Brittany Bowman: The harm in non-organic tampons

Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 5:49pm

–

With so many new companies offering organic cotton menstrual products, my housemates and I got to talking one night and wondered why so many people were making the switch. There are the obvious reasons: There’s less waste with silicone cups, and the smaller companies are run by knowledgeable women versus huge corporations. There’s also the glaring concept that, compared to non-organic items, organic products are simply better for you due to the lack of chemicals. My friends and I began to look up the ingredients of commercial and conventional tampons and realized we actually knew nothing of what goes into them. 

Like many things, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t thoroughly require toxicity testing for menstrual products or that all ingredients and the manufacturing process be made transparent to consumers. They do recommend that tampons should be free of pesticide residue, but many still contain trace amounts due to the manufacturing procedure. Furthermore, the cotton that constitutes non-organic tampons is commercially produced, meaning it goes through rigorous bleaching and chemical cleaning that exposes the cotton fibers to toxins. More insecticides are used to grow conventional cotton than any other commercial crop.

First, let’s consider the area of the body that tampons regularly come into contact with. As many of us know, tampons are inserted directly into the body to absorb blood and stop external leakage. The tampon then resides in the upper two-thirds of the vaginal canal, an area rich in blood vessels and mucous membranes. Additionally, the vaginal epithelium is covered in multiple layers of dead and dying cells, and the vaginal mucous membrane helps to protect against harmful microorganisms and bacteria. However, this tissue is nowhere near as thick as our external skin, and this tissue is efficient at carrying chemical messengers and other materials throughout the body. 

A report from Women’s Voice for the Earth, a nonprofit organization, states that within menstrual products, there are ingredients used that are known or suspected to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs. The endocrine system is a complex physiological network of glands and organs that work to produce and secrete hormones. When the endocrine system functions normally, it works brilliantly to regulate healthy development and body function. However, when exposed to EDCs — which can be substances in the environment, food, personal care and/or manufactured products — this system is disrupted. Some EDCs can act as “mimic hormones” and trick our bodies while others can stop natural hormones from doing their job. They can increase or decrease natural hormone levels, change how sensitive our bodies are to hormones and have the ability to ultimately cause various injurious health outcomes. These deviations of healthy processes can include abnormalities in sex organs, endometriosis, early puberty, changed nervous system or immune function, including respiratory, metabolic, cardiovascular issues and more. 

The breakthrough concerning EDCs came following a time when female researchers realized there was really no scientific research into the development or effects of conventional tampon usage. Vaginal research desperately needed more attention, and women such as Penny Hitchcock and Nancy Alexander took this opportunity to begin research programs on vaginal physiology, microbicides and immunology. These new programs founded by women led to the knowledge that certain chemicals, many of which were conventionally used in or around reproductive organs, could irritate or even damage vaginal epithelial cells. While nearly everyone who menstruates uses some type of tampon or sanitary pad, the chemicals in those create a perfect environment for altering normal vaginal physiology. In a study conducted in 2000 to provide numbers for how many people use which menstrual hygiene product, a range of 50 to 86 percent use tampons, 75 percent use panty liners, 62 to 73 percent use pads and so on. With a rough majority of users opting for the tampon route, many people choosing conventional tampons are directly and unknowingly subjecting their body to microdoses of chemicals and parabens. 

Groundbreaking menstrual health research, which has only started in the past few decades, creates greater awareness surrounding chemicals in hygiene products, but there’s still a large data and funding gap. This means people who menstruate really don’t know what is going into their bodies and how those products are affecting their health. 

This brings us to the upside of organic cotton tampons. To be labeled organic, any product must go through considerably stricter FDA guidelines than their nonorganic counterparts. For this reason, we know exactly what we are getting, and that is often pesticide-free, rayon-free, synthetic fiber-free, all-organic, cotton tampons. The wonderful women who started the organic tampon movement industry, pioneering companies like LOLA and Cora, ensure their consumers that their companies do not contain synthetic fibers, chemical additives, fragrances, dyes, chlorine bleach, GMOs, pesticides, toxins, latex or formaldehyde. We can assume that if a company specifically states those ingredients are not involved in their products, it would be logical to believe those bad ingredients go into the widely purchased, conventional tampons — But we don’t really know, do we?

Of course, the FDA does regulate tampons as medical devices and provides many guidelines companies should follow. However, this doesn’t mean the micro-amounts of chemicals still allowed in non-organic, conventional menstrual products are necessarily safe for you or ideal to put in your body. For the same reason many people made the switch to organic foods to avoid consuming trace amounts of pesticides, fertilizers or carcinogens, many are now making the switch to organic tampons to avoid those same things. For some, including myself and my housemates, organic tampons have anecdotally reduced menstruation time or lessened period cramps. These results could be due to a variety of reasons, but it gives us peace of mind to know what we are putting in our bodies. 

Brittany Bowman can be reached at babowm@umich.edu.