When you walk into any supermarket or general pharmacy to purchase your monthly feminine care products you are bombarded by a plethora of choices. Tampons and pads in variety of absorbency and style; light, regular, heavy, super heavy, scented, long, with wings, ultra thin, applicator, no applicator, new smooth applicator; you get the picture. All these choices take up almost an entire isle. I don’t know about you, but I feel overwhelmed with all of these choices.
Recently I moved to a new state, with new grocery stores, I was comfortable with my one and only choice in my feminine care needs, but gasp! I went to all of the local grocery stores and they don’t carry my one and only choice. What should I do? I spent a good half an hour looking for a replacement product, then left disappointed because none of those stores offered anything closely resembling natural feminine care products. You would think I would be able to make at least one choice right? Nope, not one product that was 100% cotton, didn’t contain plastic by-products or was not scented in some way. Now you may be thinking, why should this even matter?
Something brought you to seek out natural fertility information. Whatever that reason may be, there is something about the word natural that appeals to your idea of good health. So maybe recently you have worked toward changing your diet, you are eating more organic foods, trying to incorporate some natural healing methods, searching out healthy alternatives for skin care products, trying to avoid plastic, reading labels on everything and trying to make healthy sustainable choices for the planet, but did you ever consider your choice in feminine care products and how they may be impacting your health? What are those things made of anyway?
Ingredients in Feminine Care Products
While the ingredients may vary from company to company there is one scary truth out there; most mainstream makers of feminine care products do not list ingredients on their products. I guess that out of sight out of mind makes it easier for us to unconsciously feel it is ok to purchase these items, after all they are really the only choice we have when shopping at a local store. If you live rurally your options are slim on finding any natural feminine care products.
I discovered that most companies that make tampons do disclose tampon ingredients, though some are vague like fiber finishes or fragrance; those ingredients are not listed specifically. For example, we have no idea what chemicals were used to make up the fragrance. The reason these ingredients were made known is because of the severe risk of death due to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Because tampons are worn vaginally for long periods of time there is a potential risk for TSS. TSS is a bacterial infection that has been linked to making tampons more absorbent. “The risk of TSS increases with higher absorbency”-Tampax Tampon label
Known ingredients in tampons include: cotton, rayon, polyester, propylene, polyethylene and fiber finishes.
What Sanitary pads are made from Wikipedia**:
“The materials used to manufacture most pads are derived from the petroleum industry and forestry. The absorbent core, made from chlorine bleached wood pulp, could be reduced to make slimmer products with the addition of polyacrylate gels which sucks up the liquid quickly and holds it in a suspension under pressure. The remaining materials are mostly derived from the petroleum industry, the cover stock used is polypropylene non woven, with the leakproof barrier made from polyethylene film. The extraction, production and manufacture of these plastics contributes Nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and Carbon dioxide – ozone depleting gases; human toxins that lead to cancer and birth defects as well as chemicals that cause the acidification of trees.”
The Toxic Culprits
Non-organic Conventionally Grown Cotton
If you are choosing a product that contains non-organic cotton then the cotton used in these products has been sprayed by pesticides and herbicides which are known carcinogens. Around 84 million pounds of pesticides are sprayed on 14.4 million acres of conventional cotton crops each year, and that is in the United States alone. The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that 7 of the top 15 pesticides in the US are known human carcinogens. The chlorine bleaching of cotton for manufacturing creates Dioxin.
This is an interesting fiber, it is neither synthetic nor natural. It is the first semi-synthetic fiber made by man. This is because it is made from naturally occurring polymers (wood pulp). It is manufactured by a 16 step process using many chemicals, that is quite alarming for a product we wear on our bodies as clothing and next to the most private parts of our bodies as feminine care products. It is the chlorine bleaching process of the wood pulp that creates dioxin. Rayon also increases the absorbency of tampons which increases the incidence of TSS.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber made from petroleum, coal, water and air in a chemical reaction with alcohol and acid. Polyester is like a plastic cloth. It does not absorb moisture, but will absorb oils. It is used in the lining of feminine care pads and the wrappers, coating and applicators of tampons.
Is a super absorbent polymer made from acrylic acid combined with sodium hydroxide (also known as lye or caustic soda). Acrylic acid is corrosive and severely irritating to skin and the respiratory tract. We are all pretty familiar with lye used in the making of soap, and we all know if you get this on your skin it will burn it. Polyacrylate is used in super absorbent sanitary pads and diapers.
Polypropylene and Polyethylene
Both of these are thermoplastic polymers. They are used in the pad liners, wrappers and packaging of feminine products. Both of these off-gas and are potential skin irritants. Plastics do not allow for good airflow to the vaginal opening which can cause rash and a breeding ground for yeast and bacterial infection. These can be recycled, but most never are.
