Posted on: June 5, 2020 at 8:07 pm

Many tampons and pads today are made with materials that have potentially negative health consequences, and it is important that all women are informed about the products they buy so they can stay healthy during every stage in their menstrual cycle. Many tampon alternatives exist that women may not be aware of.

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The feminine hygiene products market is expected to bring in 42.7 billion dollars worldwide by 2022 [1], and the average woman will spend more than six thousand dollars on menstrual products during her reproductive lifetime [2].

There is a dizzying array of products available to a woman during her time of the month, including all shapes and sizes of pads, tampons, and panty liners. As a woman, you will likely choose what type of product you need based on factors like price, lifestyle, activity level, and monthly flow.

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Feminie hygiene products have come a long way since the nineteenth century when women were using flannel rags to absorb their flow, but even today’s advanced, highly-absorbent products have their drawbacks.

What are Tampons Made Of?

Tampons are made of either cotton or rayon, or a blend of the two, and are regulated by the FDA as a medical device. Manufacturers must test all of their products and submit them to the FDA, where they are evaluated for their safety, among other things.

The fibers used in tampons today are bleached, which is why tampons are always bright white. While this is a concern for many women, according to the FDA the current bleaching process is used without chlorine, which prevents them from containing dangerous levels of dioxin (more on that later) [3].

Read: What Is Uterus Didelphys? A UK Teen Is Raising Awareness Of The Condition

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What are the Dangers Associated with Tampons?

The biggest concern surrounding the use of tampons is Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare but serious medical condition caused when the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus gets into the bloodstream and produces toxins [4].

In the 1980s, women were complaining that their tampons, which were made from one hundred percent cotton, were leaking. To solve this problem, manufacturers began combining the cotton with synthetic materials such as polyester, polyacrylate rayon, carboxymethylcellulose, and viscose rayon, which were much more absorbent [5].

After this change, however, a number of women died from toxic shock syndrome that was linked to these highly-absorbent tampons, and at least one of these products were taken off the market [6].

Since then, the number of instances of TSS have dropped significantly, and it now affects an estimated 0.8 to 3.4 per one hundred thousand people in the United States, a number which includes non-menstrual cases as well [6].

Symptoms of TTS include fever, rash, low blood pressure, and fatigue, and it can quickly lead to a coma, multiple organ failure, and death [7].

But why exactly do these super-absorbent tampons cause TSS? According to Dr. Gerard Lina, a microbiology professor at the University Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, it is the space between the fibers that contribute to air intake in the vagina and represents the major site of S. aureus growth and toxin production, not the material itself. This means that even organic cotton tampons pose a risk.

While the risk still remains very low, experts still stress the importance of educating women about the risk.

“Awareness of toxic shock syndrome needs to be raised for all patients who use intravaginal devices for menstruation,” said Dr. Jennifer Wu [7].

Read: Teen’s Heavy Period Turns Out to be a Symptom of Rare Cancer

Dioxin and Rayon

Rayon is a synthetic fibre made from wood pulp. Until the 1990s, the bleaching process used on the wood pulp resulted in traces of dioxin in tampons, however manufacturers have now moved to a chlorine-free bleaching process to reduce this problem.

Despite this, dioxin is still detected in tampons, even those that are made from one hundred percent cotton. This is because decades of pollution have resulted in dioxin being present in the air, water and ground, therefore small amounts of dioxin may be present in the raw materials used to make tampons.

The FDA requires tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels in their finished products, however these tests are conducted in independent laboratories and the results are not available to the public. Many consumers find it concerning that the manufacturer is responsible for their own testing, rather than an unbiased third-party.

Studies have shown that the amount of dioxin present in tampons is thousands of times less than what is typically found in the food people eat, and the FDA has released a statement saying that the amount of dioxin in tampons today “is many times less than normally present in the body from other environmental sources.” [8]

Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Medical Center, however, says that even small amounts of the toxin can be a concern because they are coming into contact with the vaginal tissue, which is covered in membranes that lead directly to the reproductive organs. He also notes that the average woman will use twelve thousand tampons in her lifetime, and the cumulative effect of repeated exposure could be measurable for many years [8]. After all, dioxins are considered a persistent organic pollutant, and they accumulate in your body [9].

There is No Asbestos in your Tampon

An internet rumour was circulated at one time, claiming that manufacturers were adding asbestos into their products to cause excessive bleeding in order to sell more tampons, however the FDA has confirmed that this is untrue.

Furthermore, because tampon manufacturers have to undergo FDA inspection, the organization has assured women that “these inspections would likely identify any procedures that would expose tampon products to asbestos.” [8]

Read: Why is Gwyneth Paltrow selling a candle that smells like her vagina?

Alternatives to Tampons

If you are concerned about the potential risks associated with tampons, but don’t want to go back to maxi pads, which can be very uncomfortable for day-to-day wear, there are a few other options available to you.

Menstrual cups are an excellent option for many reasons. They are reusable, and you only need to replace them once per year. They contain any undesirable odors (unlike pads) and can be safely worn for up to twelve hours at a time.

Menstrual cups are also far less likely to leak than a pad or tampon, and can be used on both your heaviest and lightest days.

TSS has, however, been associated with menstrual cups, so it is very important that you boil the cup between periods to prevent bacteria growth, and if possible, wash it with soap and water during your period [7]. Menstrual cups aren’t perfect either and do come with their own set of concerns.

More and more companies today are releasing products called “period panties”, which look and feel like normal underwear but are much more absorbent. These panties make a great backup for heavier days and are absorbent enough to be used on light days, which can reduce your need for tampons or a menstrual cup [10].

Choose What’s Right for You

When it comes to your period, the most important thing is that you consider all of your options, and choose the product that is right for you. Every woman is different, with a different cycle, a different lifestyle, and a different flow, which is why there is such a wide variety of products out there.

Millions of women use tampons everyday with minimal adverse health effects, but if you are concerned about the potential risks, or are even simply looking to shrink your environmental footprint, there are plenty of other reusable options available to suit your needs.

Keep Reading: Your Menstrual Cycle Diet: The Best Pain-Relieving Foods to Eat on Your Period

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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