What we don't know about tampons will terrify you
Quick question: Do you know what's in your tampons? Probably not, since the Food and Drug Administration doesn't force manufacturers to list all the ingredients.
Learning that the FDA barely regulates something you literally wear inside your lady bits makes me never want to use tampons again. But unfortunately, the next best thing involves walking around with a pad between you and your period... otherwise known as every woman's worst nightmare.
Many store-bought tampons — even natural ones — could be made with things like rayon, a material made from wood pulp that's cheaper than cotton. Some are also known to contain dioxins, synthetic fibers and petrochemical additives, long with polyester, collagen, cellulose, polyvinyl alcohol and polyurethane. If you're allergic to these ingredients, then tampons could cause a reaction that ranges from mildly annoying to potentially life-disrupting.
"Synthetic materials can dry out the vagina and cause irritation," says Draion Burch, M.D., board-certified OB-GYN. However, they do have one benefit. "They are more absorbent."
The more saturated the tampon, the better the environment for bacteria to grow, he adds. This, in turn, creates a thriving environment for toxic shock syndrome.
Researchers aren't sure exactly why, but about half of the people who develop TSS are using tampons at the time. It's rare but serious: Model Lauren Wasser had a massive heart attack and part of her leg amputated after she contracted it in 2012.
"The scary thing is that tampons are a product category that has been very under-researched. Almost no independent research has ever investigated this topic. Without research or transparency, it's hard to make informed decisions!" Alex Friedman, one of the creators behind the new natural, all-cotton tampon Lola, tells SheKnows.
She's right. As I started my research for this article, it became very clear very quickly that there's very, very little scientifically backed research to go on when it comes to the benefits of all-cotton tampons compared to the scary, blended versions made with rayon, cotton and other mystery materials. That said, OB-GYN and women's health expert Donnica Moore, M.D., says that using the all-cotton versions are a no-brainer for those irritated by regular tampons.
"There are concerns that traditional tampons may contain ingredients which may be endocrine disruptors, potentially carcinogenic and contain several chemicals that just shouldn't be in a highly absorbent area such as the vagina," Dr. Moore tells SheKnows.
Since companies are not required to disclose what's in tampons, simply put, we do not know what's in them. Chemicals? Dyes? Who knows?
Why is so little known about something that's so important to the menstrual health of millions of women? That's a great question without a great answer. "They are regulated as 'medical devices'," says Dr. Moore, allowing companies to keep ingredients under wraps.
In the meantime, women like Friedman and her partner, Jordana Kier, are taking matters into their own hands by disclosing exactly what's in their new feminine care product line (the list ends after cotton). "When we found out that feminine care brands we'd been using for years aren’t required to disclose exactly what’s in their products, we couldn’t believe we had never thought: What’s in my tampon?" says Kier. They also clarify that, despite concerns over absorbency, Lola is designed to be just as absorbent as their synthetic counterparts thanks to a special stitching technique.
And if you ask me, I'd rather be diligent enough to change my tampon a little more often and sacrifice a little absorbency until we solve the mystery of what's really in our tampons. It's your move, FDA.