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Women Beware: Feminine Hygiene Products Are Not All About Hygiene

Feminine care products are used for the purpose of cleaning, absorbing discharge, moisturizing, or otherwise “healing” the skin and tissues of the vaginal region. Major categories of feminine hygiene products include tampons, sanitary pads, internal cleansers & sprays, panty liners & shields, and disposable razors & blades. Sanitary pads dominate the market among the mentioned feminine hygiene products. However, the continuous use of such products leads to numerous difficulties in women. Test results have also shown furans, dioxins, and pesticide residues in tampons, which have direct links to cancer, reproductive harm, and endocrine disruption. The tampons contaminated with these chemicals continue maintaining contact with vaginal tissue for hours at a time, several days each month, for women who wear them. Thus, causing discomfort. In this article, the potential health consequences of chemicals utilized in synthetic menstrual tampons and pads are examined.

Feminine Hygiene Products

Market research and demographic differences

The largest market for feminine hygiene products in 2015 was Asia-Pacific region. It was estimated to be and would continue to be the leading contributor for the next few years. In 2015, this region accounted for about 60% of the overall sales of sanitary pads by value. Europe was the second largest market in 2015, followed by North America, owing to high penetration of high-end products like tampons, panty liners and internal cleansers. In the United States, such marketing has created a $3 billion market for feminine care merchandises successfully. In rural areas of developing markets like India and China, convenience stores are the prominent distribution channels. According to companies sponsoring these products, benefits include creating a fresh feeling, removal of odour, and in the process boosting confidence.

The secrets behind feminine hygiene products

Nowadays, most feminine products are composed of rayon, viscose, and non-organic cotton. Viscose and rayon are potentially harmful as they are made of highly absorbent fibres. These elements have the ability to stick right into the walls of the vagina. The risk of developing toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is significant when the tampon is removed with the loosened fibres staying behind in our body. Without any filtration, the chemicals that get inside the system through the skin are absorbed directly into the bloodstream. All these will eventually end up in the delicate organs of our bodies. With time, they will accumulate. Why? It’s because these have already hampered our body from producing enzymes necessary for breaking them down.

Expect what you least expect

One category of toxins that an average woman would never expect in her feminine care products is pesticides. Yet independent, third-party-certified testing conducted by Naturally Savvy in 2013 revealed that at least one major tampon brand has up to nine different pesticide varieties. Although the levels shown are below the maximum allowable threshold for pesticides in food, these do not meet the FDA’s guidelines for tampons. The guidelines insist tampons be free of any pesticide residue. Moreover, the Pesticide Action Network lists malaoxon, procymidone, malathion, methidathion, fensulfothion, mecarbam and pyrethrum as possible endocrine disruptors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed piperonyl butoxide as a possible human carcinogen, and malathion suggestive of carcinogenicity.

A commentary published by Organic Slant reads, “Vulvar and vaginal tissue are different structurally than the skin of the rest of the body. This denotes that this area is possibly more vulnerable to exposure to toxic chemicals and irritants”. Age of a female influences the likelihood that she uses certain feminine care products. A study found that women above 48 were significantly more likely than younger women to use feminine sprays and wipes.

Secret Toxic Chemicals In Fragrance

Many feminine hygiene products are fragranced heavily, yet companies just disclose the generic term ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient. The International Fragrance Association’s (IFRA) master list of chemicals used in fragrance unfortunately include:

  • Reproductive toxins like diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-isononyl phthalate (DINP);
  • Disruptors of the Endocrine system like Galaxolide And Tonalide. These are synthetic musks;
  • Disinfectants like Triclosan and Ammonium Quaternary Compounds;
  • 39 carcinogens like p-dichlorobenzene and Styrene Oxide.

Many studies have found an association between menstrual pad use and vulvar irritation or rash. In many cases when women switched to unscented pads or changed brands, the symptoms were resolved. Talking about feminine wipes, these can contain formaldehyde which releases preservatives and parabens. Both of these are linked to increased risk of cancer. In 2013, some of these fragrances were named ‘Allergens of the year’ by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

Our Study

A survey was conducted on feminine hygiene products and their use among Indian women of different ages and socio-economic status. 106 responses were recorded and analysed, providing an idea of how females perceive menstruation and products used during their cycles. The study was conducted over the age group of 18-65. This study pertained to women in the Indian demographic although two of the responses were recorded from Japan.

What the results showed?

  1. Maximum use of sanitary pads are by the age group 18-24.
  2. Age group of 18-24 was found to have the most prevalence of UTI, although the result may change if more women from other age groups are included in the survey.
  3. Synthetic pads have the most prevalence in nearly all age groups.
  4. Normal pads were found to be more in use than super-absorbent ones (Night Pads)
  5. An average of a 5 day menstrual cycle was observed.
  6. Most age groups were found not comfortable using cotton because of regular changing requirement.
  7. Disease prevalence in all age groups after menstruation was not high. Most have no discomfort, although rashes are common.

Personal Alternatives

It is suggested that women not only switch to safer, cleaner alternatives such as unscented, chlorine-free, unbleached tampons and pads but possibly even reduce their overall use of feminine care products. It is important to eliminate use of products unnecessary to a healthy vagina. Furthermore, women should look for brands that disclose all ingredients, including fragrance ingredients. Trying washable, reusable menstrual pads is another alternative. Putting an effort in substituting brands of products you believe may be associated with allergic symptoms is necessary. Additionally, reading labels of products, wherever available, is imperative to avoid questionable chemicals as mentioned above. Talking to your gynaecologist about use of feminine hygiene products that might be affecting your health is one of the basic ways to avoid any reproductive health complication.

Improvement in Screening of Ingredients

Manufacturers need to create as well as implement enhanced ingredient safety screens in order to rule out ingredients that may pose unnecessary health risks. Particularly, feminine hygiene enterprises should introduce polices to remove the use of mutagens, reproductive toxins, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors from products. Further screening should be carried out for feminine care products so as to ensure safety of use on mucous membranes.

Increase in Research

To better understand the potential effects of chemical exposure on vaginal and vulvar tissue, extensive research is required from the scientific community. Health differences for feminine hygiene product users on the basis of age, race, and socio-economic status should be examined too. Moreover surveys of product use are obligatory to fill data gaps for unstudied demographic groups like Asian-American and aboriginal women.


Ms. Adeela Hameed, M.Sc. EVS student at AIES, Amity University

Dr. Richa Dave Nagar, Assistant Professor, AIES, Amity University

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