The other ingredients have been shown to have little adverse health effects on our bodies according to the research I have done, but these other ingredients have been shown to have adverse consequences to the environment, which does affect our lives. You have to greatly consider how the lesser known ingredients may potentially harm your health and the environment. All of the ingredients have the potential to change the vaginal ph levels and the vaginal environment in general which leads to increased risk of yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis. Tiny scratches from disposable pads and tampons increase risk for STD’s as well.
How These Ingredients May Affect Your Fertility and Your Health
Dioxin is grouped in a class of endocrine disruptors called Persistent organohalogens. Dioxins disrupt estrogen. Dioxin works as an anti-estrogen, by binding with Ah receptors*. This inhibits estrogen receptor binding, inhibiting estrogen action. Dioxin accumulates in our bodies and is stored in fat cells over time. Dioxin may also be present in breast milk, which then passes onto our babies. This is very concerning as this chemical has the potential to be passed to the baby in utero and then once again while breastfeeding.
Dioxin is a group of highly toxic chemicals that are a by-product of industrial processing using chlorine to manufacture herbicides and pesticides, process pulp and bleach paper products (including the raw materials for feminine care products) as well as incinerate waste. Dioxin is considered a Persistent Organic Pollutant, POP for short, that slowly over time accumulates in our bodies. This pollutant is carried in the air and in our water systems as well, which affects the entire food chain and planet. Dioxin is not only present in feminine care products, but most paper products we use including napkins, paper towels, tissues, make-up removal pads, toilet paper, diapers, ect. Many of these products we use near delicate tissues and openings on our bodies.
The EPA’s Report On Carcinogen’s notes Dioxin as a “known human carcinogen”. Studies have shown Dioxin to trigger biological responses within the body that are carcinogenic processes, these include gene expression, altered metabolism, altered cell growth and differentiation, as well as steroid-hormone and growth-factor transduction pathways. This is a serious problem when we consider this chemical may be altering our DNA. Our DNA is what make our offspring unique, damaged DNA may lead to genetic problems within our bodies which can be passed on to our children.
In a study using monkeys it was shown that Dioxin increased the severity and growth of endometrial tissues as well as promoted survival of endometrial tissue. Scientists are not clear on the exact connection of mechanism that causes this to happen, but does it really matter exactly why at this point? If you suffer from endometriosis you are going to want to avoid anything that may potentially contribute to endometrial tissue growth and survival! Growth of endometrial tissue has the potential to increase your chances of infertility, extreme pain and may spread to vital organs, the urinary system or bowels which may lead to life threatening conditions.
Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton crops are known carcinogens. They are cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin.
Dicofol– Is an endocrine disruptor that affects estrogen.
Trifluralin– this one is also an endocrine disruptor that affects metabolism and the entire reproductive system.
Polyester and Rayon
A study published in 1993 showed that wearing polyester underwear decreased sperm count and sperm motility in humans, dogs and rats. While the study could not find exact reasoning for the cause the hypothesis was electrostatic magnetic field. Whatever the cause, if we are putting polyester in the vagina, next to our cervical opening by using a tampon, or if next to the vaginal opening by using pads lined with polyester, you know it has to affect female fertility as well. Polyester is known to off gas and cause skin irritation as well. To top it off polyester is a petroleum based product, which we all know is a non-renewable source. The production of polyester has been shown to be very damaging to the environment with harmful emissions. Polyester also takes massive amounts of water to produce. Most synthetic polyesters are not biodegradable.
Rayon and Polyester fibers can be abrasive to the delicate tissues of the labia and vagina which can lead to scratches and ulcerations. The Rayon in tampons has been found to create cuts and ulcerations on the cervix and vaginal walls, especially upon insertion and removal of the tampon. These may also leave microscopic fibers which can affect the vaginal tissues and are absorbed into the blood stream.
A Note about the Vagina: The vagina is made up of fatty tissues and glands, these tissues are highly absorbent and fat is known to store chemicals. It is one of the most delicate places on the female body and toxic chemicals, synthetic fibers and fragrances were never intended to be placed near, on or in this area of our bodies. We need to take care of her, respect her and treat her with the healthiest choices in feminine care products!
Consider this, the average woman in developed countries will use disposable feminine care products for 5 days of every month, for about 40 years. Based on this average, each woman will use 9,600 tampons or disposable pads over the course of those 40 years.
The Environmental Impact
Consider the insane amount of packaging that comes along with feminine products. Plastic applicators and plastic wrappers for all parts of the packaging, boxes, inks for printing, and the manufacturing of all of these ingredients. I know first hand that applicators and pad liners do not decompose! I worked in landscaping for years as a garden foreman. I would often find in the compost old tampon applicators and pad liners. Much of the commercial compost for landscaping is made from human waste and some women flush these plastic parts down the toilet or throw them into outhouse toilets at campgrounds. These then go into the making of the compost, YUK! Thank goodness I only use organic gardening methods now! Never flush tampons or pads down the toilet or dispose of them in outhouses! Half of all feminine care products are sold in plastic packaging rather than paper boxes, these bags are very hard to recycle.
