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What are our period products REALLY made of?

 

It is no secret when it comes to our sanitary products, plastic is a key player in the final product. You already know that plastic is harmful to our environment and the oceans - we don't need to tell you that, but you might be surprised to know that these disposable products also contain substances that are directly harmful to you and your vagina! 

Wait... What?! How can they be harmful to me? Surely they wouldn't be allowed to be sold if they were unsafe?

Well, you'd think! However the truth of it is that whilst menstrual products are deemed as a medical device, the FDA does not require that the manufacturers disclose their ingredients to the consumer. This goes one step further with babies' nappies, where they are not only deemed as a non medical device, they also do not need to be proven to be safe for infants to wear! Therefore, most disposable period products and nappies, contain toxic materials and continue to play with the line of our safety.

A lot of big branded period companies likes Tampax, Always or even supermarket own brands, have a lot to answer to when it comes to what their period products contain.

In fact, disposable sanitary towels and babies nappies contain harmful substances called 'volatile organic compounds' or VOCs. These are compounds that are not synthetic, like plastics are, but organic compounds, often found naturally occuring in substances like coal, oil and petroleum - they are known to cause irritation and rash like side effects to our genitalia as well as further internal damage when chronically absorbed into our system. Yet they are continually used in sanitary products and sold to the unaware consumer. 

A study for reproductive toxicology at the University of Illinois in 2017 detected that in 11 brands of sanitary towels and 4 brands of babies nappies, the volatile organic compounds; Xylene, Toluene and Methylene Chloride were present. 

Xylene was present in all 15 brands. Xylene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is sweet smelling, and occurs naturally in petroleum, coal and wood tar. It is a solvent used in paint, rubber and leather industries and can be found in aeroplane fuel and cigarette smoke. It has various side effects on the body, including depression of the nervous system i.e. confusion, dizziness, headaches, nausea, as well as causes skin irritation and liver and kidney damage.

Toluene was found in 9 of the sanitary brands and all four of the nappy brands. Toluene is also a hydrocarbon that is commonly found in crude oil. It is used in the manufacturing of paint strippers, nail varnish remover and adhesives. Toluene also holds various side effects such as depression of the nervous system as well as damage to the liver and kidneys. It has also been suspected to be linked with reproductive issues such as miscarriages.

Methylene chloride was found in 2 of the sanitary brands. Methylene chloride is a solvent that is corrosive when in liquid form. It is able to dissolve plastic and rubber substances. It is held in the toxicity category of 'health hazard' and has been deemed as 'likely carcinogenic' when exposed to human skin. It is known to cause skin irritation when in direct contact as well as liver, kidney and nervous system damage.

But why are these chemicals used in our sanitary products? 

These particular VOCs are common in the plastic manufacturing industry, where they are important for the dissolution of plastic products. This is because most of disposable sanitary towels are plastic lined as well as containing plastic woven into the absorption material that covers the vagina. Therefore, these substances come into contact with the vagina continuously during the week you are on your period.

The study also showed that these brands contained substances called phthalates. Phthalates are chemical compounds also known as plasticizers. They are used in the manufacturing process of plastics, such as PVC, to soften the plastic. 

During this study, the research team found that 2 forms of phthalates were contained in all 11 brands of the sanitary products, and a further 2 in the nappy brands. 

DBP (Di-n-butyl phthalate) and DEHP (Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate) were discovered in all brands of the sanitary towels and nappies. Both of these substances are classified by California regulators as reproductive and developmental toxicants. In Europe they are deemed as toxic for reproduction, and that high exposure to DBP can cause developmental problems in foetuses. The levels of DBP found were also notably higher than those found in common plastic products such as cling film or plastic drinking cups.

All reports of these substances claim to cause long lasting issues when chronic exposure occurs. The use of sanitary products falls under this risk category because from the ages of approximately 12 - 50 years old, people with periods use disposable menstrual products on average 7 days per 28 day cycle. This means that for approx. 90 days a year, we have these chemicals in contact with our bodies.

