Should You Be Afraid of Your Tampon?

In the wake of complaints about the lack of research on the long-term effects of mainstream feminine hygiene products, organic pad and tampon brands are growing in number and popularity. But does it really matter if what you stick up your vagina is 10...

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Feb 25 2016, 10:15pm

Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta via Stocksy

Last week, Florette tampons went viral after 19-year-old Lauren Richardson of Mildenhall, Suffolk, in the UK posted a Facebook video of a few disintegrating in her hands.

"My mom purchased these tampons from Aldi [a German grocery store chain with branches throughout Europe], and this is what happened," Richardson said in the video as she gently rolled the Florette tampon between her fingers. The whole thing started to disintegrate. "All the fibers and product started to fall apart." Richardson then detailed how one tampon split broke inside of her. Thinking it may have just been one dud in the box, she and her mother tested a few more by soaking them in a bowl of water. Each tampon broke apart within five minutes.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Richardson and her mother said they would boycott the cheap and potentially dangerous tampon brand and called for others to do the same.

Read More: Sticking Weed in Your Vagina Can Help Your Period Cramps

Richardson's story comes at a time when consumers are starting to wake up to the reality that not many people can say what's in pads and tampons. Last October, the Huffington Post reported on a new study from the University of La Plata in Argentina that found that 85 percent of tampons, cotton balls, and sanitary products contain glyphosate: an ingredient that the World Health Organization has designated "probably carcinogenic." Yesterday, traces of the substance—which is the active ingredient in Roundup "weedkiller"—were found in allegedly "organic" panty liners sold in France and Canada. And following outcries in 2015, rumors—which the FDA declared unfounded—spread that tampons are contaminated with asbestos and dioxin, and that rayon and rayon-blend tampons can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Mainstream tampon products are generally made with a rayon-cotton blend or entirely of rayon (a synthetic fiber created from bleached wood pulp). In the past, the bleaching process for making rayon could have potentially resulted in a toxic byproduct, dioxin, being present in small amounts in tampons.

Although the FDA responded to the dioxin and asbestos claims (as well as other concerns about TSS), carefully acknowledging that there is no scientific data to back up these claims, some companies and activists still argue that women need—and deserve—more of an assurance that the products they use every month are not going to kill them. Without significantly more studies and testing, activists argue, we can't be sure mainstream tampon brands aren't harming us.

When young women first get their periods, they are not educated about what goes into mainstream products and therefore are not considering what their choices can mean in terms of their health.

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has expressed serious concern for women's health and hygiene since 1997, when she introduced the Tampon Safety and Research Act. Last year, her bill, the Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act, passed, requiring the National Institutes of Health to conduct research looking into the effects of additives, dioxins, and other potentially harmful chemicals present in tampons and pads.

"American women deserve the ability to make educated decisions about a product that could potentially endanger their health and their lives," said Maloney in a press release when she first introduced the bill in 2008. "Right now, 73 million American women use tampons, yet there is no research that unequivocally declares them safe. Women's health research has been put on the backburner for far too long. It's time federal researchers looked into this common consumer product and helped make TSS a disease of the past."

As organic food and hygiene products gain popularity, pads and tampons have followed suit, and it makes sense: The vaginal walls are the most absorbent part of the body, so why would you want to be flooding them with potentially toxic materials once a month?

Photo courtesy of TOTM

"There isn't any legislation, at least in the UK, around what goes into tampon products," says Alison Weir, a representative from the organic feminine hygiene brand Time of the Month (TOTM). The company launched in 2012 with the goal of making tampons and pads that were not only safer for women's bodies, but better for the environment and available to anyone around the world. "When young women first get their periods, they are not educated about what goes into mainstream products and therefore are not considering what their choices can mean in terms of their health."

TOTM prides themselves on using 100-percent hypoallergenic cotton with no chemicals or bleach. "Cotton is naturally absorbent," says Weir. "There are much less ingredients that need to go into the product." TOTM tampons are biodegradable, which means the 16,800 tampons an average woman uses in her lifetime will not end up clogging landfills. The company also offers a to-your-door delivery service to prevent the carelessness Weir says most women use when they get their period unexpectedly and are in need; the idea is to prevent women from having to run out to the pharmacy to buy whatever garbage tampon is on sale or fish out some crumbled, broken tampon from the bottom of your purse as a last resort.

"Lil-Lets [UK feminine hygiene brand] and Tampax both have 'School Programme' portions on their sites, which shows that they see the value in that, that the girls will stay loyal to the products they are introduced to as teenagers into their adult lives," says Weir. "We would love to be in a position to go into schools and talk to young girls about the importance of organic cotton products to their health."

Right now, 73 million American women use tampons, yet there is no research that unequivocally declares them safe.

While all this sounds great, many medical professionals—and, of course, mainstream feminine hygiene brands—doubt the importance of these new "organic" tampons and pads. Last summer, for example, a Buzzfeed article refuted the claim that organic tampons like those produced by TOTM are better for your health. Gynecologists Dr. Lauren Streicher and Dr. Mary Jane Minkin from the Yale School of Medicine agreed that tampons currently on the market are safe and FDA regulated.

"Tampax offers cotton, rayon, and blended cotton and rayon tampons," says Heather Valento, a representative for Procter & Gamble's Baby & Feminine Care department, which includes Tampax. "We believe it's important for women to understand that cotton and rayon are equally safe materials, based on extensive testing by a number of leading scientists."

"We love that more people are talking about periods and period protection," continues Valento, going on to detail how Always menstrual pad commercials were the first to show a pad on a television commercial in the 80s. "Fast forward to today, and we believe the open conversation can only benefit women as each woman chooses which products work best for her, her period, and her lifestyle. We also believe it's important that this public conversation includes awareness of Toxic Shock Syndrome."

Read More: How the Tampon Came to Be

On their website, Tampax lists extensive data and research about their products, holding up that even their scented products (which many on the organic side would argue simply cannot be good for your health) are completely tested, regulated by the International Fragrance Association, and safe.

However, as Weir said, without long-term scientific studies and data that reflect how women's bodies respond to a lifetime of tampon use, how can you be truly sure? Interest by congresswomen like Maloney and the push for research will help make sure the (taxed) feminine hygiene products that women rely on every month are safe and healthy.

When I spoke to several women from Canada, the UK, and the United States about the debate over organic tampons, some mentioned that they had changed feminine hygiene brands and products in their lifetimes; of the 60 women I spoke to, seven, or about 11 percent, had switched to organic, 100-percent cotton products. When I asked women if they would switch brands if there was scientific data to prove that organic, cotton products were better for them, almost everyone said yes. However, there was still a lingering attitude that menstruation is a nuisance to be dealt with in whatever way is most convenient.

"I buy whatever is at the bodega that I can reach without asking someone to get it for me," responded one woman. Another added, "I try not to use bleached products, but will take what I can get."