Tampon and Sanitary Product Fact Sheet
The mucosal lining of the vagina is one of the most sensitive and absorbent areas of the body yet each month women expose themselves to a variety of hazards through the use of tampons. The average woman may have as many as 400 periods in their lifetime, and can use up to 15,000 tampons during this time. This is a very large number, and it is important to consider the health implications involved in the products that women use to capture the blood during their periods. It is also interesting to note that the testing for the safety of these products is usually conducted by their manufacturer and not by an independent body. The vast majority of women will opt to use either sanitary pads or tampons, or a combination of both methods. Let us consider each separately. Tampons
Most commercial tampons are made up of cotton grown according to the modern-day standard agricultural processes involving the extensive use of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. This cotton is then subjected to a chlorine-bleaching process which produces the dangerous chemical dioxin as a byproduct. Tampons may also contain rayon, a synthetic product made from wood pulp which also contains dioxin. The final tampon products may also have chemical fragrances added to them as a deodorant. This buildup of chemicals in the tampons can readily enter the bloodstream upon application of the tampon through the vaginal walls, which contain some of the most absorbent tissue in the body.
Dioxin is present in all tampons which have undergone a chlorine bleaching process, and unless the tampon is specifically labeled as non-bleached you must assume it has undergone this process. It is also present in rayon, a synthetic fiber which is often found alongside cotton in tampons. Although the levels of dioxin in tampons are quite small (and the tampon companies will readily point this out) they are still dangerous as dioxin accumulates in the fat stores of the body and can add up to very dangerous residual levels over time. When you consider the average number of tampons used by a woman in her lifetime, you can start to imagine that the buildup of dioxin in the body tissue will actually be quite significant. Dioxin is linked with the following effects in the body:
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Estrogen dominant conditions
- Birth defects in offspring
- Immune system damage
- Sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Hormone dysfunction
- Impaired fertility
- Lowered concentration ability
- Impaired thyroid function
Pesticides, Herbicides, Defoliants
The many pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants sprayed on cotton crops, and in particular the group of chemicals called furans, remain in the cotton long after it has been harvested and processed into tampons. They can also easily enter into the bloodstream through the direct contact of the tampon with the vaginal wall. These have been linked with the following effects in the body:
- Birth defects of offspring
- Low birth weight
- Hormonal disruption
- Thyroid malfunction
26% of the world’s pesticide is sprayed on cotton. These pesticides have been shown to affect the health of wildlife and humans in a devastating way, and as a result, more and more people are worried about the use of pesticides in farming and choose to buy organic produce wherever possible. Conventionally grown cotton is sprayed with many pesticides that release toxins, including dioxin, into the environment, leaving residuals in the cotton. Cotton is grown around the world, and in many Third World countries, up to 70 per cent of farm workers include children aged five and many teenagers are actively involved in pesticide spraying. In addition to the practice of spraying, 50% of the conventional cotton grown in the world is genetically modified.
Organic cotton avoids the practice of spraying crops with these pesticides, and organic standards do not permit the use of genetically modified cotton.
Fragrances and Deodorants
These substances are added to the tampon product during processing. Although they can also enter the bloodstream in a similar way to the pesticides and dioxin, they can also have an effect locally in the vagina and cause allergies and skin reactions.
Toxic Shock Syndrome
Toxic shock syndrome is not caused by the chemicals discussed above, but rather from an overgrowth of staphylococcus aureus bacteria in the vagina which causes a release of toxins and poisonous substances into the bloodstream. These toxins can cause a sudden fall in blood pressure and death. The presence of the tampon in the vagina for prolonged periods of time can encourage the growth of the staphylococcus bacteria, as can the use of synthetic fibers in tampons. The occurrence of these symptoms in conjunction with tampon use may be a sign of toxic shock syndrome:
- Sunburn-like rash
- Cold and clammy skin
Sanitary pads are subject to the same considerations above in terms of the chemicals in the cotton used, the bleaching process, and the use of fragrances. Although they are in less contact with the internal vaginal wall they are still in contact with the external mucous membrane and chemicals on them can enter the bloodstream this way. Pads are also often made with a dry-weave plastic cover which can cause irritation and localized allergic reactions.
The good news is that there are many alternatives available which are better for you and for the environment.
- 100% organic cotton unbleached, chlorine-free tampons and pads- make sure to change tampons often to lower the risk of toxic shock syndrome. An internationally available brand is NatraCare (available from health food stores)
- Reusable vaginal cups- these are easily inserted and held in place by the vaginal muscles and can last up to 12 hours before needing to be changed. If you are allergic to latex make sure that the cup you buy is made of an alternate material such as silicone. Can last up to 10 years.
- Washable cloth pads- these are often held in place on the underwear by Velcro straps and can be washed by hand or in the washing machine
- Sea sponges- these are inserted into the vagina like a tampon would be and changed at roughly the same interval as you would change a pad or tampon. They can be washed by soaking in vinegar, and will last about 4 cycles.
Website and Sources of Alternatives
· http://www.lunapads.com -a variety of alternative menstrual products
· http://www.organicessentials.com -the source for all things made from organic cotton including tampons and pads
· http://www.femcare.co.nz -organic cotton tampons and pads
· http://www.natracare.com -organic cotton tampons and pads
· http://www.feminineoptions.com -reusable pads
· http://www.gladrags.com -reusable pads
· http://www.goddessmoons.com -many alternative menstrual products
· http://www.mooncup.co.uk -the menstrual cup
· http://www.thekeeperinc.com -the menstrual cup
· http://www.jadeandpearl.com -the menstrual sponge
A Quick Note on Healthy Flow
One reason to consider using menstrual products other than tampons (even the organic tampons) is that it allows you to better observe your menstrual flow. This is important as the menstrual flow contains many indications of the health of your cycle, and these indications may be hard to observe if you are using a tampon as your sole menstrual product.
A healthy menstrual flow should be a bright red color, contain very few (if any) clots, should not be so heavy as to necessitate a change of pad more than every 3-4 hours, and should not smell overly strong. If you observe a menstrual flow that differs significantly from this description it can indicate an imbalance in health that could also affect your fertility and you should discuss this with your naturopath. - Angela Hywood, N.D.