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Should You Worry About Your Tampons and Pads?

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on September 6th, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

Have you recently checked out the feminine hygiene aisle in the drugstore? It’s as varied as a bookstore! What a huge change in feminine products. Pads that were once bulky and held in by pins and straps are now thin and self-stick. Old fashioned powder-pink-and-blue packaging is now hot pink and lime green. Some manufacturers have abandoned classic ads featuring happy-go-lucky women dancing in tight white pants, and instead they’re portraying menstruation in candid, woman-to-woman style.

All these changes are good, and I’m very grateful for the broad new choices of thin panty liners that we ladies use on a daily basis and shove into secret pockets in our purses. But I’m still waiting for a more significant revolution in feminine products — one that focuses on improving safety and reducing potential risks.

Potential risks

Your choice of feminine product may not be something you’ve ever really thought about. But most tampons and pads contain chemicals and additives, and they come in direct contact with some of the most absorbent and sensitive tissue in our bodies. While there’s no proof of immediate harm to the body, the long-term effects of exposure to these substances is unknown – so I’m left wondering: who needs that?

Here’s what you may be getting with many conventional tampons and pads:

• Pesticides: Non-organic cotton is a pesticide-intensive crop. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton as possible, likely, probable, or known to cause cancer in humans. Meanwhile, the FDA recommends, but does not require, that tampons be free of any pesticide and herbicide residues. This means that manufacturers can choose to ignore the recommendation. In most cases we don’t know whether or not they do.

• Petroleum-based chemicals: Conventional disposable feminine pads often have an absorbent center filling and layers made from petroleum-based chemicals (plastics) and a barrier made of polyethylene film to prevent leakage.

Additives: Many feminine products marketed as “deodorant” contain synthetic fragrance. Manufacturers often use undisclosed mixtures of various scent chemicals and ingredients that spread fragrance, such as diethyl phthalate. These chemicals can irritate the skin and eyes and may trigger allergies and breathing difficulties. Researchers are looking into whether phthalates disrupt the normal hormonal balances and function in the body.

Feminine products also may contain other additives with unknown health effects. Theses include soap-like compounds called surfactants, which act to improve absorbency, and synthetic fibers.

Again, right now there is no evidence that feminine products harm the body — just unanswered questions about their long-term impact on our health.

Safer alternatives to conventional pads and tampons are available if you want to minimize your exposure to synthetic chemicals or your environmental impact (it’s estimated that the average woman discards 300 pounds of feminine hygiene products in her life). Alternative products are reasonably priced (often costing about the same or just slightly more than conventional options) and provide ample protection.

• If you prefer to use tampons: Look for tampons made from 100% organically produced cotton. Just as conventional tampons are bleached without chlorine, so are organic tampons. However, organic tampons are usually also free of pesticides, petroleum-based chemicals, and other additives. Available brands include Seventh Generation, Natracare, and Organyc.

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) incidence peaked in 1980 at 13.7 per 100,000, then fell quickly to its current rate of 1 in 100,000 after tampon manufacturers removed synthetic additives used to enhance absorbency. At the same time, the FDA posted a warning advising women to use the lowest absorbency.

Whatever kind of tampon you choose, avoid those with scents or fragrances, which are made with chemical additives. Look for “scent-free” products. And always use the lowest absorbency needed to control your flow in order to reduce the very small risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

• If you prefer pads:  Look for organic cotton panty liners and pads made without rayon, plastics, and similar synthetic materials. Brands are available that specifically advertise being free of petroleum-based ingredients and polyethylene. As with tampons, it’s best to avoid scented or fragranced versions. Natracare makes pads with organic cotton covers, and Organyc and Maxim make 100% chlorine-free cotton pads.

• If you want to reduce your risk of chemical exposure and are concerned about the environmental impact of disposable products: Try a reusable menstrual cup or cloth pads, at least to see if they’re a good alternative for you. These alternative options don’t contain chemical irritants, so they are a lot less likely to trigger skin sensitivities or allergies, including redness and irritation of the vagina and vulva that may occur with conventional feminine hygiene products.

Menstrual cups are designed to collect menstrual flow in a bell-shaped cup made from silicone, rubber, or thermoplastic elastomer, a flexible blend of plastic and rubber (the Diva Cup is very popular amongst my college-aged family members). Worn internally like a tampon, it forms a light seal with the vaginal wall so there is no leakage. The menstrual cup should be removed 2 to 3 times a day, emptied and rinsed, and reinserted. Manufacturers advise sterilizing the cup between cycles by boiling in water for 5 to 7 minutes.

Cloth pads are usually made of organic cotton and come in various designs, shapes, and absorbencies. Most pads snap over underwear or are inserted into a cloth holder that snaps over underwear. They are changed about as often as a disposable pad.

When cleaning the pads, choose a soap or laundry detergent that doesn’t contain fragrance, bleach, phosphates, or optical brighteners or other dyes. These additives can hurt the environment and potentially irritate the skin.

While many women may find this option impractical, some women really do prefer this option. Cloth pad brands include Lunapads and GladRags.

All in all, the only clear downside to choosing any of these alternative products — tampons, pads, or cups — may be finding them when you need them. All of these options are available through online stores, such as Amazon.com or Drugstore.com. They can also be found in some health food stores. Your local pharmacy or grocery store may carry organic cotton tampons and pads, perhaps tucked away on a bottom shelf or stocked in the section of the store set aside for organic products.

A special note for those of us going through chemotherapy: If you’ve lost all of your hair (or if you’ve had a full Brazilian wax — ouch!) you’re likely to discover one of the important functions that pubic hair has: it keeps your tender parts tucked in. Without pubic hair, your tender parts can stick to panty liners and pads. If this is a problem, you can look for liners and pads with an “air-weave” surface or just dust the surface of the pad with cornstarch. Don’t use talc — some studies have linked it to a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer and it’s not safe to breathe in the dust. Research on talc’s effects is still being done, but I’d practice “better safe than sorry” on this one.

Whether you choose conventional or alternative options during your period, it’s important to know that you have choices. It may be time to reconsider something you previously took for granted. If you try something new, let us know whether it worked for you. Maybe we can start our own revolution in feminine products!

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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