This text was initially featured on Undark.
This previous August, a video about titanium dioxide in tampons went viral on TikTok. A blonde lady holding a big field of tampons recommended that the mineral’s presence within the merchandise might trigger interval cramps, ovarian cysts, irreversible uterine harm, and even most cancers.
Analysis performed on rats has discovered that titanium dioxide is dangerous if inhaled in massive portions, and the European Union has banned the mineral as a meals additive over potential well being issues. However within the US, regulators preserve that its use in meals and private care merchandise is protected. In response to the TikTok turmoil, medical doctors and journalists at main retailers—together with USA Right now, Gizmodo, and CBS Information—in addition to well being and wellness web sites, jumped in to dispel the tampon rumors. “Titanium dioxide isn’t making tampons into poisonous loss of life sticks,” wrote OB/GYN Jen Gunter on her fashionable ladies’s well being Substack, The Vajenda.
However the fracas raised an actual difficulty: Critical questions on tampon substances stay. The few scientists who’ve studied the topic have recognized doubtlessly poisonous compounds in some menstrual merchandise. But firms should not legally required to reveal their substances to US prospects. And even when manufacturers do present a listing, there may be not plenty of conclusive analysis to assist shoppers perceive what the presence of gear comparable to microplastics or phthalates really means for the consumer’s well being.
Researchers who spoke with Undark emphasised that there’s little proof to recommend tampons trigger hurt when used as directed. On the identical time, the researchers famous, it’s truthful for laypeople to surprise what’s of their menstrual merchandise, significantly provided that some scientists are asking related questions.
“Figuring out what substances are in there, and what the implications could be, and what they may do to your physique—I believe that must be simply a place to begin,” says Inga Winkler, an affiliate professor on the Central European College in Vienna who has studied menstrual well being as a human rights difficulty. “And the truth that we’re combating about this, I imply, it’s a extremely unhappy start line.”
A few decade in the past, Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou was chatting with two different researchers in regards to the potential presence of pesticides within the navy’s cotton uniforms when she remembered it was time to alter her tampon. Within the lavatory, Kioumourtzoglou made a connection between that dialogue and her private life. “Tampons have cotton. Cotton has pesticides. What did I simply put inside me?” she puzzled. Kioumourtzoglou walked again to the dialog and requested: “Have you ever ever heard about what’s in tampons?”
Kioumourtzoglou, who’s skilled as an air air pollution epidemiologist, was particularly concerned with a pesticide known as glyphosate, which farmers typically spray on cotton crops. The US Environmental Safety Company says that when correctly used, glyphosate poses “no dangers of concern to human well being.” However in 2015, the Worldwide Company for Analysis on Most cancers, a part of the World Well being Group, categorized the chemical as “most likely carcinogenic” primarily based on restricted proof in people, however ample proof in experimental animals. These blended conclusions—mixed with the cotton plant’s capacity to soak up heavy metals—led Kioumourtzoglou to surprise if pesticides, significantly glyphosate—in cotton fibers could make it by means of the tampon manufacturing course of. Now an affiliate professor of environmental well being sciences at Columbia College’s Mailman College of Public Well being, she remembers feeling pissed off when she looked for solutions, and nothing turned up.
To essentially get on the coronary heart of the matter, Kioumourtzoglou stated, researchers must ask a collection of questions: First, are there any dangerous chemical compounds in tampons—and at what ranges? Second, can these chemical compounds leach out of the tampons and be absorbed into the physique? Lastly, if absorbed, have they got any antagonistic well being results?
The primary query requires primary analysis that entails taking tampons aside to know what’s within the cotton stuffing. Over the previous couple of a long time, a handful of scientists have tried do that. Their outcomes recommend that many tampon manufacturers do comprise doubtlessly poisonous substances, although typically at very low ranges.
The researchers famous that the charges of absorption of phthalates by means of the vulva and vagina particularly should not recognized.
One early research, printed in 2002, calculated the focus of dioxins in 4 manufacturers of tampons. Dioxins are a byproduct from the method of whitening rayon, a semisynthetic fiber added to some tampons to extend their absorbency. In keeping with the EPA and the U.S. Meals and Drug Administration, long-term publicity to dioxin ranges above a sure threshold can impression reproductive well being and result in start defects, amongst different points. The research discovered hint quantities of dioxins in the entire tampons, however at ranges a lot decrease than dietary publicity. These outcomes have been replicated in a 2005 research.
In 2020, a separate analysis group seemed into a category of chemical compounds known as unstable natural compounds, or VOCs, which are sometimes used to make paint thinners, petroleum fuels, and family cleansing merchandise. Producers add these to tampons for sensible causes: They will take up and block moisture and masks odor. The researchers, primarily based on the College of Michigan, seemed for VOCs in 79 interval merchandise bought within the US together with 22 sorts of tampons in addition to pads, wipes, sprays, powders, and moisturizers. All the merchandise contained some VOCs, and people labeled “natural” didn’t essentially have decrease concentrations. The researchers famous that the concentrations of VOCs have been typically low and didn’t exceed well being protecting pointers. Nonetheless, they wrote, “We suggest the elimination of poisonous substances and the disclosure of all chemical compounds which can be utilized in these merchandise.”
Researchers have additionally seemed for compounds which can be thought to disrupt hormones, comparable to phthalates, which enhance plastics’ flexibility and might need made their method into tampons throughout the manufacturing course of. A 2020 research sampled 12 tampons and located phthalates in all of them. Though the degrees have been beneath the edge for poisonous results from publicity by means of the pores and skin, the researchers famous that the charges of absorption by means of the vulva and vagina particularly should not recognized. Nonetheless, they recognized tampons and different menstrual merchandise as “an vital supply of chemical publicity in ladies.”
To higher perceive whether or not a given chemical poses a well being threat, researchers research publicity routes, the pathways by means of which a chemical can enter the physique and journey to totally different organs. There are considered three foremost routes of entry into the physique: respiratory, ingestion, and direct contact with the pores and skin. “The pores and skin is designed to guard the physique, and the overall assumption is that not many issues are capable of undergo the pores and skin,” says Oddny Ragnarsdottir, a Ph.D. pupil on the College of Birmingham who research dermal absorption of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. However tampons don’t sit flush towards the pores and skin; somewhat, they match snuggly throughout the vagina.
Analysis on vaginal drug supply has proven that the vaginal canal provides an appropriate atmosphere for chemical absorption and circulation. The canal is wealthy in arteries and lymphatic vessels. And vaginal mucus is sticky, so it holds some molecules towards the vaginal wall for a very long time; this compelled proximity can stimulate absorption. Circumstances might change over time, nonetheless, because the vaginal atmosphere is dynamic. The qualities that facilitate absorption—comparable to pH degree, temperature, mucus manufacturing, and vaginal wall thickness—might differ relying on an individual’s age, well being, sexual exercise, and the place they’re of their menstrual cycle.
This ever-changing atmosphere poses a problem for scientists who wish to perceive exactly what occurs to a tampon when it’s positioned contained in the vagina and the way a lot of a given toxin is absorbed by the physique. Broadly talking, researchers can select from two medical approaches. The primary method, in vivo—Latin for “in a dwelling organism”—typically entails learning animals due to the technical and moral problems of conducting analysis on human topics. Researchers within the discipline are likely to design research which can be in vitro—Latin for “exterior of a dwelling organism.” These research decrease the messy distractions of the entire organism whereas isolating particular bodily situations.
One such research was performed by Leonardo Pantoja, a researcher at Middlesex College in London. Pantoja’s group used a setup known as the “Syngina” to establish launch of microplastics from tampons. The Syngina releases a saline resolution on the common fee of menstrual move till a tampon leaks; producers have used the equipment because the Eighties to check tampons’ absorbency. The outcomes of Pantoja’s research, printed in 2021, discovered billions of nanoplastic particles launched from tampons that might keep up a correspondence with the vaginal wall. The fibers in lots of tampons should not woven, Pantoja defined, which facilitates the method of releasing nanoplastics. Given variations in friction and vaginal strain, Pantoja suspects that his research might have underestimated the discharge of microplastics. Pantoja defined that it was his group’s intention to look at the least harsh situations in order to not exaggerate the potential well being implications of their findings.
These research decrease the messy distractions of the entire organism whereas isolating particular bodily situations.
Outdoors of the laboratory, researchers can even conduct epidemiological research that collect knowledge about antagonistic well being results. Kioumourtzoglou co-authored a tutorial article that discovered greater ranges of mercury within the blood of tampon customers, utilizing knowledge from the BioCycle Research. The BioCycle research—a longitudinal cohort research performed on the College of Buffalo within the 2000s—was not designed to look at the results of tampon use, however as a substitute adopted 250 ladies for 2 menstrual cycles to know the connection between hormone ranges and oxidative stress, a state of chemical imbalance that may finally result in illness. Kioumourtzoglou and her co-authors acquired entry to the info and seemed for a hyperlink between contributors’ tampon use and ranges of heavy metals of their blood.
There have been no statistically important findings about mercury and different metals, however Kioumourtzoglou defined that the very small pattern measurement might have contributed to this.
Like all research, this one had limitations. For instance, contributors self-reported particulars about their tampon use. And the BioCycle research didn’t test contributors’ blood for glyphosate, leaving Kioumourtzoglou with out a solution to her query. However to find an affiliation between reported tampon use and oxidative stress—even one that’s not statistically important—the research can be utilized to draw funding for additional analysis, stated Kioumourtzoglou.
Lately, she and group of researchers obtained $35,000 for a small pilot research to research fashionable manufacturers of tampons for the presence of sure pesticides and metals. As soon as the group has recorded concentrations of those contaminants within the tampons, they are going to place the merchandise in samples of menstrual blood offered by research volunteers. The aim, defined Kioumourtzoglou, is to see if any doubtlessly dangerous chemical compounds leach out of the tampon into the encompassing blood.
She hopes the broader neighborhood of scientists can even pursue research about menstrual merchandise. “The extra individuals who work on it,” she stated, “the higher.”
Girls and teenage ladies want entry to interval merchandise, in line with public well being consultants who’ve sought to attract consideration to interval poverty—a time period used to explain the shortcoming to afford or in any other case entry menstrual merchandise. Globally, interval poverty, mixed with stigma associating durations with uncleanliness, has brought on youth to overlook college, and it has additionally saved adults from totally collaborating within the workforce.
Stigma may also affect the well being care steering that physicians and nurses supply sufferers within the clinic. Some well being care suppliers should not sufficiently skilled on the substantive points, stated Winkler, the professor at Central European College. And they may not take their sufferers’ issues severely. “Individuals are consistently being advised that it’s all simply of their head,” stated Winkler. Higher intercourse training might contribute to menstrual literacy, she continued, enabling individuals to make autonomous, knowledgeable decisions about their physique.
However complete intercourse training might not be sufficient, given the murkiness surrounding what’s really in tampons. The FDA regulates these and different menstrual merchandise as medical units, which comes with little authorities oversight for ingredient disclosure. As of 2022, New York is the one state within the US that requires producers to checklist all substances in interval merchandise on the packaging. (Though the New York legislation solely applies to merchandise bought throughout the state, the rule seems to have a ripple impact on merchandise bought in different states.) However even with regulation of ingredient disclosure, Pantoja defined that the that means of phrases like “natural” or “pure” should not standardized.
This summer season’s viral TikTok on titanium dioxide in tampons targeted on the model That is L., which was acquired by Procter and Gamble in 2019. That is L. tampons are labeled as being made with natural cotton, and the corporate’s advertising guarantees a easy product: “Solely the substances you want for the boldness, consolation, and safety you deserve. Nothing extra, nothing much less. Interval.” On Aug. 31, shoppers filed a category motion go well with towards That is L., for what they see as deceptive advertising. An L. consultant didn’t have solutions and P&G didn’t reply to requests for feedback about when, how, and why titanium dioxide is utilized in tampon manufacturing.
A spread of merchandise have grown in reputation as alternate options to single-use tampons and pads, together with menstrual cups and interval underwear containing moisture-wicking cloth. These merchandise should not precisely silver bullets, although, and points with model transparency and regulation are additionally at play. Menstrual cups are, like tampons, regulated by the FDA as medical units, that means the constitutive substances of supplies like medical-grade silicone don’t should be listed. They’ve gotten lodged in ladies’s uteruses and been linked to poisonous shock syndrome (although a 2019 research discovered solely 25 studies of antagonistic results out of greater than 1,100 menstrual cup customers).
Knix Put on, a model of interval underwear, is dealing with a category motion lawsuit, with shoppers alleging that the presence of PFAS without end chemical compounds betrays the underwear’s advertising. One other model, Thinx, is reportedly settling an analogous lawsuit.
For girls navigating the female hygiene aisle on the grocery retailer, it may be difficult to stability value, chemical compounds, environmental sustainability, and luxury. However, with the ability to make these decisions for your self,” stated Winkler, “I believe that’s actually key.”
Colleen Wooden is a author and educator primarily based in New York Metropolis. Her work has appeared in The Diplomat, International Coverage, New Traces Journal, and The Washington Put up, amongst different retailers. Discover her on Twitter @colleenwood_.