Many of the products we use the most intimately: menstrual care products like tampons and pads have been shown to contain toxic chemicals.
Approximately 43 million women in the United States use tampons, with regular tampon users estimated to buy upwards of 11,000 in their lifetime. Considering tampon usage is so common, you’d think that ingredient and safety information would be a top priority, right?
Well, that’s not exactly the case. As with cosmetics, menstrual care product manufacturers don’t have to tell you what’s in their products. And with menstrual care products, there’s often more to the ingredients than what meets the eye.
Think tampons and pads are just simple pieces of cotton? Think again – these products may contain traces of dioxin from bleach, pesticide residues from conventional, non-organic cotton, and mystery “fragrance” ingredients. Let’s take a closer look.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that tampons are safe, and that they do not contain dangerous levels of dioxin. However, even trace levels of dioxins are concerning because these chemicals have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and endometriosis. These effects can happen with very low exposure levels of dioxin, and the science shows that our bodies are already above the “safe” limits. (Most human exposure comes from eating animal products like meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. Dioxin is a chemical that does not break down easily, so it builds up in humans and animals over time) The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized this as a problem, saying that “reducing dioxin exposure is an important public health goal for disease reduction.”
And another (pretty obvious) cause for concern: tampons and pads come in contact with some of the most sensitive and absorbent tissue in our bodies.
According to Pesticide Action Network, farmers are forced to use some of the most hazardous pesticides on their cotton fields, and the WHO has classified many cotton pesticides as “extremely or highly hazardous.” These pesticides have been linked to infertility, neurological dysfunction, and developmental defects. Pesticide use is especially concerning for the health of cotton workers and those who live near cotton fields because these individuals have higher than average exposures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified 7 of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton as “possible, likely, probable, or known human carcinogens.”
It’s clear that conventional cotton is harmful to the planet and to field workers, but what about those who use tampons and pads – for days and days every month – made with this cotton? Are there traces of pesticides in menstrual care products? We don’t know, because the FDA does not require companies to test for harmful chemicals or to disclose their presence. The only recommendation from the FDA is that tampons and pads be “free of pesticide and herbicide residues,” but there is no way to enforce this recommendation.
As is the case with cosmetics, the “fragrance” in your tampons, pads, and other menstrual products may contain any number of toxic chemical ingredients. Because these fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets, companies have no obligation to say what’s in them. We know from product testing that fragrance may contain any number of harmful chemicals, including allergens, sensitizers, phthalates (which are linked to hormone disruption and can affect development and fertility), neurotoxins, and synthetic musks (which can also disrupt hormones). Secret chemicals linked to skin irritation and reproductive harm in a tampon? No thanks!
While there is a lack of data on health effects associated with the recurring use of conventional tampons and pads, we think that erring on the side of caution whenever possible makes sense. The good news is, there are plenty of alternative menstrual care products that are better for the environment and likely safer for us, and we can tell companies and elected officials that we want all of the products we use in and on our bodies to be safe! These days, it is becoming easier and easier to find menstrual care products free of bleach, pesticides, and toxic chemicals, including organic, unbleached tampons and pads made by Seventh Generation and Natracare, reusable cloth pads, some period underwear, and silicon and natural rubber cups (like DivaCup and the Keeper).
For more information, check out Women’s Voices for the Earth’s Detox the Box campaign.
 Dudley, Susan, Salwa Nassar, Emily Hartman, and Sandy Wang. “Tampon Safety.” National Center for Health Research. January 24, 2018. Available online: https://www.center4research.org/tampon-safety/. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA. “The Facts on Tampons-and How to Use Them Safely.” September 30, 2020. Available online: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/facts-tampons-and-how-use-them-safely. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 Xu, Jinming et al. “Association between dioxin and cancer incidence and mortality: a meta-analysis.” Scientific reports vol. 6 38012. 29 Nov. 2016, doi:10.1038/srep38012. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 Lauretta, Rosa et al. “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: Effects on Endocrine Glands.” Frontiers in endocrinology vol. 10 178. 21 Mar. 2019, doi: 10.3389/fendo.2019.00178. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 Matta, Komodo et al. “Associations between Exposure to Organochlorine Chemicals and Endometriosis: A Systematic Review of Experimental Studies and Integration of Epidemiological Evidence.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 129,7 (2021): 76003. doi:10.1289/EHP8421. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 Center for Health, Environment and Justice. “The American People’s Dioxin Report.” Available online: http://chej.org/wp-content/uploads/American%20Peoples%20Dioxin%20Report.pdf. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 Minnesota Department of Health. “Facts about Dioxins.” October 2006. Available online:https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/risk/chemhazard/dioxins.html. Accessed June 9, 2022
 World Health Organization. “Dioxins and their effects on human health.” Available online: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dioxins-and-their-effects-on-human-health. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 PANNA. “Pesticides 101.” Available online: https://www.panna.org/pesticides-big-picture/pesticides-101. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 World Health Organization. The WHO Recommended Classification of Pesticides by Hazard and Guidelines to Classification 2019. 2020. Available online: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/332193/9789240005662-eng.pdf. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 Fruitwala, Aditi. “The Case for Organic Cotton.” Green America. Available online: https://www.greenamerica.org/green-living/case-organic-cotton. Accessed June 9, 2022.
 Food and Drug Administration. “Menstrual Tampons and Pads: Information for Premarket Notification Submissions(510(k)s)- Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff.” July 27, 2005. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/DeviceRegulationandGuidance/GuidanceDocuments/ucm071781.htm. Accessed June 9, 2022.
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