Due to the nature of periods, whilst we swap our menstrual products every few hours, our skin is in constant contact with a disposable item for the duration of each period. Many of the side effects caused by VOCs such as Xylene, are also common side effects of menstruation i.e. headaches, nausea - but studies are yet to be carried out as to whether these side effects are eradicated when a reusable, chemical free sanitary product is used by the menstruator.

What about tampons? Surely these are safe to use?

Because again, menstrual product manufacturers aren't legally obligated to disclose the ingredients, tampon manufacturers are also able to sneak harmful chemicals past you.

One thing to note is just how absorbent the vaginal walls are. Several studies have shown that the vagina can absorb chemicals at much higher rates to those being absorbed into our system orally (through the mouth and stomach). So it is important to understand that the chemicals used in the manufacturing of tampons are then able to be absorbed into our bodies, where their effects can cause damage at a quicker rate than if you were to swallow these chemicals.

Cotton tampons, can have pesticides on them. These pesticides are introduced to the plant during farming and then absorbed into the cotton and remain present right through to insertion, where they can then be absorbed into the vagina. The most common types of pesticides used in popular tampon brands are 'procymidon' and 'piperonyl butoxide'. These have been deemed by the EPA as 'probable carcinogens'.

Tampons are also bleached with chlorine. Both cotton and synthetic tampons use chlorine to bleach the tampon white (ironically, to make it appear sterile and safe to use). Whilst chlorine alone is not what you want near your vagina, this also creates a dioxin chemical residue in the fibres which are also known carcinogens. Chlorine is the cheapest bleaching option which is why most companies opt for this technique. Hydrogen peroxide (a natural, non carcinogenic bleaching method) can also be used but due to the cost, it is rarely chosen.

Tampons also contain the phthalates as seen earlier. Phthalates are used even on the cardboard applicators as a smoothing coating and other phthalates can be found within the tampon itself. Synthetic fibres have been chemically altered to feel like cotton, so despite the tampon feeling like cotton and looking white, like cotton, they are actually made from synthetic fibres such as rayon, polyester and polyethylene. The purposes of which are to give the tampon more strength. However these materials come with harmful chemical residues and therefore increased health risks.

Ok, well which part of the disposable product actually contains plastic?

Before, plastic in our period products appeared to be the biggest demon. Partly because of the environmental concern but also because of the risk of BPA absorption. So when we actually break it down, a huge percentage of the product that comes into contact with our skin also contains plastic.

On average, disposable sanitary towels contain 90% plastic. This is the equivalent to FOUR carrier bags. The plastic can be found in the outer packaging, the wrapper and the pad itself. The pad contains several layers, to ensure its leak proof and absorbent. The base layer of the pad is plastic lined (usually polypropylene) and contains an adhesive to stick to the pants. The absorbent layer contains polyester or polyethylene woven into the pad to make it appear like cotton. This has been treated with the VOCs and phthalates as stated above to give it cotton like properties and then bleached with chlorine to make it appear white.

In tampons, the figures are similar. The plastic wrapper and applicator are the obvious contenders, however the absorbency fibres surrounding the absorbency core are usually made from either chlorine treated cotton, rayon (a synthetic fibre) or VOC treated polyester/polyethylene. The tampon string is also made from polyester or a polypropylene braid.

So what can I do to feel safe and chemical free during my period?

Despite most of this blog showing just how complicated, confusing and frustrating these products are, the solutions are simple.

Switching to a reusable product eradicates the risk of chemical treated disposables. A reusable menstrual cup or reusable sanitary pads are made with more natural and chemical free products so there is no risk of these chemicals being exposed to our bodies. Reusable menstrual cups, that are FDA approved, like ours, are made with 100% medical grade silicone. Reusable pads are often made from organic cotton or bamboo fibres. Both of these are long lasting and washable, so you control what substances come into contact with the product and therefore your body.

