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Last week, we talked about organic cotton (grown without pesticides, GMOs, or synthetic fertilizers) and whether you should prioritize organic cotton fabrics. Today, we’re bringing it one step closer to home with cotton personal care items, specifically tampons. This is one cotton product that women use repeatedly, inside their bodies, for about 30-40 years. Does organic cotton make a difference in your personal care items? Should you prioritize organic cotton tampons? Let’s get the facts.
What is in regular tampons?
Hey, guess what. We don’t know. Tampons and other feminine hygiene products are classified by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) as “medical devices” and therefore do not have to disclose their contents. We know more about a bottle of shampoo that is used on our bodies than a tampon that we use in our bodies. [Want these ingredients disclosed? Sign the petition at Change.org.]
What do we know about the composition of traditional tampons?
The leading brand of tampons states that their product is composed of: “cotton and/or rayon, rayon/or polyester, and cotton/or polyester.”
The absorbent materials are bleached.
Additional fragrances and dyes may be added as well as absorbency enhancers.
Are there any health hazards?
There are a couple things about conventional tampons that you may want to know more about.
Dioxins. The chlorine bleaching process leaves behind dioxins. “Dioxin” is a generic name for a specific group of toxic chemicals, produced as byproducts in the manufacture of other chemicals (like pesticides and pulp/paper bleaching). In 2000, the National Toxicology Program labeled dioxin as “known to be a human carcinogen” – that means they have proof that dioxins can cause cancer. In addition to the cancer risk, dioxins are also linked to a number of reproductive health problems including endometriosis, reduced fertility, and inability to maintain pregnancies.
The Good News: tampon manufacturers are kind of paying attention to the research and using different bleaching methods, replacing regular elemental chlorine with a chlorine gas.
The Bad News: the alternate bleaching method may still produce dioxin. Even the FDA confirms that the “elemental chlorine-free bleaching” generates dioxins at low levels.
Some manufacturers claim their products are “dioxin free”. However, studies (like this one published in Environmental Health Perspectives, 2002) show that dioxins are still detected in tampons. In fact, manufacturers test their own products and report their own results – there is no federal testing to confirm their claims.
More Bad News: Dioxin is a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) – it accumulates in your body over time and doesn’t leave easily.
And It Gets Worse: The EPA states there is no “safe” levels of dioxin exposure.
Repeat Exposure: Even if tampon materials are bleached without elemental chlorine, you’re still getting a tiny bit of dioxin with every single exposure, and that dioxin stays in your body. Do you get repeat exposure? The average woman uses an estimated 11,000 tampons over the course of her life. I’d call that repeated exposure.
Rayon Fibers. Rayon has been used in feminine hygiene products for decades now. Being more absorbent than cotton has increased its popularity. This super-fiber comes with its own set of concerns.
Rayon fibers are very abrasive, leaving small cuts on sensitive tissues and can cause ulcerations. These open wounds give bacteria and viruses easy access to your bloodstream, increasing your risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (which is caused by bacteria), infections, and STD’s.
Rayon is a highly prefered fiber for the bacteria that causes Toxic Shock Syndrome, Staphylococcus aureus. You know those swabs doctors run around your throat to check for strep? Those are actually made of rayon- not cotton. Rayon is more abrasive and more bacteria-friendly, exactly what you want for creating a bacteria culture- definitely NOT what you want in a tampon.
The production of rayon fiber is chemical laden, requiring chlorine bleaching to break down the wood pulp.
The rayon in tampons is also bleached. Manufacturers state this is done to improve absorption, making the rayon even more abrasive, porous, and absorbent.
Science Fair Time
Want to try a little experiment? Grab a spare tampon and soak it in a glass of water for about six hours (although, you’ll begin to see results immediately). What was left behind in your water? I saw hundreds of tiny fibers floating in my water. Imagine what’s being left behind in your body.
