Why don’t we spend more time talking about tampons? For something that is used by a majority of American women and spends a lot of time around intimate body parts, it’s a little surprising we aren’t more curious and knowledgeable about the things we use for menstrual hygiene.
If you look at a tampon box, you’ll see a short list of ingredients and an even shorter list of what the product “may contain.” Kind of vague, right? Two New York Congresswomen, Carolyn B. Maloney and Grace Meng, are trying to change that. Their bills, the Robin Danielson Act and the Menstrual Hygiene Right to Know Act, would mandate menstrual products to undergo a round of independent safety tests and require pad and tampon companies to place a full list of ingredients on their products. The fact that Rep. Maloney’s Act is named for a woman who died of toxic shock syndrome, a rare and potentially fatal condition associated with tampon use, calls out a potentially dangerous culture of keeping vital information on tampons and pads under wraps.
Strangely enough, little to no research has been done on the long-term health effects of menstrual product use. The studies that do exist have been industry-conducted, and companies aren’t required to release the full results to the public. Those concerned about product safety point to potential toxins like pesticides, bleach, or other byproducts whose residues may be left on the cotton used to make most tampons and pads. Another potential concern is fragrances or gels manufacturers sometimes add to the products to enhance absorbency or strengthen adhesive. These chemicals—especially when present in tampons—could easily make their way into the user’s bloodstream, potentially causing irritation, infection, and hormonal disruption—even cancer. “We want to make sure that women know what is in these products, which actually have the closest contact with our bodies,” said Rep. Meng in an interview.
Of course, manufacturers of menstrual hygiene products have asserted that their products are totally safe. Procter & Gamble, maker of the Always and Tampax brands, and Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kotex products, have begun sharing more information about the products on their websites amid activists’ calls for transparency. “We take our responsibility to provide [women] that information seriously,” said Maria Burquest, a spokeswoman for P&G. In the meantime, brands like Seventh Generation and Lola are meeting growing demand for natural or organic materials and transparency with consumers.
Still, there’s another school of thought that says brands like Seventh Generation or Lola, which have spotlighted their products as safe and toxin-free because they are made with organic cotton, are really just engaging in the same marketing tactics as everyone else, just disguised as activism and consumer advocacy. As Forbes’ Kavin Senapathy points out, “organic” cotton does not necessarily mean cotton grown sans pesticides, but indicates the cotton was grown with “pesticides approved for use in organic farming.” And even Seventh Generation, she found, bleaches their tampons—bleaching being the technical term for fiber purification, at least according to Tampax. Finally, there are the opinions of doctors familiar with the debate, most of whom caution against too much panic: “There’s no medical data that would support the use of organic tampons or pads,” said one OB/GYN, Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, in an interview.
But, as we’ve already noted, there’s hardly any data at all—at least not that’s available to the public. Given the historical lack of regulation among industries whose customers are predominantly women (the cosmetics industry, anyone?), it might not hurt to be a little extra cautious when it comes to menstrual hygiene products. In the end, the safest thing to do is to look to science—and then do what feels right for you.