federal regulations and none of these chemicals need to be disclosed on the label. The test proved that there are dangerous ingredients in these products being used around the world, but it didn’t distinguish which ingredients consumers should look out for.
Meanwhile, an estimated 70-80% of people that menstruate in developed countries use tampons to manage their period. Tampons are conventionally made from cotton and rayon, a cellulose fibre that can feel like cotton, and a plastic top layer. (About 9% of a tampon is plastic.) Chlorine bleach was previously used to give tampons that bright white look, but since the 90’s elemental chlorine-free (ECF) bleaching or totally chlorine-free (TCF) bleaching agents have been the norm.
There are a lot of concerns regarding the source of the cotton used in tampons. Non-organic cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world, using 25% of global pesticides annually. And from this 25% of pesticides, the World Health Organisation found 80% were classified as moderately or highly hazardous for humans, even though remnants of these pesticides do not have to disclosed by a tampon manufacturer. But while cotton is known for its pesticide residue, rayon is known for its dioxins as an unavoidable by-product of turning wood pulp into rayon fabric.
Dioxins are also known as “persistent organic pollutants”, because they are highly toxic chemical compounds that have difficulty degrading in the environment. They “persist” in nature by bioaccumulating in the tissue of animals (i.e. our body fat) causing cancer, autoimmune disorders, hormonal imbalances or endocrine disorders. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level of exposure to dioxins. While it’s true that the level of potentially harmful chemicals found in a tampon is low comparable to sources such as meat and dairy, it’s the frequency of exposure over a person’s lifetime that rings alarm bells. Our skin is highly permeable, especially the skin inside our vagina, and it only takes a few seconds for substances to absorb through skin into our bloodstream.
Exactly what’s in our tampons or pads or how the ingredients directly affect us remains unclear and under-researched. (This article argues we shouldn’t worry.) Many companies may be doing the right thing by consumers, and the limited exposure to toxic compounds we get through our menstrual products is only a fraction of what we consume through our diet or other environmental contaminants. Many argue that menstrual product contaminants are low on the list of things to worry about, but consumer groups remain unconvinced by the body of research and the lack of investigation into bioaccumulation of toxins within the body.
So, in the absence of transparency from the manufacturers, we can use the knowledge we have on contaminant substances to make the most sensible decisions about our health that we can, within our means. And importantly, when possible, we can choose to support lower impact products that release less harsh by-products into the natural environment.
So, what are the non-toxic period solutions? Washable cloth pads, reusable silicone menstrual cups, and period underwear. Cloth pads made with cotton, flannelette and a BPA-free, non-toxic plastic waterproof lining are free from irritants, allergens, endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Medical-grade silicone menstrual cups are another toxin-free option with reduced risk of micro-abrasions, infection or bacterial growth. Even within the realm of disposables, we have access to brands that run a little cleaner such as TOM Organics and Natracare which are stocked at major Australian supermarkets and protect consumers from the most worrisome ingredients.
If you’re interested in exploring which non-toxic options might work for you, you can follow Ecopads on Instagram or head straight to our store to read about our reusable pads or menstrual cups