A culture has been created where menstruation should be out of sight and out of mind which allows conventional personal care product manufacturers to continue to sell chemical-filled, wasteful feminine care products pretty much under the radar. Consumers’ awareness of the hormone disruptors in our makeup and the carcinogens in our deodorant is increasing, but we rarely hear about chemical exposure from the tampons and pads that come into contact with the most absorbent and sensitive area of our bodies.
And the environmental consequences of all those plastic wrappers and applicators are just as concerning. Because discussing menstruation is still taboo, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves, especially in the context of women’s health issues. The marketing of conventional feminine products has left women assuming that the most convenient- and only- choices they have are tampons or pads. Discover why you should rethink the same ol’ tampons you’ve been buying since middle school.
Chemicals in Tampons and Pads
The chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products are unregulated even though they are linked to cancer and reproductive issues. Some of the same toxins and carcinogens are found in feminine care products. By inserting a tampon, you’re exposed to chemicals like dioxin, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many women’s health organizations link to reproductive issues and even cancer. Let’s do the math: manufacturers sell tampons and pads, well-aware they are laced with toxins linked to hormonal and reproductive problems, to come into direct contact with reproductive organs multiple times a day, 5-7 days each month, for decades.
Yes. Get angry. Still skeptical? Watch this horrifying video and you’ll think about ditching your typical pads and tampons, like yesterday. You may be asking (or screaming at your screen), “how is this legal?”.
Since the FDA classifies tampons and pads as medical devices, manufacturers
do not have to disclose a list of materials or chemicals in their products. Convenient for them, right?
Conventional tampons and pads have trace amounts of dioxins, bleach, chlorine, pesticides, and chemical cocktails advertised as “fragrance”. There are no rayon trees so it takes a lot of energy and chemicals to turn wood pulp into a synthetic fiber, engineered to be more absorbent than cotton, which manufacturers then market to women as “leak-proof”, and “super-plus absorbency”. And this is where heath risks like TSS come into play. Because rayon is so absorbent, it disturbs the pH level in the vaginal environment and increases the amount of bacteria present which are attacking the foreign object (rayon fibers in your tampon) in the vagina. Even after a tampon has been removed fibers also leave tiny lacerations in the vaginal wall, leaving the area susceptible to infection.
Dioxins, a cancer-causing group of chemicals, are a by-product of the chemical-laden rayon manufacturing process. Manufacturers cite that such a small amount of dioxin won’t cause harm, but multiple studies and the Environmental Proctection Agency showed there is no safe amount of dioxin and causes concern for a slew of reproductive problems since it accumulates in the body over time (read: decades of tampon use) and come into contact with vaginal tissue, some of the most vascular rich (absorbent) tissue in the body. In fact, absorbing chemicals through skin and tissue may be even worse than eating them since there are no enzymes to break them down and flush them out; they will remain and accumulate at a higher rate. Conventional feminine wipes, douches and sprays are just as loaded with chemicals, fragrances, and irritants and should never be used.
Tampons and pads are toxic to the environment
The average woman throws out 250-300 pounds of waste from menstruation-related products throughout her menstrual years. While it is a small percentage of the total waste she’ll create (around 62k pounds plus…yikes), most women will use 11k-16k tampons in their lifetime; multiply that by the 43 million women using tampons and pads and that’s massive amount of waste and chemicals clogging up pipe infrastructure and decreasing the efficiency of water treatment plants, leading to sewage leaks that flows into the ocean. A 2010 study of a beach clean-up found an average of 20-30 pieces of plastic litter from feminine products, per kilometer of beach. And when plastic applicators, just like other unnecessary single-use items, pollute the ocean, marine life ingests it. And if you forgot about trophic levels from 5th grade science, humans consume whatever our prey consumes.
Before tampons and pads were mass-produced starting in the late 1800s, women made their own pads from cloth, wool, papyrus, sea sponge; whatever they had. While taking a trip to the beach to go menstrual sponge foraging sounds like a great Sunday activity to some, there are convenient alternatives that will help you reduce waste, eliminate toxic chemicals from your body and the Earth, and save money.
Sustainable alternatives to tampons and pads
These are cups made from medical-grade silicone or natural gum rubber which are inserted into the vagina where blood is collected. They hold about 1 oz of blood and brands usually offer two sizes; one for women who have given birth and a smaller one for those who haven’t. Since the cups are non-absorbent, they can be left in for up to 12 hours, 5 hours longer than tampons. There are essentially no health risks to using a cup and they can be used for years, some brands claim up to 10. And of course you’ll be waste-free. They run about $30-$40 and even if you decide to replace the cup within 2 or 3 years, it can still save you hundreds of dollars in just two years. Now put those savings towards something that will actually make your vagina happy (nsfw).
I’ve used a menstrual cup for about two years now (I use the Diva Cup) and it has changed my life. I can’t recommended making the switch enough. It’s so much more convenient than tampons since I can leave it in overnight or all day, with no worries. It is very different from a tampon and there is a slight learning curve when it comes to learning to insert it properly, but you’ll get the hang of it and wonder why you hadn’t done it sooner. Promise. Also, watch these dudes give a testimonial in song about women gushing over the joys of their new menstrual toy.
Organic tampons and pads
Purchasing organic means that the cotton used in the pads or tampons are non GMO and were not sprayed with pesticides and you’ll also support more ethical brands supporting women’s health and the environment. However, expect to pay significantly more per box since it is organic. To reduce waste, select those without plastic applicators. You can find great organic products at any health food store. Companies like NatraCare and The Honest Company make great organic tampons.
Products like Lunapads and GladRags make washable, reusable pads, eliminating packaging waste and saving money. As far as convenience, the menstrual cup wins for me but these would be wonderful for lighter menstrual days, or as a back-up for cups or organic tampons.
Use menstruation to connect with your body
Feminine products offering increasingly discreet packaging and promises of zero leakage are marketed to women, contributing to the stigma of menstrual blood being dirty and embarrassing. Instead of using this time to connect with our bodies, we’ve become detached from such a beautiful process. Up until a few years ago, the only time I talked about menstruation was to ask my closest co-worker in a whispered hush to borrow a tampon or to justify to my husband why I needed him to buy me three kinds of ice cream.
Most women have a subtle sense of shame attached to their period. This connects back to how we learned and our parents learned (or didn’t learn) about sexual development. Participation in this culture starts young: pre-teen girls get their period and unless parents discuss it, they have to rely on what they’re taught in school, which is basic and sanitized information not even close to being practical, holistic human development education.
I adore this article by Sofia Sundari, who’s like a modern day spirituality goddess whisperer! She shares how to truly celebrate the power of menstruation and was one of the first women to shift the way I think about my period. I’ve discovered that I have an increased amount of creativity during the first two days. I get really fatigued and where I used to take Midol and grab an extra cup of coffee (god forbid I slow down!) I now listen to my body, imagine my body doing what it’s supposed to do, and express gratitude to have a healthy female body; it’s incredibly empowering. I also pay attention to lunar phases and meditate on which parts of my life need to be nurtured.
The next time you hear a woman refer to menstruation with childish euphemisms like, “the curse” or “my lady time”, I encourage you to lovingly call her out on it. Talk about menstruation in grown-up, medically accurate language where we can re-frame the way in which we think about menstruation and discuss it for what it is; the beautiful and spiritual process signaling strength and women’s empowerment. Things like confidence, healthy body-image, and ultimately, self-empowerment, will follow.
Have you tried menstrual cups? Any other choices I forgot to list? Please, do share in the comments.
Photos courtesy of Women’s Voices for the Earth and crushable.com