Women in industrialised societies have around 450 periods in their lifetimes. That is a lot of tampons and pads. Not only does this have a huge environmental impact involved, but which products you choose to use can have an impact on your health. Which is why I thought it was time that I examined some eco friendly feminine products!
What are tampons made from?
It's not that easy to find out what exactly is in tampons, as manufacturers don't have to disclose what's in them. Tampons have to be registered with the TGA in Australia, but they don't have to disclose the ingredients.
Although many manufacturers would like you to think that tampons are made from nothing but clouds of cotton, tampons have a lot of ingredients.
Choice Magazine explains what's actually in tampons :
Rayon: It is made from cellulose fibre (white cellulose being a natural fibre), which is transformed with the help of chemicals like carbon disulphide, sulphuric acid, chlorine and caustic soda.
Plastic: A normal hygiene pad contains around four bags of plastic.
Blend of synthetic rayon and cotton: Manufacturers mix a variety of fibres with cotton, to improve absorbency and help maintaining the shape of the tampon inside the body. These can be polyester, collagen, acetyl cellulose and polyurethane.
Cotton: There are concerns about pesticides and chemicals that are used producing the cotton. Approximately 22.5% of the insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides used in the world are used on cotton crops, which are also mostly genetically engineered.
Odour neutralizer, artificial fragrances
Bleach (to whiten and disinfect raw materials): Chlorine, which produces toxic dioxin and other disinfection by-products, is cheaper than elemental non-chlorine bleach. Dioxin is connected to breast cancer, endometriosis, immune system suppression and other ailments. Most of the manufacturers use non-chlorine bleach, but not every tampon producer, for example Tampax, explains the bleaching method on their packages.
In a study done by Women's Voices, they explain that, "Hazardous ingredients may include dioxins and furans (from the chlorine bleaching process), pesticide residues and unknown fragrance chemicals."
There's not a lot of research on how these chemicals affect women's bodies, although it is known that the vagina absorbs chemicals more rapidly than the rest of the body, and without metabolizing them.
It also looks as though rayon in tampons increases the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), although this research isn't conclusive.
Even the small amount of research that has been done on tampons and pads shows us how important it is to know exactly what we're putting into our bodies every month.
What are feminine pads made from?
Again, manufacturers don't have to tell us what's in the pads that women use every month. But when they do, it doesn't look great:
- top sheet: polyolefins, petrolatum, zinc oxide
- absorbent core: absorbent foam or wood cellulose with absorbent gel, rayon or polyester
- backsheet: polyolefins
- adhesive: similar to craft glue sticks
Perfumes cause irritation, and of course there's the issue of exposure to the chemicals in plastics. Like tampons, this is especially concerning when you consider how absorbent the vagina is.
Women's Voices For the Earth released a research paper called Chem Fatale, on the potential health effects of toxic chemicals in feminine care products. They found potential health hazards in pads:
"Hazardous ingredients may include dioxins and furans, pesticide residues, unknown fragrance chemicals, and adhesive chemicals such as methyldibromo glutaronitrile. Exposure concerns include cancer, reproductive harm, and endocrine disruption. Studies link pad use to allergic rashes."
Andrea Donsky, from Naturally Savvy, did some research a few years back. She got in touch with Always Pads to ask what ingredients they used. At the time, Proctor & Gamble (the manufacturer) would only say that they contained 'foam and Infinicel'. She tried burning an Always pad and a Natracare organic cotton pad. It makes for interesting watching:
Eco friendly feminine products - what to use?
The good news is that there are lots of alternatives to mainstream tampons and pads, and it's not that hard to find eco friendly feminine products.
Organic cotton tampons and pads
Natracare: 100% organic cotton tampons, pads are organic cotton and biodegradable bioplastic.
Tom Organic: 100% organic cotton tampons, pads have 100% organic top sheet and core.
Organyc: 100% organic cotton tampons, pads with 100% organic top sheet and core.
Tsuno: 100% organic cotton tampons, bamboo pads that are biodegradable.
Moxie have a line of organic tampons, but be aware that most of their range is mainstream.
There's a huge range of reusable cloth pads available. Hello Cup have a range of washable pads to partner with their menstrual cups. Hannahpad have a range of organic pads with gorgeous designs with super practical features like silicone dots to keep the pads in place.
Menstrual cups are having a moment. There's more and more information available, and more and more versions available, too.
Would you try a menstrual cup? It's a divisive issue. There's a hiliarious article on HuffPost by Alex Logan, who wrote "An Ode of Hatred to My Diva Cup".
If you're interested in trying one, here's a couple of brands that we stock at Hello Charlie:
Period undies seem to be having a moment, too. You wear them like normal undies, but they've got an absorbent lining. You can use them on their own and free bleed, or you can use them as back up when you're wearing a tampon or if you're not sure when your period will start. They look like normal undies, and frankly, they look pretty comfortable.
Again, 1 Million Women has tried out period undies and reported back favourably.
Here's a couple of brands available in Australia:
- Bonds have recently got in on the act, too.
There's a great Modibodi review here, written by a mum after she and her teenage daughter tested our period undies.
Slightly more 'hippy' alternatives
Then there are the alternatives that might just be a little too far 'out there' for most of us.
Sea sponges: you can apparently use these as a tampon alternative. The concern is with how to make sure that they're hygienic enough for use, and indeed, the FDA was so concerned that they issued guidelines on this. But there are certainly women who love them out there.
Crocheted tampons: yes, apparently these are a thing, too. Here's a set available on Etsy. I hear macrame is coming back, too, so who knows? Perhaps you could pick up an on trend macramaed set!
The Verdict on Eco Options for Tampons and Pads
A quick poll around the (all female) Hello Charlie office showed me that most women don't want to go 'too weird' when it comes to pads and tampons. Menstrual cups, reusable pads, sea sponges, reusable tampons, and period underwear are not going to get a look in with most women.
But choosing an organic brand like Natracare, Tom Organic, or Organyc, is the same as using a mainstream multinational brands, but without all the hidden nasties.
What do you use for your period? Share your thoughts below!