Do we really need organic tampons? Here's what the science says
Many of us associate the word “organic” with the likes of strawberries and salads, but lately, the label has been attached to an intimate product millions of Americans use every single month: tampons.
Despite organic tampons being around since the late ’80s, there’s been a rise in their popularity in the past few years. You might have seen them advertised in your social media feeds, as brands like The Honest Company, Lola, and Seventh Generation ramp up marketing efforts to meet the demand for more “natural” menstrual products.
But organic tampons often come with a higher price tag than their non-organic counterparts. So is it really necessary to trade regular tampons for 100% organic cotton ones and swallow the cost? Or are regular tampons just as safe for your body and the planet?
The difference between regular and organic tampons
Regular tampons are most often made from cotton and rayon (a substance made from wood pulp). They may also have plastic components, like in the string or applicator, and chemicals used for fragrance if they are scented.
One-hundred percent organic cotton tampons, on the other hand, are exactly what they sound like: pure cotton. They’re attractive to certain consumers because they’re from free dyes, plastics, bleach, fragrances, and pesticide-treated cotton.
Organic or not, all tampons are regulated by the FDA as Class II medical devices. However, manufacturers aren’t required to include a detailed ingredient list on tampon boxes, so some critics wonder: what are they hiding? It’s worth noting that manufacturers like Tampax do list ingredients on their websites, but they can be vague (e.g. “Fragrance ingredients like those found in other women’s products”).
The health-harming claims about regular tampons
The absorption issue
The biggest issue for proponents of organic tampons is the chemical content of conventional tampons, which they say the vagina can easily absorb:
• “The vagina is the most absorbent part of your body.” (Cora)
• “Anything we put inside can easily be absorbed through the mucous membrane and then into our bloodstream where it presents a toxic burden to the body.” (Goop)
• “The vagina is highly absorbent so whatever goes into a tampon eventually ends up in our bodies.” (Entity Mag)
Here are the facts about vaginal absorption:
The vagina is a mucous membrane, which means it both secretes and absorbs substances at a higher rate than the skin. You have mucous membranes elsewhere on your body, such as in your eyes and mouth. In some cases (such as with estradiol, a form of estrogen) the vagina absorbs more into the blood and tissues than if the same dose were taken orally. However, the vagina absorbs different substances at different rates, and its ability to absorb might depend on which stage you’re at in your menstrual cycle.
There are no scientific studies on pesticide or dioxin absorption through the vagina (the main chemicals of concern in conventional tampons) so we don’t actually know what the rate of absorption is for those. What we can say is, while you are absorbing things through your vagina, you are also absorbing things through your intestines, skin, and lungs. Be wary of all-or-nothing claims (“the most absorbent”) and fear-mongering (“it goes into our bloodstream and impacts all of our body systems”) without data to back them up.
There were claims that tampon companies were adding asbestos to tampons to increase bleeding and force women to buy more product. The FDA regulates all tampons that go to market and says there is no asbestos in them.
Dioxins are environmental pollutants that have been linked to cancer and hormone disruption, among other reproductive and developmental problems, according to the World Health Organization.
The wood pulp used to make rayon in regular tampons was, in the past, bleached using chlorine gas, producing trace amounts of dioxins as a byproduct, but this is no longer the case. The FDA says tampons today are not bleached using elemental chlorine, so dioxin levels are negligible.
About those negligible amounts? Even 100% cotton tampons still contain the same trace amount of dioxins as regular tampons, and so does the food we eat and air we breathe due to centuries of pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, 90% of human exposure to dioxins is through food. One study showed dioxin concentration in tampons was “13,000-240,000 times less than dietary exposures.”
Pesticide exposure is probably the strongest argument coming from the pro-organic tampon camp. But there isn’t a lot of scientific data out there.
An independent, non-peer-reviewed study found pesticides in regular tampons. The big pesticide consumers are worried about is glyphosate, an herbicide used to kill weeds and rumored to be carcinogenic. The EPA, however, says it’s “not likely” to be carcinogenic, and your main risk of glyphosate exposure is through food.
Still, there are a lot of questions: Which pesticides are in tampons, organic and non? Are they harmful to humans? How much is in a tampon? If absorbed fully and over the course of a woman’s lifetime, would it be toxic to humans? In short, we need more data.
Organic tampons are said to be better for the environment because growing organic cotton prevents the introduction of pesticides into ecosystems. However, organic cotton may pose a greater burden to the environment than conventional cotton: there’s some evidence that because non-GMO cotton doesn’t sprout as densely, you need more land and water to produce an equivalent amount of organic cotton. Much of the information available online about this topic is speculative, though, so it’s unclear what the true costs and benefits are for the environment.
While we’re on the subject of helping the planet, organic tampon brands do win social-good points for often having a charitable component built in: many donate tampons to low-resource communities. Ultimately, if you’re worried about the environment, the menstrual cup or reusable period underwear are less wasteful choices than any kind of tampon, organic or not.
Toxic Shock Syndrome
Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is a rare but potentially fatal condition caused by a toxin produced by an overgrowth of bacteria.
Claims that regular tampons put you at a higher risk of contracting TSS than organic tampons are simply not true. In a study comparing toxin growth in 11 types of tampons and four types of menstrual cups, researchers actually found higher levels of the dangerous toxin in cotton-only tampons versus regular tampons that included rayon and/or viscose as ingredients. They hypothesized this is because cotton-only tampons are less structured with more air between fibers, which can help the bacteria to grow. (Leaving a tampon in longer contributes to it losing structure and increases the risk of developing TSS.)
Some women are irritated by the added chemicals used in scented tampons. If this is the case, definitely look for unscented tampons, organic or not.
So, should you switch to organic tampons?
Overall, using organic tampons won’t do you any harm, but they might put a bigger dent in your wallet. There’s little evidence in either direction: that non-organic is harmful or that organic is less harmful.
If you want to reduce your risk of all of the above (TSS, dioxin or pesticide absorption, irritation from fragrances, and burden on the environment all at once) your best bet is reusable menstrual underwear, though the menstrual cup would be a close second (but there’s still the risk of TSS with that one). Otherwise, you can sleep soundly knowing your regular ol’ tampon isn’t going to kill you.