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The chemicals in feminine hygiene products have been linked to a host of issues, including cancers, inflammatory conditions, infections, and hormonal concerns
Throughout time, women have utilized a wide range of menstrual products from homemade versions, to those sold in stores. The ancient Egyptian women made tampons from softened papyrus, and in other countries women sourced ingredients such as wool and vegetable plant fibers. The earliest commercial tampons were available in the early 1900s, with disposables made in the 1940s. Menstrual cups have been around for at least 150 years, while pads have changed forms over the past 7 decades1. However, just like chemicals in processed foods have been linked to various chronic conditions that can take decades to manifest, chemicals in tampons have been linked to vaginal infections and inflammatory conditions, cancers, and hormone related concerns.
In a recent national story, the poor water supply in Flint, Michigan exposed adults and children over the past year to astronomical amounts of lead, amongst other chemicals, which were highly speculated to correlate with a significant of anemia, brain fog, digestive diseases, and a myriad of other health concerns. Synonymously, women utilize feminine hygiene products nearly every day for one week a month, for approximately 30 years, equating to about 11,000 items.2 Like the microbiome in our gut, the vaginal ecosystem is a delicate balance of bacteria that can be altered by foreign objects or substances such as feminine hygiene products, spermicides, lubricants, creams, and douches. The vaginal mucus membrane and external anatomy (e.g. clitoris, labia) is capable of secreting and absorbing fluids at a higher rate than the skin, so chemicals are rapidly absorbed through the vagina. In contrast, our skin protects us from the outside world, and ingestion ensures a substance can get broken down to less toxic versions to help relieve body burden. Therefore, possible exposure to higher than anticipated chemical burden from hygiene products may be more prevalent than the companies’ intend.2
According to the FDA, the main toxic ingredients in tampons are dioxin, rayon, and asbestosis. Some are also scented with fragrance, a solution of harmful chemicals commonly added to products to mask unpleasant scents associated with strong vaginal odor usually due to oxidized menstrual blood, or imbalanced flora. 3 Ironically this contributor to an imbalanced ecosystem that may produce unwanted scents, may prompt her to buy more fragranced-based product.
Elevated levels of dioxin, the byproduct when tampons and other sanitary products are bleached with chlorine, have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer and endometriosis, stated by the Women’s Environmental Network.4 Rayon helps promote absorbency, however, this can also mean increased toxin absorption during time of production. Chlorine gives sanitary napkins and tampons it’s ‘clean white look’, and while some brands may tout a chlorine-free bleaching process and 100% cotton tampons, dioxins are still produced, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not always collect dioxin levels from tampon or sanitary product brands.5
Tampons can be inserted with our finger (no applicator), or encased in an applicator, typically cardboard or plastic based. Plastic applicators contain toxins such as Bisphenol A (BPA), which has now been removed from lining of cans and many plastic-wares, due to its link to hormone disruption and carcinogenic qualities. Both applicators and tampons have the potential to cause micro-tears in the vaginal walls, facilitating an easier entry for chemicals to enter the body.6
A more dangerous and immediate concern for women is the possibility of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a potentially fatal condition due to an overgrowth of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that is already present in and on our body. According to WebMD, it can be attributed to women who use tampons, diaphragms, and menstrual sponges, and symptoms are produced from the poisons released from the bacteria, including high fever and vomiting. A tampon saturated with blood, for example, supports the rapid growth of bacteria then optimized in entering our system through highly absorptive vaginal walls, potential micro-tears from insertion and removal, or if the vagina is drier than normal should the tampon be in there too long.7
We have become more environmentally conscious as a society as more and more research continues to support how the vast amount of endocrine disrupting chemicals present in our day-to-day life can negatively impact our health presently, and over the course of decades. Clinically in women, elevated estrogen, a common hormone affected, has been linked to painful period cramps, heavy menses, uterine fibroids, thyroid concerns, weight gain, breast cancer, and endometriosis. Switching to 100% organic cotton tampons and pads, reusable organic cloth pads, and menstrual cups (may be made from silicon or latex) are far better options to reduce harmful loads on the body. One study about menstrual cups portrayed there was trivial difference in multiple strains of vaginal flora, including Staphylococcus aureus associated with TSS.8 In addition, menstrual cups are a one-time purchase and can be reused for up to a decade, as long as they are washed with soap (natural, chemical free) and water. Sterility of the cup is not a concern as the vagina is a self-cleaning ecosystem, and will adapt to much less toxic product.9
We are living in a toxic world, where genetically modified organisms and pesticides can even leave organic soil contaminated, foods preserved with chemicals that our body’s work hard to excrete, as we continuously breathe in fumes and car exhaust around urban and suburban environments. The switch from tampons and other feminine hygiene products to organic products, or a menstrual cup, can help remove the hormone-disrupting burden off of our bodies, which can aid in truly optimizing our health. Hormonal health is multifactorial and affects people at every stage of their life. If we are conscious about what we put inside our bodies nutritionally, we should be just as conscious about what else goes inside.
1 https://www.naturalmenstrualproducts.com/history.php. History of Menstrual Pads.
2 http://web.b.ebscohost.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=7&sid=dce747f4-f41d-46de-84df-e123d22c61de%40sessionmgr198&hid=124&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWNvb2tpZSxpcCx1cmwsY3BpZCZjdXN0aWQ9bnlwbCZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmU%3d#AN=2658509&db=aph. Adair, A. (1999). Taking aim at toxic tampons. Herizons. 13(3):15-18.
3 http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/PatientAlerts/ucm070003.htm. Tampons and Asbestos, Dioxin, & Toxic Shock Syndrome. 5/13/15
4 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240689/pdf/ehp0110-000023.pdf. DeVito, M. & Schecter, A. (2002). Exposure assessment to dioxins from the use of tampons and diapers. Environmental Health Perspectives. 110(1):23-8.
5 https://www.thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:H.R.5181: Robin Danielson Act. 2008.
6 https://web.b.ebscohost.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=23&sid=dce747f4-f41d-46de-84df-e123d22c61de%40sessionmgr198&hid=124&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWNvb2tpZSxpcCx1cmwsY3BpZCZjdXN0aWQ9bnlwbCZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmU%3d#AN=94758164&db=aph. Wendee, N. & Scott, R. (2014). A question for women’s health: Chemicals in feminine hygiene products and personal lubricants. Environmental Health Perspectives. 122(3):A70-5.
7 https://www.webmd.com/women/guide/understanding-toxic-shock-syndrome-basics?page=1. What is Toxic Shock Syndrome?
8 https://web.b.ebscohost.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=15&sid=dce747f4-f41d-46de-84df-e123d22c61de%40sessionmgr198&hid=124. Liebert, M. (2011). Preclinical, clinical, and over-the-counter postmarketing experience with a new vaginal cup: menstrual collection.
9 https://web.b.ebscohost.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=10&sid=dce747f4-f41d-46de-84df-e123d22c61de%40sessionmgr198&hid=124&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWNvb2tpZSxpcCx1cmwsY3BpZCZjdXN0aWQ9bnlwbCZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmU%3d#db=aph&AN=99832609. Oaklander, Mandy. Is the Menstrual Cup Going Mainstream? Time.com, 12/2/2014.