We all remember the first time we used a tampon, it was a freeing (if somewhat strange) experience. Finally, an alternative to those bulky pads! We were free to go swimming, do yoga, and spin around in a field of wildflowers in flawless white Capri pants (OK maybe that last one was a commercial).
However, tampons have been in the spotlight recently – they’re not quite the god-send we once thought, but are they as bad as the hype seems to make them out? From the mystery of tampon materials to their effect on the environment it’s important to know as much as you can about the products you use and make informed decisions about vaginal health, menstrual hygiene or, to be more precise, what and how you put into your body.
To help you decide, here’s a guide to some of the biggest concerns about tampons and the top tampon alternatives.
What You Need to Know About Tampons
Chemicals & Pesticides
Most tampons are made from a combination of cotton and rayon (a synthetic material of chemically treated wood pulp fiber), plus certain plastics and additives to increase absorbency. Due to government regulations, manufacturers are not required to tell consumers exactly what’s in tampons.
Customer advocacy groups and lawmakers are campaigning for more official research into the health risks of menstrual hygiene products. However, through independent research and testing, we do know at least some of the chemicals they contain.
The materials used to make tampons are not naturally white. They must go through a bleaching process which can create many harmful chemical byproducts (such as dioxin). Some of these chemicals have, although in small amounts, been found in some of the tampons we use every month. Dioxin has been linked to immune system suppression, reproductive issues, and cancer in humans.
While there are only trace levels of dioxin in tampons (lower than those found in food), it’s known to accumulate in the body’s fatty tissue over time, often only causing health problems years later. There’s also concern about scented tampons, as the “fragrance” can contain any combination of different chemicals, the exact formula of which the manufacturer generally keeps secret.
It’s also estimated that conventional (non-organic) cotton farming comprises between 16-30% of the world’s pesticide use and research has shown that some of those pesticides make their way through the manufacturing process and into the final product.
While no specific research has been done on the effects of exposure to the chemicals and pesticides found in tampons, vaginal tissue is very permeable. That makes it easier for your body to absorb those chemicals. You could be using tampons for several days each month over the 40 years you’ll be menstruating – that’s a long time to expose those delicate tissues to potentially toxic chemicals
It Absorbs Everything
Your vagina is like a mini-ecosystem, full of micro-organisms and fluids that keep it balanced and healthy by maintaining your pH at a level that discourages the growth of bad bacteria. During menstruation, your body still produces its normal fluids, and the beneficial bacteria so vital to keeping your vagina healthy.
Tampons, by their nature, absorb everything indiscriminately. This can dry you out, trap the bad bacteria that your body is trying to expel, and stop those fluids and good bacteria from balancing your pH. This can impede your vagina’s ability to regulate and clean itself, and lead to irritation or even infection.
While tampon material is molded into an easy-insert shape, it’s intended to expand and loosen to absorb your menstrual fluid. What that means is that some of those fibers might become loose enough to stay inside you even after the tampon is removed, leaving a perfect surface for bacteria to hide and grow inside.
Toxic shock syndrome is a potentially fatal condition that has been linked to tampon use. The condition was a big concern in the 1980s when companies were producing extremely absorbent tampons that, if left in too long, could become a breeding ground for bacteria and irritate vaginal tissue, sometimes causing small cuts that allowed bacteria to enter the bloodstream.
Manufacturers have since made adjustments to their products, but using tampons that are more absorbent than needed or leaving a tampon in for too long has been linked to several TSS cases in recent years and should not be taken lightly. It’s worth considering whether tampons make the most sense for certain situations, such as days where you might not be able to get to a bathroom as often as you need.
The average person buys 12,000 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime, and most of those 12,000 pieces of cotton and plastic end up in a landfill. A 2010 beach clean-up [PDF] found an average of 30 pieces of menstrual care trash – like tampon applicators, plastic sleeves, and the paper backing for pads – in each kilometer of beach.
For such a natural process of the human body, that’s a large amount of trash! There is also the manufacturing process to consider: all of those pesticides and chemicals used on cotton and rayon must be disposed of – often into the natural environment.
Those 12,000 disposable products translate to about $3000 spent over a lifetime for something you grudgingly have to buy each month. Wouldn’t it be nice to put that money to better uses, like trips out to fields of wildflowers and more white clothing!
So if this information turns you off of tampons, what should you use instead? There are several alternatives to conventional tampons – like organic cotton tampons, foam tampons, and reusable cotton menstrual pads which can help you mitigate some of these problems.
However, reusable menstrual cups are our favorite option for avoiding these risks. They’re hypoallergenic, medical-grade silicone cups (no harmful chemicals or loose fibers) that are inserted into the vagina like a tampon but can be worn for up to 8 hours.
They collect rather than absorb your menstrual fluids so your natural balance is protected. You just empty it out into the toilet once it’s full, rinse, and reinsert. No environmental waste and no need to buy a box each month. Though the initial cost is around $20 up to $30, if you care for your cup you can use it for several years – talk about long-lasting value! (Check out our comparison between tampons and menstrual cups for more information.)
We’re inundated by advertisements for more mainstream menstrual care products, but as we’ve seen these products may not be the healthiest option for your body or the environment. More natural solutions for your period are out there – they might be a little strange at first but can make a big difference to your health.
Want to Help Bring Menstrual Cups Across the World?
We have teamed up with Chromosomos X, a Spain-based charity, to help bring menstrual cups to more people. Chromosomos X is dedicated to bringing reproductive education to children and teens so they can dispel period myths and taboos, lessen shame around menstruation, and reduce school absenteeism due to periods.
“Cromosomos X was born with the mission of improving the lives of underprivileged girls and adolescents through a sexual and reproductive education program that distributes the menstrual cup. A sustainable solution that allows you to manage your menstruation safely and without deprivation.”
We couldn’t be bigger fans of the amazing work that Cromosomos X does. So for every menstrual cup bought in Spain, we will donate a cup so they can help someone in need.
Lane Baumeister is an internationally-based Canadian writer with several years’ experience creating educational and entertaining articles that discuss intimate health and sexual well-being. When not waxing profound about menstruation, she devotes herself to enjoying extremely good food and equally bad movies.