Does It Matter Whether Your Pads & Tampons Are Organic?

May 23, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

We've already heard about the benefits of eating organic produce and using organic beauty products, but a growing number of period product manufacturers are now also offering organic options for pads and tampons. Is this something we should consider using or a health-focused marketing strategy? We asked a few OB-GYNs whether choosing organic period products is a good idea and if so, why we should opt for them next time we bleed.

Are organic period products a better option for us?

The first thing Dr. Iris Orbuch, an OB-GYN based out of New York and Los Angeles, wants us to consider is the color of our pads and tampons.

"Have you ever thought of how conventional tampons and pads get to be so white? Chloride dioxide is used to bleach them, producing dioxins, which are by-products of bleaching," Orbuch tells SheKnows. "The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] concludes that dioxin exposure is linked with the possibility of inducing cancer, acting as an endocrine disruptor, altering the immune system and possibly causing reproductive problems."

According to Orbuch, exposure to dioxins can be one of the causes of endometriosis — a condition that affects 10 to 12 percent of people who menstruate, resulting painful periods, infertility and a whole host of other symptoms.

Conventional tampons and pads use phthalates, rayon, synthetic absorbers and often fragrances, Orbuch says, adding that phthalates are soft plastics that also disrupt endocrine systems, which over time may lead to cancer, fertility issues and obesity among other chronic health problems. She suggests staying away from period products with any added fragrance because whether or not they're made of organic cotton, the fragrances can be very irritating to those with sensitive skin and allergies.

How is this regulated?

There's no regulation on what makes a tampon or pad "organic," Orbuch says. So even if a product says it's made of organic cotton, that doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't bleached. However, most organic pads and tampons are made using unbleached cotton, she notes, so it may be a safer bet.

Speaking of regulation, the Food and Drug Administration classifies period products as "medical devices" alongside dental floss and condoms. On the surface, this seems like a good fit — especially since many states classify menstrual products as luxury items rather than necessities — but in reality, it just means that manufacturers are not required to disclose the specific list of ingredients. While the FDA does recommend that manufacturers provide general information on the label about the material composition of the product (i.e., cotton, rayon, etc.), it doesn't make them list each individual ingredient, Deborah Kotz, an FDA spokesperson, told The New York Times.

Because of this, even if you see "dioxin free" on a box of pads or tampons, it doesn't necessarily mean the ingredient isn't included somewhere, Orbuch notes.

Organic tampons & toxic shock syndrome

It's important to note that organic tampons can still cause toxic shock syndrome. A study published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology in April 2018 found that organic cotton tampons are no less risky than cotton-blend or synthetic tampons.

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When we hear about TSS, which literally has the word "toxic" in the name, we may immediately jump to the conclusion that it's caused by some sort of toxins in tampons, but it actually has to do with how long the tampons are left in the vagina (and dependent on the person already having the necessary strain of staph bacteria already in their vaginal flora). Super-absorbent tampons are seen as particularly problematic because they are intended to be worn over longer periods.

The other key component for developing TSS is oxygen, which helps staph bacteria multiply. Dr. Gerard Lina, a physician and professor of microbiology at the University Claude Bernard and lead author of the Applied and Environmental Microbiology study, explained in a statement that the "space between the fibers that contributes to intake of air in the vagina" which "represents the major site" of the staph bacteria growth.

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When it came to the tampons' materials, the study found that those made of cotton only (including the organic ones) were less structured than synthetic ones, meaning they had more space between fibers, allowing more air to enter the vagina, potentially contributing to bacterial growth. So organic or not, cotton tampons may be more likely to cause TSS.

More research required

While the study discussed above is a good step in the under-researched area of menstrual health, we're going to need more work in this area to have any definitive answers.

“I think that we could do more studies on tampons and pads; however, the research that has been done is limited, but has not been able to directly link any diseases or risks with the current pads out there," Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an OB-GYN, tells SheKnows.

Ultimately, though, it's up to you what you put in or near your vagina. Staying away from potentially harmful chemicals like the chloride dioxide used in period products certainly isn't a bad idea, but it's also not a guarantee that it will result in better gynecological or pelvic health.

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“I feel that as we focus more on our health, we can find ways to minimize exposure to toxins, and I would encourage women who feel more comfortable with organic pads and tampons to definitely use them; however, I cannot say definitively that the current products out there are contributing to chronic diseases or pelvic cancers,” Shepherd explains.

Orbuch is a bit more enthusiastic about choosing organic pads and tampons, noting, "The way I look at it is: I choose organic fruits and veggies; why not do the same for my [menstrual] products."

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