Until recently I hadn’t given much thought to the ingredients in products I had been exposing myself to. I had assumed that if it was available to buy from mainstream stores then it was safe. That’s what regulations and the government is for, right?
The more I read, the more I learn that it’s a man’s world.
Ingredients in things that predominantly women use – beauty creams, cosmetics and sanitary products are not regulated or tested. It’s not just products women are more likely to use, things like seat belts, phone size and air conditioning is all designed with men in mind. It’s as if we don’t matter to these companies. If this subject interests you, here is a book all about it. Anyway I digress.
I am waking up to how harmful certain ingredients can be both to the environment and to our personal health. And I’m starting to realise how ubiquitous they are and I have noticed there is a new movement of more conscious consumers. Women especially are standing up to the inequality they are subjected to, from everything from sexual harassment to chemical exposure. Every woman deserves to have the information necessary to make thoughtful decisions about the products she uses in and on her body.
The Vagina is Highly Permeable
Our skin is the bodies largest organ. Unlike chemicals that we may ingest through food which can be filtered through the enzymes in our saliva and our stomachs, chemicals placed on the skin can be directly absorbed into the bloodstream. "As a mucous membrane, the vagina is capable of secreting and absorbing fluids at a higher rate than skin, as are some of the external portions of the vulva, including the clitoris, clitoral hood, labia minora, and urethra."(1,2,3,4)
The vagina is intelligent and self cleaning and can ward of many infections, however, the mucous membranes in the vagina and vulva rapidly absorb chemicals without metabolizing them. (1, 5) This can be very dangerous and even fatal when through their feminine hygiene products women are exposed to toxic chemicals for extended lengths of time.
What is Really in Those Tampons?
Synthetic Fibres: You have probably heard of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), likely as a far off threat of what may happen should you leave your tampon in too long. What you likely haven't heard is that the synthetic fibres like viscose rayon contained in many mainstream brands of tampons creates the perfect breeding ground for toxins within the vagina. (1,6,7,8) Using 100% cotton products greatly reduces the risk of TSS.
Dioxin: This is a chemical bi-product of cotton bleaching that is sometimes found in trace amounts within tampons and pads. Trace amounts may also be found in food, however trace amounts sitting in a permeable part of the body for hours at a time is worrisome. “A woman uses approximately 11,400 tampons in her menstrual life that’s exposure to dioxins 11,400 times." (1) Dioxin is a known cancer causing chemical.
Pesticides: Cotton that comes from fields treated with pesticides often contains residue of these toxic products. Reports have found detectable residues of eight pesticides in one brand of tampons. (1, 9) Pesticides are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
Not to mention the effect on the environment in terms of waste and the environmental costs during production of these products (Same goes for disposable sanitary towels).
Why don't we know this?
Menstrual hygiene products don't have to list the ingredients in their products on their packaging. So you know what's in the t-shirt you're wearing but have no idea what is in the product that sits next to your reproductive organs for hours at a time each month.
What can we do?
Education is power, the first step is to do your homework about your body and the products that you are using on it and in it. One of the market drivers in the menstrual hygiene industry right now is the desire on the part of millennial women for safer, more natural and organic products. Industry has to respond to consumer demands, the more that we change our purchasing decisions, the more research will need to be conducted on the safety of our products and the more responsibility brands will have to be transparent.
Luckily there are safer and more eco-friendly alternatives out there. Options for you to explore are menstrual cups, and natural cloth sanitary pads as well as 100% natural organic cotton tampons or natural sea sponges.
Everyone who menstruates deserves to know that the products they are using are safe. Armed with this new information we can't continue to unconsciously pass on our buying behaviours to the next generation without stopping to think. We try to buy natural products to feed our families, and to use in our homes and our menstrual hygiene supplies should be no different.
Nicole W. 2014. A question for women’s health: chemicals in feminine hygiene products and personal lubricants. Environ Health Perspect 122:A70–A75; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.122-A70
Kumamoto Y, Iwasaki A. Unique features of antiviral immune system of the vaginal mucosa. Curr Opin Immunol 24(4):411–416 (2012); http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.coi.2012.05. 006.
Keir L, et al. Medical Assisting: Administrative and Clinical Competencies. Clifton Park, NY:Delmar Learning (1998). Available: http://goo.gl/BDGHfg [accessed 24 January 2014].
Farage M, Maibach HI. The vulvar epithelium differs from the skin: implications for cutaneous testing to address topical vulvar exposures. Contact Dermatitis 51(4):201–209 (2004); http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0105-1873.20 04.00444.x.
Hussain A, Ahsan F. The vagina as a route for systemic drug delivery. J Control Release 103(2):301–313 (2005); http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jconrel.2004 .11.034.
Tierno PM Jr, Hanna BA. Ecology of toxic shock syndrome: amplification of toxic shock syndrome toxin 1 by materials of medical interest. Clin Infect Dis 11(suppl 1):S182–S187 (1989); http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/clinids/11.Sup plement_1.S182.
Tierno PM Jr, Hanna BA. In vitro amplification of toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 by intravaginal devices. Contraception 31(2):185–194 (1985); http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0010-7824(85)9 0033-2.
Tierno PM Jr, et al. Effects of toxic shock syndrome Staphylococcus aureus, endotoxin and tampons in a mouse model. Clin Invest Med 10(2):64–70 (1987); http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3581548.
Scranton A. Chem Fatale: Potential Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals in Feminine Care Products. Missoula, MT:Women’s Voices for the Earth (November 2013). Available: http://goo.gl/BgIwdu [accessed 24 January 2014].