Now consider the amount of raw materials that it takes to produce these products and packaging. Then there is the long and toxic processes to manufacture them. Between 1998 and 1999 the Center for Marine Conservation stated that 170,000 tampon applicators were collected along U.S. coastal areas. Waste consultant Franklin Associates noted that in 1998 6.5 billion tampons, and 13.5 billion sanitary pads plus all of their packaging ends up in landfills and sewer systems. 1998 was 13 years ago, think how much the population has increased by now, the numbers may be double by now. According to information provided by Wikipedia on sanitary pads alone, “The high plastic content of these products ensures they remain in our environment for centuries as they are neither biodegradable nor recyclable. Disposal of used sanitary products by either flushing out into the oceans of the world, incinerating or depositing in landfill creates various pollutants including dioxins deposited in the sea through sewerage waste and air pollution from incinerators.”
The Healthy Alternative: Natural Feminine Care Products
You may or may not know it but there are several healthy natural menstrual care products available. Reusable cloth menstrual pads, organic cotton tampons and pads, sea sponges and the menstrual cup. These are safe and eco-friendly, plus they save you a lot of money in the long run. You can find these products at most health food stores or through their websites. These companies are passionate about women’s health and the environment and they provide excellent customer support!
Cloth Menstrual Pads
There are some great modern companies out there making cloth menstrual pads with care and commitment to the environment and women worldwide. These pads are made of cotton cloth, usually organic cotton and come in a variety of styles, absorbency, sizes and cute colored cloth patterns. These pads can be reused for 3 years or more when proper care is taken. If you have ever worn disposable pads you know how uncomfortable they can be, cloth pads are a lot more comfortable to wear! It can take a bit of money to switch over to cloth pads, but over the coarse of a year your average savings by switching to reusable pads will be $150.00 a year.
You can also make your own reusable pads! If you are into sewing or are on a budget this is a great option.
This is a small cup that is inserted vaginally to catch the menstrual blood. They capture twice as much blood as a tampon. There have been no reports of Toxic Shock Syndrome as opposed to tampon risk. They are also very cost effective! One cup on average will last up to 10 years! Moon cups come in 2 different sizes, one pre-pregnancy and post-pregnancy. The cannot be felt when inserted correctly. The companies that make these use the most eco-friendly materials possible with no harmful by-products or residue. Once inserted one cup will catch blood for 12 hours with a regular menstrual flow, this means you may only have to change it twice a day.
The average pack of tampons costs about $9.00 for 36 tampons. On average, if you are using 4 tampons a day, that will cost you $0.25 per tampon; which is $5.00 per month; that equals $60.00 a year; which equals $600.00 in 10 years. The menstrual cup on average costs about $35.00 up front and is reusable for 10 years. This would only cost you $0.29 per month for 10 years. This saves you $565.00 over 10 years.
Disposable Cotton Tampons and Pads
These products are made from non-GMO organic cotton. They contain no dyes, fragrances, rayon or plastic applicators. They are also produced using non-chlorine bleaching processes including oxygen, ozone and hydrogen peroxide. These bleaching processes are relatively harmless and compare to nothing like the toxic effects of chlorine bleaching. The are packaged in small boxes that can be recycled. You can find them at almost any health food store and many grocery stores with a natural foods section. These products are marginally more expensive than conventional disposable tampons and pads.
Make The Switch Today!
It is easy to see why switching to natural feminine care products is important for many different reasons. You will not only be protecting your health, but the health of the entire planet. This is also a chance to not only change for ourselves but for our daughters, sisters, mothers and girlfriends. Change can be infectious. Women are more likely to change if they know that there is someone close to them that can relate and support them through healthy changes. You vote with your dollars everyday! In the 80’s when there were 38 deaths due to TSS women banned together, made their voices heard and demanded change in the way tampons were made. While companies used less caustic bleaching methods, studies show that there is still the presence of Dioxin in feminine care products. Those women’s voices were heard though, and the incidence of TSS death declined and tampon makers began to disclose tampon ingredients. So stand up today by making healthy choices for your health and the planet. Maybe some of you out there have daughters, you can teach them what you have learned about the feminine care products industry and start them off right with natural feminine care products. Protect your health, protect your fertility! I made the switch years ago and after doing the research for this article I am so glad I did. We women deserve better for our health, we are the bearers of the future generations of the planet!
2) Dumanoski, D. & Peterson-Meyers, J. (n.d.). Widespread Pollutants with Endocrine-disrupting Effects. Our Stolen Future. Retrieved from: http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/basics/chemlist.htm
8) Shafik, Ahmed (1993), “Effect of different types of textile fabric on spermatogenesis: an experimental study”, Urological Research 21(5):367–370
10) Birnbaum LS, Cummings AM 2002. Dioxins and Endometriosis: A Plausible Hypothesis. Environ Health Perspect 110:15-21. doi:10.1289/ehp.0211015
11) ** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menstrual_pad