Is it dangerous to use non-organic tampons? (Photo: Getty Images)
Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company is valued at almost $1 billion and its eco-friendly products have been a hit with consumers. So when Alba recently announced that her company is working on a line of organic tampons, people paid attention.
This summer, The Honest Company will roll out what it says is the world’s first bioplastic comfort applicator tampon, which will feature a 100 percent organic tampon. This new product will be released alongside a line of certified organic, hypoallergenic cotton sanitary pads and panty liners.
The feminine care industry has been dominated by relatively few brands for decades and organic tampons have been around for years. So why is Alba’s company diving into an already crowded market? She says it’s all about safety.
“Right now, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose exactly what’s in these products, but between the plastics and added fragrances, women are likely being exposed to materials that are known or suspected hormone disruptors, as well as carcinogens and allergens,” she said in a recent interview with Natural Health.
Those are pretty scary claims — and experts say she may be right on some level.
According to Terry Hoffman, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, not enough research has been conducted to definitively say whether non-organic tampons pose a problem. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential risks.
One possible red flag: bleach. While it doesn’t appear on the ingredients label of tampon boxes, the majority of tampons are bleached. That pristine white color is arguably unnecessary, but Hoffman points out that there is no research that indicates this is a health hazard. A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectivesin 2002showed that tampons contain trace amounts of dioxins (compounds produced as a byproduct of manufacturing processes like bleaching) but concluded that it was not a health risk.
Pesticides are another potential issue. “Regular tampons are often made of cotton blended with rayon, and non-organic cotton is usually sprayed with pesticides,” explains Melissa Goist, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
The theory, Goist says, is that some of these byproducts could lead to certain forms of cancer when they’re absorbed through the vaginal wall. But, she notes, “there is very little evidence to suggest this is actually true.”
Fragrances used in some tampons to block the smell of menstrual blood could also be irritating for some women. “You don’t want fragrances in your tampons — that area is really sensitive,” says Hoffman. While a potential irritant, fragrance in tampons hasn’t been linked to any major health risks.
Here’s what we do know: Mucous membranes, which are part of the walls of the vagina, are very absorbent. That’s why contraceptive inserts like the NuvaRing work, says Goist. Tampons can also leave behind fibers if they’re removed before they’re wet.
“Sometimes when I do a pelvic exam, I can actually see tampon residue if a patient has just finished her period,” says Hoffman. “It almost looks like white cotton candy.” But, she notes, those fibers eventually comes out with vaginal discharge.
The conclusion by some people like Alba, then, is that if there are chemicals in a tampon that you insert into a very absorbent part of your body and potentially even fibers left behind, there’s a chance it could cause health problems.
“Can I imagine that chemicals can leach out of a tampon, go through your vagina, and into your bloodstream? It can happen, but it hasn’t been proven,” says Hoffman. She also is dubious about Alba’s posited link between tampon use and hormone disruptors: “If hormone disruptors did that, you would expect that women who use tampons would go into early menopause.”
So who is making the call on tampon safety? The tampon industry is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but the organization relies on data submitted by tampon manufacturers to show how safe and efficient their products are. The FDA classifies tampons as a “medical device” which are categorized into three classes (I, II, or III) depending on level of risk, with III being the highest level of risk. Tampons are categorized as class II (along with 43 percent of other “medical devices”), while unscented sanitary napkins are class I.
“There are no proposed changes to the FDA’s regulation of tampons and menstrual pads at this time,” FDA press officer Deborah Katz tells Yahoo Health.
That’s something Congresswoman Carolyn Mahoney is hoping to change. She’s reintroducing the Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act, a bill that would require the National Institutes of Health to investigate whether chemicals found in many feminine hygiene products are potentially dangerous for women. (The bill is named after a 44-year-old woman who died from Toxic Shock Syndrome in 1998.)
The bill will also require the FDA to disclose any potentially hazardous chemicals that are found in tampons, sanitary pads, and other feminine hygiene products.
While Goist and Hoffman say women should be aware of what’s in their tampons, they both stress that they don’t think the materials in non-organic tampons pose a health risk.
“I don’t know why there needs to be chemicals in cotton that you’re sticking in your vagina,” Hoffman says. “But I don’t know if organic tampons are the answer.”
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