Feminine hygiene products: The most overlooked threat to women’s healthcare
Millions of women around the world consider feminine hygiene products like tampons and sanitary pads just another monthly necessity. We use them without giving much thought to the potential threats we are exposing ourselves to; perhaps the idea of ‘Toxic Shock Syndrome’ (TSS), a phrase we heard some time ago and never really understood, still lingers, but it hasn’t been a trending issue in quite some time, we think, so surely we don’t need to worry about it anymore. Surely if products being used by so many of us for so long posed any real danger, we’d at least cross paths with a few strongly worded posts on Facebook, or notice some serious debate in the public and governmental spheres?
The sad truth is, however, that people just aren’t paying attention. The safety of tampons and sanitary pads is one of the biggest issues in women’s health today and one of the least acknowledged. Increasingly, politicians, writers, women's health advocates and doctors are raising concerns about feminine hygiene products, but that seems to be about as far as any action reaches. Feminine hygiene products exist in a regulatory grey area, where threats to women's health thrive and the call for more research into their dangers never seems to gain traction.
According to activists who are demanding more research into feminine hygiene product safety, there simply isn't enough data available on how these products affect women's bodies. The Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act, an American bill named for a 44 year old woman who died after contracting TSS from a conventional brand of tampons, has never made it past the legislation in the US Congress, despite being presented nine times over thirteen years.
If the act was passed by US Congress, which seems unlikely given its history, it would make independent testing of all feminine hygiene products mandatory by the National Institutes of Health and demand that their findings, as well as all the ingredients used in the production of pads and tampons, be made public.
The lack of research on the dangers of feminine hygiene products remains a point of contention; the major frustration being that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the ingredients used in tampons and pads. The FDA are responsible for “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation”, according to the Cosmetic Export Council of South Africa. The lack of regulation from the FDA means that the producers of tampons and pads are not required to divulge what chemicals or materials the products contain.
Considering that so many of us are using these products, the lack of willingness to let people know what toxins they may be exposing themselves to is deeply concerning. What these products contain is especially important when we consider that they are used in a highly absorbent, permeable and therefore vulnerable area of the body. However, there are studies that paint a picture of just how dangerous conventional feminine hygiene products may be.
Traces of harmful plasticizing chemicals like BPA, which is linked to chronic diseases including diabetes and asthma, have been found in tampons and pads. Phthalates, a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic, gives tampon applicators their smooth finish; they are also known to be toxic and may lead to liver, kidney, lung and reproductive system damage.
Feminine hygiene products have also been found to contain pesticide residue, as the materials used to make tampons and pads, such as cotton, are often farmed using harsh pesticides and chemicals. These include procymidone and piperonyl butoxide, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined to be a "probable human carcinogen”.
Most conventional pads and tampons have also undergone a chlorine bleaching process to make them appear extra clean and white. This process often results in the creation of the by-product dioxin, a toxic chemical that collects in fatty tissues and may be linked to cancer, abnormal tissue growth in the abdomen and reproductive organs, immune system suppression and hormonal and endocrine system disruption. When a tampon is removed, small fibres containing the toxins are often left behind and can become an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, which is thought to be a major contributing factor of TSS.
What is the alternative?
Of course, knowing the dangers of conventional feminine hygiene products won’t stop that time of the month from coming around, so what is the alternative? Quite simply, the design and functionality of tampons and pads are not the problem; the chemicals, processes and materials used to make them are.
Well-made, natural and fully organic products will offer the same comfort and reassurance as conventional tampons and pads. The most reliable brand, having produced the world’s first certified 100% organic cotton tampons, is undoubtedly the Natracare range. Natracare are an award winning, ethical company who have consistently shown their commitment to offering organic and natural solutions for personal health care, while also leaving a soft footprint on the environment.
Natracare address the other harmful side-effect of conventional feminine hygiene products: the threat they pose to the environment. Every year, billions of plastic laden tampon applicators, pads and liners are disposed of by women. Most of the pads are made from over 90% crude oil plastic, which goes on to pollute global environments forever as it is non-biodegradable. Much of the plastic waste ends up in landfill sites and the oceans of the world, causing pollution, damaging marine life and ultimately affecting the natural order of the environment by disrupting the food chain.
The Natracare range includes regular tampons, applicator tampons, sanitary pads and maternity pads. These organic feminine hygiene products are non-chlorine bleached and contain no synthetic materials or chemical additives. As the cotton is certified organic, they also pose no risk of direct exposure to residues from chemical pesticides or fertilisers used on traditional cotton. Furthermore, independent research suggests that the use of 100% cotton tampons may drastically reduce the risk of TSS compared with conventional tampons.
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