Switch to organic cotton tampons. Organic cotton tampons that are chlorine-free are safer than the standard store bought tampons. They can be slightly more expensive because these brands take sustainability and safety seriously, but most brands offer a subscription package so you can have them delivered to your door monthly. TOTM, DAME and some other brands offer these safer tampon options and also have a reduced plastic content, so you're also helping the planet as well as your vagina.

Unfortunately most disposable sanitary towel companies contain an adhesive and plastic lined base. So these will always carry the risks as listed above, so if you prefer sanitary towels, the reusable options are usually the best option if you want to switch.

If you are interested in making a switch to our menstrual cup, you can purchase here. Our cups are only £8.99, made with 100% medical grade silicone and last for 10 years. So you and your vagina can be protected from harmful chemicals for a decade. They're also great for the environment and can be worn safely for 12 hours. You don't need to use night pads either, because our menstrual cups are safe to wear during sleep and when used properly, are completely leak-proof.

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Footnotes:

Bienkowski B, 2019. How diapers and sanitary towels are exposing babies and women to hormone disrupting toxic chemicals . Environmental Health News https://www.ehn.org/diapers-and-menstrual-pads-chemicals-2627099478.html

Burns, C & Rauhe K, 2019. Study: Elevated levels of toxic chemicals found in menstrual pads and disposable diapers. Environmental Working Group https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2019/03/study-elevated-levels-toxic-chemicals-found-menstrual-pads-and-disposable

Kandyala, R et al, 2010. Xylene: an overview of its health hazards and preventative measures. National Institute of Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996004/

National Centre of Biotechnology Information, 2020, Compound Summary for CID 6344, Dichloromethane, National institute of Health https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Dichloromethane#section=NIOSH-Toxicity-Data

Division of Toxicology and Human Health Science, 2015. Public Health Statement for Toluene. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=159&tid=29

Park, C et al, 2019. Sanitary towels and diapers contain higher phthalate contents than those in common commercial plastic goods. National Institute of Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6504186/

Ross, C, 2018. Why is there plastic in my tampon? Huffington Post https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/why-is-there-plastic-in-my-tampon_uk_5a96cc5be4b07dffeb6ec7bb?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAD9MJyM-XRIQ5e9fQ632KDUmO-_g98CMvDVPLeHmlE0B8pNjGHP-26N7pxwmmZ94FRgUIt-yi1MWJK_z1wg3DxI6oVs_VEleeoj-ufWZAjNu_NXcUSRjmAMBHiocxW0a5GdriwapYjgLANcHN0w5kBi96gPErBm1mfjDr0a4cquF

Borunda, A, 2019. How tampons and pads became so unsustainable. National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic/

Krantz, R, 2015. Why doesn't congress care whats in our tampons? Bustle Magazine https://www.bustle.com/articles/83591-are-tampons-safe-7-reasons-we-should-be-concerned-about-the-ingredients-in-feminine-hygiene-products

Hussain A & Ahsan F, 2005. The Vagina as a route for the systemic drug delivery. Journal of Controlled Release, ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7970153_The_Vagina_as_a_route_for_the_systemic_drug_delivery

Ringshaw, H, 2018. Plastic periods: Menstrual products and plastic pollution. Friends of the earth magazine https://friendsoftheearth.uk/plastics/plastic-periods-menstrual-products-and-plastic-pollution#:~:text=Tampons%20have%20plastic%20in%20them,%2C%20rayon%2C%20or%20a%20combination.

Hinde, N, 2017. What are tampons made from. Composition breakdown of tampax, lil-lets and more, Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/what-are-tampons-made-from-tampax-lil-lets-totm-natracare-boots-superdrug_uk_5927f9d1e4b0df34c35b40f8

Be Kind Magazine, 2019. Fight the plastic in sanitary pads. https://www.bekindmagazine.com/fight-the-plastic-in-sanitary-pads/#:~:text=The%20average%20sanitary%20pad%20is,they're%20non%2Drecyclable.