We’ve been hearing a lot of conflicting information regarding the safety of tampons lately—some of our friends have even been told by their doctors to stop using them altogether, regardless of whether they’re organic or not. So, we decided to talk to a few experts in an effort to establish some clarity about this potentially dangerous thing we’ve been using since our teenage years. Here, an ob-gyn, the cofounder of an organic tampon company and two integrative health professionals weigh in on our questions.
"The FDA regulates both the safety and effectiveness of tampons," says Dr. Hakakha, "and despite recent claims in the media that tampons leach chemicals such as asbestos and dioxin, to date there are no studies indicating tampons are contaminated with either chemical. Asbestos is not used in any tampon manufactured in the US, nor has it been found in any tampon manufacturing site.
"Dioxin is an environmental pollutant that can be found in the air, water and ground. In the US, tampons are made from rayon derived from wood pulp. Historically, bleaching the pulp could produce a small amount of dioxin, but this method is no longer used. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked with producers of wood pulp to develop methods such as a chlorine-free bleaching process that results in dioxin-free rayon. When questions about dioxin arose a few years ago, the FDA asked all tampon manufacturers to provide detailed information about their pulp purification process and to monitor dioxin levels in raw materials as well as finished tampons."
"The real problem is not that there's no scientific research suggesting traditional tampons are dangerous, it’s that there's little to no research at all," says Lindsay, who cofounded the organic tampon company She with her sisters Kim Lambert and Lauren Carletta. "While many of us have used them our entire lives, and the FDA approves them, traditional tampons contain ingredients that should raise an eyebrow. Rayon, polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester make up the outer layer. [Our company] She prefers organic cotton, a more sustainable product that's friendlier to the environment, and we continue to fight for more research on the long-term effects of traditional tampon use."
"Commercially available tampons are made from cotton, rayon and synthetic fibers," says Edison Victor de Mello, MD, PhD, a Board Certified Integrative Physician is the Founder & Medical Director of the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine and ActivatedYou. "But because tampons are considered a medical device by the FDA, manufacturers are not required to issue a full disclosure of what's in them. In general, these tampons have odor neutralizers, dyes, pesticides and fragrances, which have an undisclosed mixture of chemicals that have been linked to endocrine disrupters, allergies, rashes, respiratory distress, cancer, birth defects, dryness and infertility.
"In addition, they contain GMOs. The safety of ingesting GMO foods is debatable, with 28 countries now banning them altogether, and we believe that women who are concerned about ingesting GMOs should be equally concerned about inserting a GMO tampon. The vaginal wall, similar to the gastrointestinal wall, is very permeable, allowing toxins like pesticides and GMO proteins direct access to the bloodstream."
"Tampons make life easier for women. However, you should be aware of a few things. Tampon use, just like anything else, can be dangerous in very rare cases. Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare but potentially life-threatening condition caused by a toxin from either streptococci or staphylococci bacteria. There is definitely a connection between TSS and tampon use, and higher-absorbency tampons (super plus, etc.) seem to have a slightly higher risk. Using the lightest absorbency tampon for the amount of flow you're having is important. For example, don't use a super tampon when you're on the fifth day of your cycle and your flow is very light.
"Also, changing tampons regularly is important. Bacteria can build up when tampons are left in for long periods of time. Be aware of the signs of TSS: a sudden high fever, vomiting or diarrhea, a rash similar to a sunburn on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, muscle aches, redness of the eyes, mouth or throat, confusion, headaches, low blood pressure and seizures. Any of these symptoms during or shortly after tampon use should be reported to your health care provider."
"Most name-brand tampons include rayon, polyester and other materials treated with harmful chemicals and dyes; avoid those. Moreover, traditional tampons use materials farmed with pesticides and insecticides linked to illnesses in workers both in the fields and in factories. We recommend organic."
"Using a conventional tampon every once in a while when nothing else is available is better than worrying about whether menstrual blood is going to soak through your underwear, but when you have the opportunity, the best option is an organic, chlorine-free, non-applicator tampon or an organic, chlorine-free pad," says Dr. Maggie Ney, a licensed, board-certified naturopathic doctor and co-director of the Women’s Clinic at Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine.
"As for alternative methods, organic cloth pads are reusable and made from organic cotton, hemp or bamboo. Menstrual cups are soft, flexible and made from silicone. They are inserted into the vagina to catch menstrual flow and can be worn up to 12 hours. Sea sponges are reusable and free of additives. These are all worth a try to see if they work for you."
As with most things in life, there certainly isn't any harm in going organic, but we probably don't need to freak out and ditch all our tampons just yet. The real question we're left with: Why isn't there more research on the safety of an object women rely on monthly for a majority of their lives? Something tells us that if men were experiencing periods, we'd have better data on this by now. Here's hoping that as more women rise to the top of their fields, subjects like this will be better addressed.