Living in this day and age, one learns to accept that there are harmful chemicals in a lot of the things we surround ourselves with and ingest: there are toxins in cosmetics, in food, in cleaning products, and so on and so (terrifyingly) forth. So, while it's probably not surprising that feminine care products — tampons, pads, feminine wipes and douches — contain toxic substances, it is alarming how little is known about the scope and seriousness of the problem.
According to "Chem Fatale," a creatively titled report recently released by Women's Voices for Earth (WVE), 85 percent of women use tampons. Tampons are normally made from bleached cotton and/or rayon; the bleaching process can expose the product to toxic dioxins and furans, which have been linked to "cancer, reproductive harm and endocrine disruption," and tampons made from non-organic cotton may contain pesticides. A 2002 study found "small but detectable" levels of both compounds in four separate tampon brands, and, although the study authors declared the toxin levels "insignificant compared to the risk of exposure... people face from eating food," they failed to take into account the fact that vaginal tissue is highly permeable. According to WVE:
Vulvar and vaginal tissue are structurally different than the skin of the rest of the body. For example, these tissues are also more hydrated and more permeable than other skin. That means this area of the body is potentially more vulnerable to exposure to toxic chemicals and irritants... One study found that a vaginally applied dose of estradiol (an estrogen proxy) resulted in systemic estradiol levels in the body 10 to 80 times greater compared to the same dose given orally.
Since there is "relatively no research on the direct impact of exposure of carcinogens on the vagina," we're not yet capable of determining whether the low levels of dioxins present in tampons do pose a threat to women because they're absorbed through the vaginal membrane.
"I think the question of how toxic [feminine care products] might be is one of those things that is not talked about because there is a such a mystique around the vagina," WVE board member Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman told Salon. "It's highly taboo and something that's not supposed to be discussed in polite company." Since we're uncomfortable talking about putting objects into or near vaginas, we're just gonna let women keep on doing it — even if said objects may be lightly coated in dioxins and pesticides! Whew, way to dodge that awkward conversation bullet. Periods, am I right.
The WVE report has also found that douches and feminine wipes can contain quaternium-15 DMDM Hydatoin — known allergens which also release formaldehyde, which is a human carcinogen. And, as Laura Kiesel points out at Salon, feminine products are classified as cosmetics: although the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act mandates that cosmetic products must disclose their ingredient list, there's a loophole that allows manufacturers to "choose any chemical they do not wish to disclose to the public and simply list it as a 'fragrance.'" Thus, the innocuously-named "fragrance" in douches and wipes "can be made of hundreds of different undisclosed chemicals, some quite toxic, and some certainly associated with allergies," as the WVE report puts it. Troublingly, these products are used in greater numbers by black and Latina women, which means that those women of color may face a disproportionate health risk.
Despite all of this, feminine care items are notably lacking from discourse surrounding the health risks of everyday products. As Dr. Ami Zota, who worked as an adviser on the WVE report, told Salon: "Virtually no one has been talking about [the possible health impacts] of feminine care products, even though most women use these products on a monthly basis, some demographics more than others." She notes that this is especially bad because "many of these products are coming into direct contact with the bloodstream and very sensitive tissue, which can make them potentially more dangerous." If advocacy groups are concerned about the chemicals in processed food, in furniture, in the air, they need to start worrying about the harmful compounds present in tampons, pads, and feminine washes as well. WVE is currently pushing Procter & Gamble to 1) list all the ingredients in, 2) evaluate the safety of, and 3) remove the toxins from their pads and tampons. In the meantime, the report recommends buying unscented, unbleached tampons and pads made from organic cotton.
Image via kellyreekolibry/Shutterstock.