There’s a lot of talk out there about tampons. It seemed to all come out of nowhere in the last five to ten years. Is that just me? From the day I entered puberty and through my college years, if I was talking about a tampon, it was to ask a woman in a bar bathroom if I could have one, it was to remind myself to pack them for my trip, it was to make sure I consolidated my pharmacy coupons to get the best deal on tampons, and it was to let everyone know the tampon vending machine in the bathroom was broken so free tampons yay!!! Tampons were my ally and nothing else! They made life easier, eliminating the need to choose between attractive underwear or period protection, and even allowing me to still go swimming while menstruating!
Now, there’s a whole group (or several groups) of individuals who seem to think that tampons are the enemy. There are all of the organic and alternative tampon brands that have popped up, and the more holistic women who skip tampons, pads, and the whole lot of conventional products in favor of the Diva Cup. There are stories circling about women being hospitalized by tampons. This little soft item I’m just used to sticking in my purse or in, well, me and forgetting about it is being demonized. Does it deserve such a bad rap? I’ve gone 18 years using tampons—and those big brand, chemical-laced ones at that—without an issue.
Have the issues just not yet reared their ugly heads? Am I in for a wakeup call and some difficult doctor’s visits? Am I a monster for continuing to patronize those big name tampon companies? What’s the truth here? Should we be afraid of tampons? Let’s investigate.
Because tampons are considered a medical device, manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients on the packaging. In the same way you may not find the ingredients listed on, say, blood glucose testing strips for diabetics because it’s generally understood what these are and what they do, you often won’t find ingredients listed on tampons—a fact that concerns consumers.
You can find it online
While many new alternative and organic tampon companies sing the fact that they do list their ingredients from the rooftops, they neglect to mention one thing: every major tampon manufacturer does, in fact, list their ingredients on their website. Like here for Tampax, and here for Kotex. With most consumers possessing a smartphone these days, it’s easy to quickly look these up in the pharmacy while picking up your box of tampons.
The vaginal walls are made up of incredibly absorbent tissues. That’s why we turn to something like the vaginal ring for birth control—it allows its active contents to make it into our bloodstream much quicker than oral birth control does. This, of course, raises some concern over how easily toxins from our tampons can make it into our bloodstream.
We live amongst toxins
The truth is that we live among toxins. It’s in the food we eat, the makeup we apply, our soap, our clothes, our air fresheners, our deodorant, the building materials in our office, and more. And while the vaginal wall may give some toxins quick access to our bloodstream, a woman may only use a tampon for four to eight hours at a time, a few days a month. Meanwhile, we come in contact with many of the same toxins we fear in our tampons all day, every day, in our regular lives.
The chlorine issue
Organic tampon companies will likely promote the fact that they don’t bleach their tampons or don’t use chlorine to do so. But it should be noted that all tampon manufacturers switched to new chlorine-free or low-chlorine bleaching methods decades ago that don’t produce (or produce only trace amounts) of the dioxins we feared resulted from the old bleaching process.
The pesticide issue
Tampons are made from cotton and cotton is farmed, meaning it might be farmed with pesticides. Naturally, nobody loves the idea of shoving pesticides inside of her vagina—another fact that organic tampon producers will bring up. But, it should also be noted that even some pesticides are sanctioned for organic cotton farming.
The studies look at field workers
So we know the fear around pesticides can’t be eliminated completely, just because you purchase organic tampons. And, the same organic tampon companies that try to sell you on the fact that only the competition exposes you to pesticides will also bring up that pesticides have been linked to serious illness. What they may not bring up is the fact that those studies examine field and factory workers—individuals who are exposed to high levels of pesticides for prolonged periods of time. That’s very different from the woman who wears a tampon with barely trace levels of pesticides, for just roughly 20 hours a month.
Advocacy or marketing strategy?
As a consumer, it’s always important to be informed, and to know that, no matter how caring or progressive any manufacturer may seem, they’re still selling you something. And when money is on the table, companies can and will fudge facts and highlight and hush information in any way that is convenient for them. That includes your alternative tampon companies.
But, it can be an environmental issue
Here’s what is true about the bleaching, the pesticides, the plastic applicators, and all of the parts of tampons that probably aren’t a risk to your body—they are a risk to the environment. That is true. If you’re skipping plastic bags at the grocery store but still using tampons with plastic applicators, you’re still contributing to the landfill issue. And, though the bleach or pesticides in the tampons may not hurt you, the process of creating those tampons is bad for the environment.
TSS is always a risk
Here’s another vague, false, and misleading but somewhat masked message organic tampon companies may try to send you: that their product doesn’t put you at risk for toxic shock syndrome. That isn’t true. Any tampon—organic or not—can cause toxic shock syndrome if not removed in a timely manner. Though the higher-absorbency ones do seem to pose a higher risk.
But there may be a vaccine for that
There is a vaccine in development to protect against toxic shock syndrome. So while all tampon users should be wary of symptoms, there could be some relief on the way for us tampon users. It’s still in the very early stages of development, but could be quite promising.
Can fibers get stuck?
There has been some discussion around tampon fibers getting stuck in the vaginal walls, even after you remove the tampon, creating a breeding ground for bacteria, and heightening the risk of toxic shock syndrome. However, the risk of toxic shock syndrome due to fiber residue is very low—it’s when whole tampons are left in for too long that the risk is high.
Just use them properly
Should you decide to switch to an organic tampon, or even the Diva Cup, that doesn’t mean you’re free from the concerns of regular tampon usage. That means it’s still important to be careful on your period, change these out regularly, use the proper one for your current flow, and always listen to your body if there is any discomfort. One worry surrounding organic tampons is that they can give the false peace of mind that there are no more risks—and that’s not true.
Are you inspecting your soap?
While the research on the ingredients in tampons is vast and inconclusive—is it harmful? How much is really in the tampons? What are the risks? We overlook one major thing when we scrutinize these products. Here it is: are you scrutinizing everything else? Your soap? The moisturizer infused in the strip on that razor you use to shave down there? Your laundry detergent? We let a lot get near our vaginas, but for many, tampons are the only products they put under the microscope.
How about your underwear?
How about your underwear? It’s bleached, dyed, laundered, and highly manufactured. It doesn’t just skim the outside of your vagina. When we wear thongs, they creep up in there. What we mean to say is that, if you are on a crusade against tampons, make sure you’re also only using completely pure and organic products of every other kind that goes anywhere near your vagina.