How Toxic Are Your Period Products?
Updated: May 12
For a natural bodily function, periods sure come with a lot of very unnatural paraphernalia: tampons, pads, pantyliners, applicators, disposal bags, to name a few.
What most of us have never taken the time to consider is that these products aren't just a drain on your resources, they're also potentially toxic to both you and to the environment. Period plastics and chemicals negatively impact the environment, animals and even your risk of diseases like cancer and infertility.
We know, we know, the last thing women need is another dose of guilt about menstruation - we've hardly got space in there with all those hundreds of years of internalised bodily shame. We live in a double-standards world where a photo of a celebrity's bare buttocks feature on a magazine cover (hey, Kim), yet Instagram removed poet Rupi Kaur's image of menstrual blood leaking through her trousers for violating its community standards.
But given around 26% of the global population has a period, this is a huge opportunity to put a dent in plastic consumption and make a difference to the UN's global sustainability goals.
Luckily, there are a slew of products on offer from inventive smaller companies, as we'll discover, to help us all make the switch to eco-friendly periods. What a time to be alive!
Joining the #femtech discussion on 'Plastic-Free Periods'
At a talk held on 4 February 2020 at London's impact-driven Conduit Club, international model Arizona Muse hosted a panel of experts to discuss potentially toxic mainstream period products on the market and the choices we can all make to better protect both ourselves and the planet.
Here's what you need to know...
How much plastic is there in period products?
A sanitary towel is around 90% plastic
That means a standard box of pads contains a similar amount of plastic as five carrier bags
The average woman uses 12,000 tampons in her lifetime, often flushing them
In fact, millions of sanitary products a day are flushed down toilets, enter sewage systems and can end up in rivers and the sea
Period products are the fifth most common item to wash up on beaches in Europe
Despite only being used for between 4-8 hours, these products take over 500 years to break down. (As panelist Ella Daish pointed out, if Jane Austen had used tampons they would still be decomposing today!)
The true toxicity of tampons
The average tampon from a mainstream brand contains a combination of synthetic fibers, chlorine, pesticides, rayon, plastics, fragrance and even glue (to attach the string).
If you use tampons 5-7 days a month, that means over your lifespan you will spend 7 years with this mix of materials and chemicals sitting inside the most absorbent part of your body.
Scented sanitary towels can contain up to 3,900 synthetic chemicals.
How to get empowered about your period
Although nearly half of women say they want to make a change to plastic-free periods, less than 10% actually have. (Cited by DAME)
Women only spend an average of 3 seconds in front of the period products shelves compared to around 20 seconds at the pasta shelves! Is our embarrassment around menstrual care impacting our health?
Large corporations that often offer more toxic period products tend to rule the retail store so it could be worthwhile to find smaller brands with healthier alternatives online.
So, what are the "eco-period" options?
If the above facts have got under your skin and you're looking to try a move away from your default mainstream sanitary products, like most other people with a bleeding vagina you're probably wondering where on earth to start.
Here's the advice from the panel as to the best options both environmentally and individually:
1. The Menstrual Cup - The Winner
Agreed by the panelists to be the lowest carbon footprint option. This reusable device, also known as a "moon cup", is usually made from medical grade silicone, so no need to worry about synthetic tampon fibers being left behind inside you.
You insert it like a tampon and it can be left in for up to 8 hours. Once removed, it should be washed out before being reused.
Medical grade silicone has a lifespan of up to ten years and the cup costs less than $1 to manufacture, so the panel recommended avoiding any company charging upwards of $30 and claiming the device only lasts a year, as some of the more established period product brands do.
And the best news of all? A review of sanitary products has found menstrual cups to be as reliable as traditional tampons and pads.
2. Period Pants
Period underwear, such as the contemporary designs by Thinx, is another reusable alternative.
3. Reusable Cloth Pads
Let's face it, at first mention, for most people reusable cloth pads seem - at best - a step too far down the hippy trail and - at worst - pretty gross.
But, when you think about it, it's really no different to reusing underwear. Cloth pads come in lots of sizes, colors and are easily washed.
As with disposable pads, different sizes are designed to manage various levels of absorbency, making these suitable for all levels of flow. Many designs have wings that fasten with a popper under your underwear to keep the pad secure.
Look for brands with a100% organic cotton top layer. Sometimes the base layer is made with a water-resistant material called PUL, so that's worth being aware of if you're aiming to be entirely free of synthetic fabrics. (Currently there are no toxicity warnings about PUL and it is also used as a base layer on cloth diapers.)
4. Organic Cotton Tampons and Sanitary Towels
If reusable still feels a step too far when it comes to your period products, despite the eco credentials, luckily many small, upcoming brands have given traditional tampons and pads a non-toxic makeover.
The gold standard to look out for to ensure a toxin-free tampon experience from "field to fanny" (as perfectly described by DAME's Alec Mills!) is that the brand is using GOT certified organic cotton. The tampons should ideally also be labelled as free from chlorine, perfume and pesticides.
It's still important to throw these tampons in the bin rather than flushing them, so the 100% natural, un-dyed cotton can return to nature without causing plastic pollution.
Plastic-free and biodegradable sanitary towels and panty-liners are also available.
5. Tampons with a Reusable Applicator
DAME claim to have made the world's first reusable tampon applicator, with other brands now following suit. So, if you can't do without an applicator, keep it as eco-conscious as possible.
What else can you do?
Sign grassroots pressure campaigns, such as Ella Daish's campaign to leading period product manufacturers to Make All Menstrual Products Plastic Free.
Don't flush sanitary products down the loo - even tampons.
Write to your period product company to ask about their environmental impact and toxic content (as panel host Arizona Muse pointed out, companies often have a threshold of comments and complaints from customers, after which they'll take an issue seriously.)
To spread the word about toxin-free and plastic-free periods, share this post with your friends.