Over the past decade, there has been a growing popular demand for alternative and sustainable products. The desire to “go green” has colored virtually every industry. What we eat, drink, and wear, the products we use on ourselves, our children and our pets as well as in our homes, even the buildings we live and work in, more of us are making choices that promote health and well being and protect the environment.
Yet when it comes to women's feminine hygiene products, like tampons and sanitary pads, they've strangely been left on the sidelines.
It's as if we've given these products the cold shoulder, and it's strange for two reasons.
- For one, women use these products a lot. Feminine hygiene products are a big business powering an estimated $40 billion industry worldwide. Tampons are currently used by over 100 million women throughout the world-- in fact, the average woman uses anywhere from 11,000 to more than 16,000 tampons in her lifetime-- and sanitary pads are even more common.
- Secondly, these products being used in a very sensitive part of our bodies-- an area that's intimately connected to our reproductive and hormonal health. Research has shown that chemicals are rapidly absorbed and circulated to the rest of a woman's body via the vaginal tract. This is due to the fact that skin is porous-- especially the skin inside and around the vaginal area-- and thus provides little protection against the chemicals it comes into contact with. Contrast this with eating which involves an extensive digestive process that helps to break down and remove harmful toxins.
The general consensus for why there hasn't been so much mainstream attention on feminine hygiene products is that the topic of menstruation itself is just an unpleasant, uncomfortable issue, and we don't like to talk about. But it's a conversation we need to push outside of the small, but growing circle of die-hard naturalists to the woman who simply care about what they put into their bodies.
So, What Really is in Your Tampons and Sanitary Pads?
Manufacturers of tampons and sanitary pads are not required to disclose the ingredients they use in their products-- including any chemicals, fragrances or plastics that can increase the risk of irritation, rashes, allergies-- because feminine hygiene products are classified as "medical devices.”
But these products are reportedly a major source of toxic exposure, and by “reportedly” we mean it's backed by years of research.
In the 198o's, the link between tampons and toxic shock syndrome (TSS) was discovered by microbiologist Philip Tierno, PhD. TSS is a life-threatening illness that occurs when the Staphylococcus bacteria enter the body and release harmful toxins. It was determined that TSS was linked to some of the synthetic materials used in super-absorbent tampons which were thought to encourage bacteria growth. While those synthetic materials are no longer permitted in feminine hygiene products, TSS continues to rear its ugly head. For example, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently detected a clustered spike in tampon-associated TSS.
But TSS is just one health issue linked to disposable tampons and sanitary pads. Another recent investigation by the French magazine, 60 Millions de Consommateurs, also revealed traces of harmful chemicals in eleven different tampons and sanitary pads, including dioxins, pesticides, insecticides, and halogenated byproducts. Regarding dioxins, which are byproducts of the bleaching process involved in the manufacture of tampons, the World Health Organization calls dioxins “highly toxic” and categorizes them as a “known human carcinogen.”
Then there is the study published in March of this year in the Journal of Reproductive Toxicology where researchers measured the levels of three volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and four phthalates in eleven brands of commercial sanitary pads.
They found the VOC methylene chloride in two brands of sanitary pads, toluene in nine, and xylene in all eleven brands tested. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are extremely hazardous and can damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
In testing for phthalates, researchers found two types in all eleven brands of sanitary pads. Phthalates are a group of suspected endocrine disrupters which has been linked to a host of developmental issues, such as lower IQs and higher rates of asthma.
And this is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Even with all the research and increasing awareness, the issue of toxins in feminine hygiene products isn't going away anytime soon.
But these products aren't just bad for our bodies, they're also bad for the environment. It takes between 500 to 800 (!) years for sanitary pads to decompose in a landfill, and the process required to manufacture these products consumes a significant amount of natural resources.
What are the Alternatives?
While there are several alternatives and sustainable menstrual hygiene products on the market, such as silicon menstrual cups, reusable sanitary pads as well as unbleached and organic cotton disposables, these all remain niche products. But, they are gaining a following. Menstrual cups, in particular, have been taking the spotlight lately. At Green Rays, we developed the Green Rays Cup because we are committed to providing healthy and eco-friendly alternatives to period hygiene.
It's time we stop feeling shame about menstruation and bring the conversation about our health and well-being out in the open... where it should be.