In 2017, S, a Thinx customer speaking to Jezebel anonymously to protect her medical privacy, bought her first set of the brand’s signature period underwear. She’d just had a copper IUD inserted, resulting in a heavier flow at the beginning of her period, and Thinx’s products seemed ideal for preventing “embarrassing” leaks. “They were really comfortable, and it seemed really revolutionary,” she said. “And they marketed as not having any harmful chemicals.” Thinx has specifically advertised itself as “organic, sustainable, and non-toxic.”
Then, after using Thinx for years, she saw the first headlines detailing possible risks associated with the products, ultimately leading to the class action lawsuit that the company settled this week. In 2020, an investigation by Sierra magazine revealed that Thinx’s mainline underwear contained 3,624 parts per million of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are linked to fertility problems and certain cancers among other health risks. Thinx’s popular BTWN briefs contained 2,053 parts per million of PFAs in the crotch.
PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals,” as they’re nonstick and stain-resistant and don’t break down in the environment. They’re found in some cookware and clothing, and the EPA and other states have been cracking down on their usage, with New York state set to ban them by the end of this year. Per research from the Environmental Working Group, the vaginal area is especially vulnerable to chemical absorption and PFAS exposure—it’s the equivalent of oral ingestion.
One California lawsuit filed against Thinx in 2020 alleged that some customers developed irregular menstrual cycles, urinary tract and yeast infections, and reported fertility problems after wearing Thinx underwear. The same lawsuit alleged that Thinx products contained the chemical Agion, an antimicrobial odor-reducing agent derived from silver and copper nanoparticles.
Dr. Catherine Bulka, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Florida’s school of public health, also notes that PFAS can cause immunotoxicity, which can “make individuals more susceptible to infectious disease” by suppressing the immune system, making vaccines less effective. “There’s really just a wide range of risks, whether it’s cancer risk or lower birth weight for babies, and the research on absorption of chemicals through the vagina remains limited,” Bulka told Jezebel.
On Tuesday, Thinx agreed to settle a class action lawsuit alleging its products contained these dangerous chemicals and that it failed to warn prospective customers, for $4 million. Customers can learn more about the settlement and apply for relief on its website, in the form of a refund on up to three pairs of underwear with proof of purchase for up to $21.
S, who told Jezebel she has a history of fertility issues in her family, says she applied and qualified to receive $21 in compensation. “My fertility is something I consider when I’m making decisions about what chemicals I expose my body to, how I interact with my potential, future reproductive life,” she said. “And I never would have bought this product if I knew that was a risk.”
“Really, every claimant is only getting back $21, which is not doing much to remedy the harm that this exposure potentially could have caused, which we might not fully know until a lot of time passes,” S continued. “It’s an upsetting predicament to be in and not know if you’ll experience these harms, from a purchase that you were assured was safe, and just be sitting with that $21 in your pocket.”
Efe Osaren, a midwife and birth justice advocate with Orishé Midwifery, told Jezebel that since 2019, she purchased hundreds of dollars worth of Thinx products, and isn’t satisfied with the $21. She originally made the switch from traditional period products when she learned she had a fibroid—a muscular tumor growing in the wall of the uterus—and believed period underwear was the healthier choice. “I’m left with no idea if I made my health problems better or worse with these products,” Osaren said. “It’s part of what feels like criminally low safety standards around menstrual health products in the U.S.”
No other menstrual products have recently faced lawsuits or allegations like the suit against Thinx, though some users have reported toxic shock syndrome or pelvic organ prolapse from the incorrect use of menstrual cups. But Thinx customers have stressed that the lawsuit and its revelations are especially disappointing, as Thinx’s brand promoted itself as being conscious of menstrual inequities, as well as the difficulties and cost barriers people face to find the menstrual products that work best for them.
At least 28 states continue to tax period products, which are notoriously overpriced, and inaccessible in most workplaces, schools, and shelters. Research has shown period cramps can be as painful as having a heart attack. Naturally, comfortable, sustainable period underwear is appealing under conditions like this—especially if you aren’t informed about the possible health risks of these products.
Erin Ruben, an attorney at Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman who represents five plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against Thinx, told Jezebel that she and her clients are ultimately pleased with the settlement. Ruben notes that there’s been some confusion about what exactly the lawsuit entailed, and emphasized that the case “centered on how the products were marketed to consumers, and did not allege any claims related to personal injury resulting from the products.”
“The plaintiffs in this case brought their claims because, as they alleged in their complaint, the presence of PFAS or other chemicals in the underwear would have influenced their purchasing decisions,” she said. In other words, the lawsuit didn’t pertain to damages or health outcomes from the use of Thinx products, but rather, lack of adequate warning about risk.
Ruben also emphasized that she and her clients are especially hopeful about the non-monetary relief promised as a result of the lawsuit: “Thinx has agreed to make changes to how they represent the product, in addition to implementing various measures to ensure that PFAS are not intentionally added to the product,” Ruben said. “We think this increased transparency is very important to consumers.”
Thinx continues to deny “all of the allegations made in the lawsuit and denies that Thinx did anything improper or unlawful.” The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Jezebel, but on its website, it states: “With respect to PFAS, Thinx confirms that PFAS have never been a part of its product design, and that it will continue to take measures to help ensure that PFAS are not intentionally added to Thinx Period Underwear at any stage of production. The proposed settlement is not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing of any kind by Thinx.”
Despite new assurances from Thinx and the settlement, Bulka is still concerned by all of the unanswered questions, and the possibility of future, severe health detriments emerging. “If we get long-term data that actually shows exposure to these chemicals through the vagina does cause infertility, $21 definitely wouldn’t seem sufficient,” Bulka said. That Thinx also still has a line of products being marketed and sold to teens is another concern. “Younger people’s bodies are smaller, and undergoing these sort of rapid developmental changes—I would be very worried for that age group, and they should be the focus of some ongoing longitudinal studies to see what health effects might arise.”