Period Products: What’s in Them?

If you’ve ever looked at the ingredient label on a conventional pad or tampon box, you might find it lacking details about what’s inside. Maybe you’ve wondered what’s actually in there. But hey, it’s just cotton, right? 

Wrong. It turns out that most conventional pads and tampons are made with synthetic materials and toxic substances.

The Problem What makes exposure to toxic substances through period care so serious is that pads and tampons come into contact with some of the most sensitive and absorptive skin on women’s bodies.

Consider this fact: Doctors are increasingly administering hormone treatments vaginally because the drug can be transferred directly into the bloodstream without being metabolized the way it would if taken orally. When administered vaginally the levels of the drug in the body can be 10-80 times higher than when administered orally.

One study found endocrine-active compounds in period care and concluded that, “The estimated exposure doses of phthalates, parabens and bisphenols through the dermal absorption pathway from the use of pads, panty liners and tampons were significant.” This is a serious route of exposure for women using pads and tampons for several days at a time on a monthly basis for decades. Yet despite all of this known information, it is still not customary for companies to disclose what’s inside period products.

Consumers need to demand transparency because pads and tampons are regulated as “medical devices,” meaning there’s no government requirement that ingredients and materials be disclosed. This results in shoppers being in the dark in regards to harmful chemicals that are in period products.

Toxic Chemicals in Pads and Tampons While it may look like cotton, it turns out that most conventional pads and tampons aren’t actually made entirely with cotton. Most are made of synthetic materials like rayon, which is sourced from trees, but highly processed so that the final product is far from being “natural.” Many period care products also use polyester, a plastic by another name. Yes, some pads and tampons are made with cotton – but it tends to be conventional cotton, which is grown with toxic pesticides, as opposed to organic cotton. These materials are often bleached with chlorine to give them that pristine white look.

Conventional pads also commonly use SAPs (superabsorbent polymers), which are designed to hold enormous amounts of liquid. The problem is that SAPS are commonly comprised of sodium polyacrylate, a synthetic material that is not biodegradable. It is manufactured from and likely contaminated with acrylic acid, which is associated with numerous adverse health endpoints.

The super-slim period products that swell to hold enormous amounts of menstrual fluid are appealing on the surface, but may contain plasticizing chemicals like BPA and/or other bisphenols. New technology may eliminate SAPs by utilizing materials manufactured in nanoscale, which some scientists have concerns about.

More chemicals of concern that commonly show up in pads and tampons:

  • Dioxins & furans – Linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity. These are byproducts of the bleaching process.
  • Pesticide residuesSome are linked to cancer and potential endocrine disruption. Pesticide residues have been detected in products made with traditionally grown cotton.
  • Plastics & plasticizers – Linked to endocrine disruptions and cancer. Also contribute to plastic pollution due to lack of biodegradability.
  • Problematic coatings – Some tampons are coated with harmful materials to help with a smoother removal. Examples of these coating substances include: paraffin (not biodegradable), polyethylene (plastic), polyethylene glycol ingredients (contamination concerns), and more.
  • Undisclosed fragrance ingredients – May contain chemicals linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and allergies. Many pads, and sometimes tampons, come in scented varieties.

Period Products and Plastic PollutionSadly, plastic has increasingly become a mainstay material in many tampons and pads over the last 50 years. Examples of the plastic found in period products are polyester fibers interwoven into the body of pads, “leak-proof” polypropylene that lines the back of pads, plastic tampon applicators, polyester blends in the body or strings of tampons, and coatings used to help smoothen tampon removal. All of these things are contributing factors to the plastic pollution problem.

It has been estimated that over the lifetime of one menstruating person, somewhere between 5 and 15,000 pads and tampons ultimately end up as landfill waste. Collectively, it’s estimated that more than 20 billion period products (pads, tampons and applicators) are sent to landfill annually, contributing to the single-use plastic pollution problem.

You can reduce your consumption of these single-use plastics by selecting products that do not contain plastic in the product and packaging, or by opting for a reusable option.

The Period RevolutionPeople in search of more mindful menstrual products finally have more options for both disposable and reusable options. Period panties and reusable pads and menstrual cups are an important step forward in period care, offering reusable solutions for years without the need for a monthly purchase.

However, not all of these options are made from entirely nontoxic materials. Menstrual cups should be free from dyes and made of 100% medical grade silicone. Period panties should be made from cotton, preferably organic materials, but it’s important to know what is in the core. It’s possible that there are plastics, nanomaterials or PFAS chemicals in the mix which should be avoided. Look for a company that has tested their products and is willing to disclose all materials used.

Want some help thinking through which nontoxic period solution is right for you? Read our Ultimate Guide to Period Products.

Tips for Choosing Better Period ProductsShop for MADE SAFE certified Period Care to ensure the product has been fully vetted for substances known or suspected to cause human and ecosystem harm. Otherwise, here is what to look for:

  • Tampons:
    • Natural materials and organic cotton
    • Fragrance-free
    • Unbleached or bleached without the use of chlorine bleach
    • Forgo the applicator or use a biodegradable paper applicator when necessary
    • Opt for plastic-free packaging
  • Pads + Liners:
    • 100% organic cotton or hemp
    • Fragrance-free
    • Unbleached or bleached without the use of chlorine bleach
  • Menstrual Cups:
    • 100% medical-grade silicone
    • Not dyed
  • Reusable Pads + Liners:
    • Organic cotton as the primary material
    • Made without ANY plastics or plasticizers
    • Do not contain nanomaterials
    • Do not contain and PFAS ingredients
  • Period Panties:
    • Organic cotton as the primary material
    • Full disclosure of all materials used in the products
    • Avoid panties labeled as “antimicrobial” or “antibacterial” as this likely indicates the use of nanomaterials or other chemical treatments like silver nanoparticles
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