Alternatives to Traditional Tampons
Yes, traditional tampons may have some bad chemicals and questionable materials, but for many people they are still a necessity. Thankfully, there are options- lots of them and excellent ones, too! Let’s learn about three awesome alternatives.
Organic Tampons – if you want to minimize the change in your monthly routine, simply switch to an all-natural or organic brand of products.
What is in organic tampons? Unlike traditional products, organic products are more forthcoming with their ingredients. Having never purchased organic tampons before, I looked up “organic tampons” on Amazon and found several options. Seventh Generation’s tampon ingredients are available on their site: Certified organic cotton, certified by Oregon Tilth. Certified to GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard). That’s it. Just certified organic cotton. With the GOTS certification, it also tells us that the entire production process meets GOTS standards including a Total Chlorine-Free bleaching process, using hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine gas. No chlorine = no dioxin. You’re also getting a product that is pesticide free and non-GMO.
Benefits: 100% organic cotton, no rayon, no bleaching. You’re paying for a potentially healthier product.
Drawbacks: The product reviews were mostly positive. However, there were a few common concerns voiced: the applicator was more difficult to use and the product itself seemed less absorbent. Since the organic tampons do not contain rayon, they will probably be less absorbent, and you might replace them a little more frequently. If you’re accustomed to plastic applicators, the switch to cardboard may be awkward.
Cost: You can find organic feminine care products at some stores ($8 for a box of 20 tampons), but I found significantly better prices online. When you buy traditional tampons online, you’ll pay about $0.25 per tampon. The organic option will run about $0.30 each.
Menstrual Cups – wait, don’t skip this one! Yes, they are totally weird, but they are totally fantastic, if you give them a chance! Menstrual cups like the Diva Cup, Lunette, or Moon Cup are soft silicone cups worn internally like a tampon. They collect everything, and you change them a couple times a day.
Unlike tampons, cups do not absorb anything, preventing dryness and damage.
When used properly, the cup is completely leak-free.
It fits securely and allows you to continue any activity: running, swimming, climbing…anything.
It can be left up to 12 hours and is safe for overnight use.
It can be used before the onset of your period, to prevent any surprises.
Cups are reusable and last years. One-time cost is about $30-40.
No to low risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome
Environmentally-friendly with no recurring waste.
Drawbacks: The number one complaint you’ll hear about the cup is the learning curve. There is no handy applicator, and you’ll have to be a little more “hands on” than you’re used to. The high cost may be off-putting, especially if you are not convinced it will be right for you.
More info: for more details, I recommend checking out this fantastic video on Moon Cup’s site. Or just start asking your friends. Chances are someone you know is already using one.
Sea Silk Sponge Tampons – this one was news to me! These all natural “tampons” are harvested straight from the ocean and are reusable. Natural sea sponge tampons absorb liquid and are changed every 4 hours or as needed.
Benefits: Sponges are all-natural fiber with no man made components or intervention, no chemicals. Sea sponges only grow in clean waters, and their presence indicates a low-pollution area. They work just like a tampon, absorbing fluid, and they can stay in place up to 8 hours. Sponges are reusable and replaced after 6-12 months. I’ve never tried one, but the reviewers love them. They say the sponge is comfortable, effective, and easy to use.
Drawbacks: They do not have an applicator or built in remover. The reviewers do say that there was a lot of practice needed before removing the sponge successfully and threading some string through the sponge would help with retrieval. Since the sponge is an absorbent product, like tampons, they may also leak when saturated. Cost is about $23, about twice per year.
I think there are some valid points of concern with traditional tampons. I feel that the pesticide residues from the cotton, the dioxins from bleaching, and presence of rayon is an unnecessary risk- especially when there are better options available. Dioxin is a known carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. If I can reduce my exposure, I will. However, this is easy for me to say since I LOVE the alternative and don’t miss tampons at all.
Have you tried any tampon alternatives? How do you feel about traditional tampons? Would you consider switching to something new?
This is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain