What conventional stores tell you about feminine hygiene products

HEJSupport published a new fact sheet based on the findings of a small survey among women in Canada. We asked them about their purchase patters when buying feminine hygiene products.

You can download the fact sheet here.

Hygiene products play an essential role in women’s life by helping them stay clean and confident. They are comfortable and convenient, and women depend on them on a daily basis.

Conventional stores offer a variety of hygiene products including external products such as sanitary pads and panty liners as well as internal tampons and menstrual cups. Women choose whatever  product is best suited to their lifestyle. However while constantly buying and disposing of hygiene products, not many women know that these products contain a variety of toxic chemicals, including dioxins, pesticides, bleach and chemical fragrances that may seriously impact their health.

Conventional feminine hygiene products are made from cotton, rayon, or a blend of both. To make them look white, the fibers are bleached using chlorine dioxide. Though this new method of bleaching is less harmful than Chlorine bleaching , it still produces dioxins, which end up in the final product. However, bleaching is not the only way dioxins are added to hygiene products. Traces of dioxins are even found  in tampons made of 100% cotton[i] because crops can absorb them from soil, water and air where these persistent organic pollutants have been detected.

In fact cotton is considered a dirty crop laden with pesticides and toxic chemicals. To fight pests on cotton plantations farmers apply highly hazardous pesticides like aldicarb, parathion, and methamidophor which are the most acutely hazardous to human health. According to Cotton pesticides statistics, hazardous pesticides used during cotton production can also be detected in various pieces of products made from cotton. 

Genetically modified (GM) cotton is grown extensively, and these crops are heavily sprayed with glyphosate-containing products. The International Agency for research on Cancer classified glyphosate a probable human carcinogen[ii]. Farmers can use as much of these products as they want because GM cotton is resistant to glyphosate. As result “85% of tampons, pads and other feminine care products contaminated with Monsanto’s cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting glyphosate[iii]

Neither these nor other toxins are mentioned on the labels of period products, leaving consumers unaware of their presence and potential health impacts . If a brand includes cotton on a product label, consumers automatically think it is safe and do not look for any additional information. However, inserting conventional cotton tampons into your vagina many times month after month threatens your health, as you put yourself at risk of absorbing cancer-causing pesticides and added toxins. Alexandra Scranton, Women’s Voices for the Earth’s director of science and research, says tampons2 “are not just your average cosmetics because they are used on an exceptionally sensitive and absorbent part of a woman’s body.”[iv]

In addition to various negative health effects, the disposal of hygiene products could have a serious impact on the environment. Change to Green estimates that more than 45 billion tampons and sanitary pads are used every year resulting in 3.2 million kg of waste. It takes 500 years for regular tampons or other conventional hygiene products to decompose because they are composed primarily  of plastic.

According to Change to Green, even the average “100% cotton” product that many of us believe to be pure fabric, in fact contains only 73% cotton. “The remaining 27% consists of chemicals, resins and binders used in farming and manufacturing”. Conventional sanitary pads are made up from up to 90% crude oil plastic and can contain associated plasticizing chemicals like BPA and BPS, and petrochemical additives which are known endocrine disrupting substances  linked to heart diseases and cancer. Phthalates, mainly used as plasticizers, are a common ingredient in tampon applicators and can disrupt hormone function, potentially leading to multiple organ diseases. Phthalates leach from finished products when handled. They can be released from a product by heat, agitation, and prolonged storage.

If conventional hygiene products contain plastic, could they be recycled to reduce their load on the environment? Not really, as they are designed to collect human waste. Additionally, these products are largely made of low-density polyethylene. According to a Life Cycle Assessment of tampons conducted by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, recycling of low-density polyethylene is energy consuming as it requires high amounts of fossil fuel generated energy. As a result, used hygiene products usually end up in landfills, sewer systems, waterways, or are incinerated. To address health and environmental risks caused by feminine hygiene products, some women decide to use organic products made of organic cotton grown without pesticides and with no additional fragrances [v]. Such products reduce women’s exposure to toxic chemicals and potentially reduce risk of diseases[vi].

Despite obvious benefits of organic feminine hygiene products, a small survey conducted by HEJSupport in Canada revealed serious barriers to their uptake. We asked 25 adult women of childbearing age and 25 teenage girls of between 15 and 17 years old to answer a few simple questions (see Table A):

Results of data analysis (Table A) revealed serious problems associated with organic product availability, product cost, and awareness about product health benefits. More than have of adult women and 80% of teenage girls interviewed never buy organic products. More than 30% of adult interviewees and 12% of girls complained about product availability in stores saying that they do not have time to search for organic hygiene products as they are only available in specialized stores, while 24% of adult women and 60% of girls cannot afford organic products due to their higher price in comparison to conventional analogues. Only 28% of adult women and 32% of girls interviewed know about health benefits of organic hygiene products, while 60% believe there is no difference, as both organic and conventional hygiene products are made of cotton. 56% of adult and 40% of teenage interviewees even consider conventional products to be a better and healthier choice than their organic counterparts because they are available in drugstores.

During interviews women noted that conventional stores suggest a broad variety of hygiene products. Such diversity along with the relatively low price gives customers an opportunity to try several products of different types and brands before making a choice they usually stick to for many years. Conversely, organic products are usually presented by one brand only which restricts choice.

In addition, women often purchase hygiene products when they urgently need them giving a preference to conventional stores which are close by. While they are convenient and address women’s momentary needs, such stores may have limited or no organic products available.

[i] http://www.center4research.org/tampon-safety/

[ii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27552246

[iii] https://www.sott.net/article/341012-85-of-tampons-pads-and-other-feminine-care-products-contaminated-with-Monsantos-cancer-causing-endocrine-disrupting-glyphosate

[iv] https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2019/02/13/absorbent-hygiene-products-health-risks.aspx

[v] https://integrisok.com/resources/on-your-health/2018/september/organic-feminine-hygiene-products

[vi] https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2019/02/13/absorbent-hygiene-products-health-risks.aspx[vii]

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