Jessica Alba's The Honest Company recently launched a new line of organic feminine hygiene products, and they're now available for sale. But are organic tampons, which are generally more expensive, really better? Are normal tampons leaching chemicals into our vaginas?
The answer: no and no.
It makes sense that people are concerned about this subject, says Megan Schwarzman, MD, MPH, an environmental health researcher at the University of California Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry. "Substances absorbed through the vaginal wall pass directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the metabolism that occurs when substances are ingested by mouth,” she explains.” So if there are contaminants or hazardous chemicals in feminine hygiene products, it's at least biologically plausible that they would be very efficiently absorbed by the body." On top of that, there is a surprising scarcity of research when it comes to the long-term safety of tampons and other feminine hygiene products, generally. (A bill was recently re-introduced in Congress to remedy that.)
But there is no evidence organic tampons are healthier, and because tampons are medical devices, they’re regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means they get more testing and oversight.
One rumor is that these products contain dioxins, which are environmental pollutants that have been linked to cancer and other health problems. All tampons on the market are made of cotton, rayon, or blends of rayon and cotton. And in the past, one bleaching method of rayon—which is made from wood pulp—“was a potential source of trace amounts of dioxins,” writes the FDA. “[B]ut that bleaching method is no longer used.”
The organization goes on to say that tampons and tampon materials are tested, and that the dioxin levels in them “are at or below the detectable limit. No risk to health would be expected from these trace amounts.” And in case you’re wondering what “trace” means here, the FDA has an answer to that, too: 0.1 to 1 parts per trillion—which is comparable to "one teaspoon in a lake fifteen feet deep and a mile square.”
As for pesticides, the FDA guidelines also say tampons should be free of any pesticide or herbicide residue. Though the organization does not regularly monitor these products for pesticides, they require test results from the manufacturers. And they can take legal action against a company if dangerous amounts are detected.
The bottom line: the likelihood of any significant pesticide or toxin exposure from a tampon is extraordinarily low, says to Alyssa Dweck, MD, an ob-gyn at the Mount Kisco Medical Group in Westchester County, New York, and the author of V is for Vagina ($12, amazon.com).
That said, your personal health is not the only thing at stake here. Schwarzman points out that the cotton used in tampons (and other products) can be a pesticide-intensive crop, which isn't dangerous to the person buying tampons, necessarily. “The largest human health impact may come from a point upstream, in the production process, where people might be working in hazardous conditions,” she says. “Our product choices have ripple effects."
As Dr. Dweck puts it, "it makes perfect sense that some women want to use a natural product. If it gives you peace of mind, try it.” But don't stress too much over it if they're out of stock.