The reproductive and health dangers of feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons and safe, green alternatives to consider that are convenient and affordable.
Approximately 43 million women in the United States use tampons. Millions more use sanitary napkins.
These feminine hygiene products are usually made of cotton or a blend of cotton and rayon for absorbency. Rayon is a cellulose fiber made from wood pulp.
Until the late 1990s, manufacturers bleached the cotton and rayon in tampons with elemental chlorine gas resulting in dioxin residues.
Dioxin Dangers from Bleaching
Dioxin is a pervasive environmental contaminant and a known human carcinogen. It accumulates in body fat over time with repeated exposure.
The use of these dioxin-laced fibers in the manufacture of disposable feminine hygiene products caused millions of women and girls to unwittingly allow carcinogenic toxins to come into contact with the thin and delicate tissues of their female reproductive organs, month after month, year after year.
In response to fears of dioxin residues in feminine hygiene products, bleaching with elemental chlorine gas is no longer used.
According to the FDA, sanitary products are now bleached via one of the following methods. (source)
- Elemental chlorine-free bleaching: These methods include the use of chlorine dioxide gas as the bleaching agent as well as totally chlorine-free processes. Some elemental chlorine-free bleaching processes can still generate dioxins at extremely low levels. In practice, however, this method is considered to be dioxin free by the FDA.
- Totally chlorine-free bleaching. These methods are completely dioxin-free. Totally chlorine-free methods include, for example, the use of hydrogen peroxide as the bleaching agent.
Is the dioxin really and truly gone with these new bleaching methods? The FDA reports that dioxin can “theoretically” be created with chlorine-free bleaching. In practice, however, it appears dioxin is still very much present.
A study sponsored by the FDA Office of Women’s Health found “detectable levels of dioxin in seven brands of tampons”. This included at least one 100% cotton brand. (source)
Dioxin Exposure and Endometriosis
Endometriosis was found to be directly correlated with dioxin exposure in a colony of rhesus monkeys chronically exposed to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD or dioxin) for a period of 4 years. (source)
Ten years after the termination of dioxin treatment, the presence of endometriosis was documented by surgical laparoscopy.
With endometriosis rates soaring in young women, one has to wonder if chronic exposure to low levels of dioxin residues from sanitary products could partly be to blame.
Chlorine Dioxide is a Pesticide
Even if dioxin is mostly gone using these newer bleaching methods, another problem emerges in the manufacturing process for tampons and sanitary napkins.
While totally chlorine-free bleaching with oxygen or hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) appears safe, the use of chlorine dioxide is likely not.
While chlorine dioxide smells somewhat like chlorine bleach, it should not be confused with elemental chlorine gas. They are two distinct chemicals that react differently and produce by-products that have little in common.
Chlorine dioxide is an antimicrobial pesticide that has been used for its disinfectant properties since the early 1900s.
Microbes are killed by chlorine dioxide via the disruption of nutrients across the cell wall.
While dioxin residue may potentially no longer be a problem for sanitary products, pesticide residues are.
One problem is replaced with another as is frequently the case with industrially manufactured products!
Is exposure to chlorine dioxide residue dangerous?
No one knows for sure. While chlorine dioxide itself is toxic, the effects of long-term, low-level exposure such as would occur for women and girls using conventional sanitary products several days each month for decades on end is unknown.
According to a 2002 World Health Organization report on long-term exposure to chlorine dioxide:
There are no chronic inhalation or dermal studies available and no conventional carcinogenicity studies are available. (source)
Cotton is a High Spray Crop
Besides the concern for chlorine dioxide residue, commercial sanitary products made with cotton or a cotton/rayon blend would contain other pesticide residues from the cultivation of the cotton itself.
According to the Pesticide Action Network:
Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields each year – accounting for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticides use worldwide. (source)
Unlike cotton clothing that you can (and should) wash before it comes into contact with your skin, consumers use feminine hygiene products right out of the package.
This puts the toxins in immediate contact with delicate and thin tissues of the female reproductive system.
Between the bleaching process and pesticide-laced cotton cultivation practices, disposable feminine hygiene products like sanitary pads and tampons are likely some of the most toxic personal care items women and girls use on a regular basis.
Asbestos in Tampons?
Some internet sources claim that there is carcinogenic asbestos in commercial tampons.
These claims suggest that manufacturers purposely add asbestos to tampons to promote excess bleeding. The reason? To sell more products and increase profits.
Testing of commercial tampons indicates that this is not true. According to an FDA report:
Asbestos is not an ingredient in any U.S. brand of tampon, nor is it associated with the fibers used in making tampons. Moreover, tampon manufacturing sites are subject to inspection by FDA to assure that good manufacturing practices are being followed. Therefore, these inspections would likely identify any procedures that would expose tampons products to asbestos. If any tampon product was contaminated with asbestos, it would be as a result of tampering, which is a crime. Thus far, FDA has received no reports of tampering. Anyone having knowledge of tampon tampering is urged to notify FDA or a law enforcement officer. (source)
Safe, Green, Affordable Alternatives
The data is ominous regarding the health and safety of repeated use and exposure to commercially produced feminine hygiene products.
Pesticide and dioxin residues are a clear and present danger to the health of anyone who uses them.
It is essential to avoid these products if at all possible.
For women and mothers of newly pubescent girls who wish to choose a safer route, fortunately, many options are available.
Organic Tampons and Pads?
First of all, choosing organic feminine hygiene products is critical due to cotton pesticide residues. This is the brand I recommend although there are other good ones.
While these products may avoid the pesticide residues from commercially grown cotton and the chlorine dioxide gas used in bleaching, there are other problems with sustainability.
The book Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation, estimates that the average woman throws away up to 300 pounds of feminine hygiene-related products in a lifetime.
While this may not be huge (.5% of personal landfill waste), considering the astronomical amount of garbage produced, it all adds up, particularly when there are greener options available.
One option for safe and reusable sanitary items would be organic, cloth pads made with cotton, hemp, or even bamboo.
On heavier days or for water sports and other strenuous activities, however, pads just don’t cut it.
Reusable Menstrual Cup
A reusable menstrual cup (such as this brand) made with natural, non-toxic materials like gum rubber is an excellent choice.
While a good quality cup is more expensive upfront, you will likely never have to buy another one.
It will save hundreds in the coming years compared with purchasing disposable organic sanitary tampons.
Menstrual cups are easy to use and in most cases, you don’t even need a pad when wearing one.
The female scientists in Biosphere 2 used menstrual cups as their sole form of feminine protection. (source)
Just be sure to get the correct size.
Should You Make The Switch?
There is no doubt that ditching commercial feminine hygiene products is one of the smartest personal care changes a woman can make to assure her current and ongoing reproductive health.
Choosing organic disposable products or even better, a reusable, natural materials menstrual cup that is safe, convenient, effective, easy to use, and good for the planet is a wise practice not just for ourselves but for our developmentally vulnerable young daughters as well.
(1) World Health Organization, Chlorine Dioxide
(2) Chlorine Dioxide
(3) Dioxin Facts
(4) The Facts on Tampons
(5) Pesticide Action Network
(6) Endometriosis in rhesus monkeys following chronic exposure to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin
(7) Biosphere 2