If you’re a health-minded consumer, chances are you buy your produce and beauty products organic—but should your feminine care products be, too? You’ve probably got your go-to brand that works with no negative side effects—why change?
The main concern with using tampons in the first place is the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare but serious disease that can lead to death. In the 1980s, when tampons reached their initial peak scandal, they were made of cotton, as well as highly absorbent synthetic materials such as polyachrylates, rayon (a blend of wood pulp and cotton), polyester foam cubes, and carboxymethylcellulose—most of which have now been outlawed, except for rayon. The link to TSS was eventually tied to the high absorbency of the tampon, not necessarily its makeup. Nowadays you’ll see that tampon packaging advises that you use the lowest absorbency possible for your cycle to avoid TSS risks.
TSS can be caused by the same bacteria that causes strep throat (Group A streptococcus) as well as Staphylococcus aureus (aka a staph infection). “Strep can live on the skin or in the nasal passages of many people without any problems,” says Dr Allison Hill of Los Angeles Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The difference here is that tampons are a veritable breeding grounds for bacteria when left in a warm, moist and highly absorbent environment—which is exactly the kind of host your vagina is. Leaving a tampon in for too long gives any potentially harmful bacteria more time to flourish.
So would a tampon made of organic materials technically nix that problem? Not exactly. The FDA doesn’t actually regulate the organic-ness of something like a tampon because they are considered medical devices and not food. The FDA does, however, require manufacturers to print information on the package labeling about the signs of TSS and how to minimize the risk. Self-protection is ultimately left up the consumer—i.e., you.
There may be no regulation on what makes a tampon organic, but they are generally made of organic cotton that may or may not be safely bleached without toxic chemicals. Regular tampons are usually cotton, or a blend of cotton and rayon. The concern with rayon is that a toxic chemical, dioxin, is produced as a byproduct. Dioxin is also produced in trace amounts from bleaching cotton, and is still detected in 100% cotton tampons. The Environmental Protection Agency has been working to promote dioxin-free methods of producing wood pulp, though it’s uncertain as to whether something like feminine care products have benefited from that as of yet. It’s a win for the Earth and your vagina nonetheless.
So what should you look for if you want safety and leak-protection? There are brands available, like newcomer LOLA, that deal in 100% natural-cotton tampons. Given the lack of transparency in ingredients on tampon packaging, Jordana Kier and Alex Friedman, co-founders of LOLA, set out to offer a simple solution: clarity. ”The FDA doesn’t require tampon brands to list all the ingredients in their products,” says the duo. “Given the choice between materials we understand, such as cotton, and ones we don’t, we would choose cotton every single time.”
A warning on a box of tampons may not fully convey the potential danger that it contains—especially when it’s entirely possible to manufacture that product without the potentially harmful ingredients in the first place. It definitely pays to investigate how your tampons were made since the road to “purity” may not be exactly what you think. Consult your chosen brand’s manufacturer—their customer service should be happy to oblige any questions. And if they’re not? Time to choose a new one.