Feminine hygiene products are some of the most common essentials. People aged between 13 and 49 who menstruate need tampons monthly, and other products such as panty liners, or incontinence underwear are used daily. Manufacturers are answering to an ever-growing demand for hygiene products by adding chemicals to the products that may be harmful to your health.
Menstrual products have been testing positive more frequently for per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) also known as forever chemicals. Studies have found that these substances can lead to conditions such as decreased fertility, high blood pressure for people who are pregnant, increased risk of cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, and reduced immunity.
PFAS are found in nearly everything from utensils to tap water. You wouldn’t expect to find them in tampons and other menstrual products. Because tampons are medical-grade equipment, manufacturers don’t always have to list their components. As a result, they can contain ingredients, not just PFAS, that are extremely harmful to you. In a study done by the American consumer watchdog organization, Mamavation, 48% of sanitary pads, 22% of tampons, and 65% of period underwear contained PFAS.
Toxic chemicals in tampons and other sanitary products
Tampons carry hidden toxins that consumers may not be aware of. They aren’t always made of pure cotton. This is because they have to be long-lasting and handle large amounts of blood within a use. Pure or mildly treated cotton would need to be changed frequently. Tampons can contain harmful substances such as glyphosates- a herbicide, dioxins a common pollutant that arises from bleach use, mystery fragrances, pesticides, acetone, and titanium dioxide which is used as the pigment in the tampon thread. Titanium dioxide in low amounts is safe but some tampon manufacturers put excessive amounts.
Studies show that super-absorbent tampons in the 1980s increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome. Manufacturers reduced the chemicals linked to TSS-related deaths and complications. However, there is a data gap when it comes to the residual compounds still found in sanitary products.
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Continued exposure to dioxins can lead to an increased risk of cancer, endocrine hormone disruption, and endometriosis. These studies show that even minimal exposure to dioxins increases the risk of chronic illness. Most people are already exposed to dioxins from eating meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. This means that you are already at safe levels before adding the exposure to tampons. It doesn’t break down in the body and slowly accumulates over time. Tampons and other sanitation products come in contact with membranes in the body that can easily absorb substances.
Farmers who grow cotton use pesticides to ensure that the cotton doesn’t carry any disease vectors. However, a report by WHO found that the cotton industry uses some of the most harmful pesticides. The pesticides can lead to infertility, neurological dysfunction, and developmental issues such as lower IQ and asthma. At least seven out of the 15 used pesticides are also known carcinogens. The US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require tampon manufacturers to test for harmful pesticides or reinforce the absence of pesticides or herbicide residues.
Fragrances and preservatives
Menstrual products can contain undisclosed fragrances that are supposed to be strong enough to mask the smell of period blood. Companies don’t share the ingredients used because they consider them trade secrets. Tampons can contain allergens, sensitizers, phthalates- plastics that make plastics last longer, neurotoxins, and synthetic musks. These undisclosed chemicals can lead to skin irritation and hormone disruption.
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How can women protect themselves?
With the lack of data available for sanitary products, it’s important to know exactly what you’re putting inside your body. Tampons, pads, and panty liners that contain these chemicals increase the risk of heavier periods, more painful cramps, cysts, fibroids, blood poisoning, endometriosis, and thyroid problems. Further studies also show that women who used tampons had increased levels of mercury and signs of higher oxidative stress during their period.
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Communal data sharing of products that affect women can help lead to change. African women publicly complained about how locally made sanitary products affected them compared to products manufactured abroad. This led to an industry-wide shift ensuring better standards for African women. However, problems still remain evident considering the data gap. We Are Not Children Of A Lesser God. Women In Kenya Are Asking For Quality Always Pads Like Those In The International Market
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Since pads, tampons and period underwear are the products that have come under the most scrutiny, it’s important to use brands that value transparency and list all ingredients. Favouring organic, unbleached products over heavily processed ones can also be helpful. Women can also arm themselves with more information by looking up testimonials to lower the risk of exposure.
Women can also use menstrual cups from reputable companies and ensure that they are made of medical-grade silicon or natural rubber. You can also reduce your use of intimate care products that are unnecessary such as panty liners when you aren’t spotting or on your period. Use unscented products. Notify the manufacturer and other women when you have an allergic reaction to a product. Find relevant consumer report platforms to make such reports to ensure any change can start to take place.
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