From organic pads and tampons to menstrual cups, there are safe, natural feminine hygiene product options for every woman.
It’s “that” time of the month, and Aunt Flo’s coming to visit. Although menstruation and the feminine hygiene products that go along with it are something that women deal with on a regular basis, many of us avoid talking about them.
The truth is, we should be discussing the not-so-nice secrets behind many conventional brands of feminine hygiene products—and applauding the many natural options available for women today. It’s time we start leaving euphemisms behind and discuss these issues. Period.
New and improved?
Menstruation is hardly a new phenomenon. The humble beginnings of feminine hygiene products include everything from scraps of cloth to sea sponges. It’s rumoured that softened papyrus was used by women in ancient Egypt, while ancient Greek tampons were fabricated out of lint and wood.
Of course, most North American women now use disposable pads or tampons to absorb menstrual flow. However, even over the past few years, feminine hygiene product companies have developed more absorbent materials and added fragrance to some of their products.
Health and environmental issues
Many health and environmental groups have questioned the perceived benefits of these new developments.
Health professionals point out that the vaginal canal is a highly permeable route of entry to the body and that chemicals used in products meant for the vaginal canal introduce these chemicals into our bodies.
A report published in Environmental Health Perspectives (2014) explains that fragranced feminine hygiene products in particular can contain endocrine (hormone) disruptors that may be absorbed into the body. Preservatives such as parabens can also be a source of chemical exposure, as can nonorganic cotton found in some conventional pads and tampons, which can contain trace amounts of pesticide residue. In fact, nonorganic cotton production is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s pesticide use.
Another possible source of harmful chemicals is the viscose rayon that most conventional tampons contain. This is a synthetic fibre that can potentially contain toxins. Dioxins, for instance, can be present in trace amounts. Although these amounts aren’t believed to be harmful, the Environmental Health Perspectives report argues that the trace amounts haven’t been sufficiently studied to see how they might build up over time in women’s bodies, due to cumulative use and the highly absorbable lining of the vagina.
The truth is that consumers don’t know what chemicals are added to menstrual products, concluded the organization Women’s Voices for the Earth. Its 2013 report, Chem Fatale, states that ingredients such as fragrances and adhesives don’t need to be declared on the label. These ingredients could potentially be allergens, irritants, carcinogens, or hormone disruptors.
The number of disposable pads or tampons used by women during their childbearing years is bad news for the environment. It’s estimated that a woman could use up to 16,800 tampons in her lifetime. That’s a lot of plastic and disposable waste!
In 2009, the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup released a report that included feminine hygiene products in a list of common marine debris. This debris poses a serious hazard to the environment and a danger to wildlife. Based on results from its 2008 shoreline cleanup, volunteers collected 3,765 tampons or tampon applicators along Canadian shores and 12,528 along US shorelines, showing that even when these items can be easily disposed of, not all items make it to landfill sites.
Thankfully, there are many natural, eco-friendly options available at natural health retailers.
Natural, organic pads
What they are: While still disposable, certified cotton organic pads use cotton grown without the use of pesticides. Plastic-free options also exist, meaning even fewer potentially harmful chemicals.
Who they’re for: Just like conventional pads, organic cotton pads can be used by any woman. For women who may have experienced sensitivity to conventional pads, organic cotton pads may help reduce skin irritation.
The how-to: Use them just like conventional pads.
Natural, organic tampons
What they are: These options are still disposable; however, certified organic tampons mean no pesticides are used to grow the cotton, and no chemicals or additives are added. The applicator may also be made from renewable materials, such as cardboard.
Who they’re for: Organic cotton tampons can be used by any menstruating woman. Multiple absorbency levels exist, allowing women to choose the one best suited for them.
The how-to: Natural tampons can be used like conventional tampons—just choose options with or without an applicator, based on your preference, and follow the directions on the label.
Reusable cloth pads
What they are: These alternatives have the added bonus of saving money over time and reducing waste, as they can last for years.
Who they’re for: Options exist for light to heavy flow—and all body sizes—allowing anyone to make the switch.
The how-to: Although each brand differs slightly, reusable pads can include the pads (with “snaps” to stay in place), along with inserts that can be changed. They can be rinsed and then washed by hand or in a machine.
What they are: Perhaps the most unique alternative on the market, the menstrual cup is a silicone cup that’s inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual flow for up to 12 hours at a time. It’s emptied, washed, and reused, making it a very eco-friendly option. Think of it as a tampon alternative—meaning that you can even swim in it.
Who they’re for: The cups are for everyone, provided you choose the correct size—sizes vary depending on whether women have given birth or not. Those with a heavy flow can use menstrual cups as well.
The how-to: Always follow the instructions on the package. Generally, they’re inserted manually and rotated to form a “seal” upon insertion. After removing the cup, it can be cleaned by hand in mild soap and reinserted.
Toxic shock syndrome
In the 1980s, headlines about toxic shock syndrome (TSS) associated with tampon use were both terrifying and commonplace. TSS is caused when a toxin produced by bacteria gets into the bloodstream, and it can be caused by scenarios other than tampon use, such as skin infection. Since discovering the problem, tampon companies have reformulated their products to decrease risk.
This often deadly disease has thankfully become rare; however, the risk has not disappeared. It’s important to use tampons correctly, such as avoiding prolonged use and using only the absorbency you need (and not higher).
Symptoms include flu-like symptoms such as fever and vomiting, as well as seizures and low blood pressure. If you ever suspect TSS, seek immediate medical attention.
The organization Women’s Voices for the Earth is urging mainstream feminine hygiene product brands to “Detox the Box” in a new campaign. Based on research from its report Chem Fatale, which found harmful chemicals in conventional products, it is petitioning big name brand companies to list all ingredients used in the products and to remove any harmful chemicals.
Visit the Women’s Voices for the Earth website at womensvoices.org to learn more and to sign the petition.