Last month, my period returned after a two-year hiatus. Being pregnant, breastfeeding, and having an IUD kept it away for a gloriously long time. I went to the store and purchased my usual brand of pads and tampons that I’ve used since starting my period over 20 years ago.
When discussing the return of my period, one of my home girls gently admonished me for using non-organic products. She told me there are all kinds of chemicals leaching through my sensitive vaginal skin when I use these products. I felt silly because I never really thought about what pads or tampons were made out of. Naturally, my health-related anxiety kicked in, was I putting myself in danger? Am I grossly out of touch? I should know better!
I decided to do some research on the risks and benefits of organic versus non-organic period products to make an informed decision on what I’ll use moving forward.
Up front, there are few scientific studies that address how harmful non-organic period products may be or if organic products are any less harmful. The scientific evidence is lacking and I hope moving forward more researchers dedicate time to this topic. As we know from recent studies showing an association between chemical hair straighteners and higher uterine cancer risk, sometimes it takes many years and many adverse health outcomes before the research catches up.
What are organic period products?
Organic menstrual pads and tampons use organic cotton that is untreated and has been grown with no pesticides or organic pesticides. They do not have dyes and fragrances. Nonorganic or conventional pads and tampons are often made from cotton treated with pesticides and synthetic materials. They may also include dyes and fragrances.
What’s wrong with regular pads and tampons?
Membranous vaginal tissue is permeable and sensitive, so there are concerns that toxic chemicals present in nonorganic period products may be absorbed into the body and cause adverse long-term health issues.
The conversation around toxic chemicals in period products began in earnest in 2014 when national women’s health nonprofit, Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) released independent product-testing results that revealed undisclosed toxic chemicals in Always menstrual pads. Subsequent studies also found volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in pads and panty liners sold in South Korea and several other countries across the globe. A 2020 study reviewed the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in feminine hygiene products (FHPs). They found that VOC exposure sometimes exceeded health protective reference levels, particularly in menstrual pads, however risks for most products were negligible. Interestingly, they found product labels declaring “organic,” “all natural,” and “for
sensitive skin” did not relate to their VOC composition or concentration, and generally these products did not differ from conventional products.
Does the FDA regulate period products?
Menstrual pads and tampons are regarded as “medical devices” by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The agency requires manufacturers to submit safety evaluations before they can be sold in the US, however, manufacturers are not required to inform consumers of the presence of chemicals in their products. According to the FDA, because toxic chemicals like dioxin are present at low levels in tampons, it does not pose a significant health risk.
So what should you use?
There are at least some levels of toxic chemicals present in conventional period products. However, the levels of chemicals present are unclear and studies have not found a causal link between chemicals in period products and adverse health outcomes. The vagina and vulva have highly absorbent and sensitive tissue, so there is a reason to be concerned with the possibility of chemicals getting into your body. Period product manufacturers are not required to disclose product ingredients, so it’s almost impossible to tell what you’re getting. In the future, I’d like to see more disclosure about ingredients used in products and more studies examining the links to adverse health outcomes.
Organic period products are often more expensive than conventional products. These products are not going to be an option for every woman and I’d like to avoid stigmatizing one option as “better” than the other.
For me, I think I’ll be checking out a menstrual cup or menstrual disc. These reusable products are made with rubber or silicone and can be cost-effective in the long-term. I would encourage folks to continue researching this topic to make the most informed decision.
Sara Fails, MPH is a health communicator and content strategist. In her free time, she enjoys living vicariously through Black heroines in fantasy novels and having dance parties with her toddler.