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What's Hiding in Your Menstrual Products? The Truth About Pads, Tampons & the Reproductive Health Industry

Written by Sadie Francis, one of our contributors to the 2020 edition of Cycles Journal

 

Healthy menstruation is, arguably, one of the most important, yet the most overlooked, aspects of our health and the body-positivity movement.  We have been taught to believe that it is largely an inconvenience to bleed: painful, messy, and embarrassing. For centuries, the patriarchy taught us to believe that bleeding people are "dirty", unholy, and even dangerous. Tampons and pads are bleached white for no other purpose than to lend a sense of "white cleanliness", while the toxic byproducts of bleaching, such as dioxin, are absorbed by our bodies.  We can reclaim these sacred cycles by becoming interested, getting informed, and having honest conversations with one another about the best products to use, natural remedies for cramps and infections, and even how to naturally track our fertility cycles.

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The Excessive Cost

Feminine hygiene products represent a $5.9 billion industry in the United States and $35.4 billion one worldwide. That number is expected to top $40 billion around the world in the next three years, according to Global Industry Analysts. The “average” person menstruates from the age of thirteen to fifty-one, and each period can last three to seven days. That’s about thirty-eight years and 456 periods. Thus, the average menstruator spends $150-$300 a year on feminine hygiene disposables, extrapolated to a cost of between $9,000 and $12,000 over a lifetime.

Yet it never even occurs to most of us to view the purchases that have become integrated into their monthly regime through a critical lens. And, in my experience from talking with others, too many do not seek alternatives simply because of the fact that they didn’t think any alternatives existed. 

Artwork by  Rachael Amber

Artwork by Rachael Amber

The Wastefulness

From another perspective, the solid waste accumulating after the use of these products is immense.  Over nine billion tampons are disposed of annually, wreaking havoc on sewage systems all over the world.  Tampon applicators, which are not biodegradable, are a source of eternal waste. Over twelve billion pads are disposed of annually, also containing plastics that are not biodegradable.  Each pad comes individually wrapped, replete with bleached synthetic fibers imbued with potentially hazardous residues from the point of manufacture. These products and their decadent packaging have become an extraneous burden on already overburdened landfills, while simultaneously depositing toxic substances into the surrounding soil and water.  Tampon applicators are amongst the most common debris in the ocean and on beaches; showing up in the stomachs of fish and turtles. Today, the plastic applicator is so prolific, it even has a nickname: Jersey beach whistles. The non-profit Clean Ocean Action, which holds bi-annual cleanups of New Jersey beaches, removed 4,080 tampon applicators from 70 beaches in 2016 - an almost 20 percent increase from 2015.

Artwork by  Rachael Amber

Artwork by Rachael Amber

The Unsustainability

  • Disposal of single use menstrual products - tampons, pads and applicators generates 200,000 tons of waste per year. (Source: https://www.knowaste.com)

  • Most menstrual pads are made from 90% plastic. Plastic products can take up to a thousand years to decompose in landfill or in the ocean. (Source: Plastic Planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil. UNEP 2018.)

  • Despite changes in bleaching practices to purify the wood pulp – one of raw materials used to make menstrual products – chlorine and dioxin (one of the most toxic substances known to humankind) can still be found in menstrual pads and tampons. (Multiple sources, but here’s one: “Tampax tampons and always sanitary towels among reproductive hygiene products ‘contain toxic chemicals’”. Lizzie Dearden. The Independent. 25 February 2016)

  • The non-organic cotton used extensively in tampons is exposed to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides that leave trace residues.  In fact, cotton is the most intensively sprayed crop in commercial agriculture. About 10% of the world’s pesticides and 22.5% of all insecticides are used on cotton (“Toxic Shock! How Safe Are Feminine Hygiene Products?” Aisha Ikramuddin, E Magazine, July 1997).

KNOW YOU HAVE OPTIONS

Menstrual Cups:

The market for menstrual cups have recently exploded, with more brands entering the market on a regular basis – even TAMPAX released their version of a menstrual cup! Rather than absorbing menstrual blood, these flexible cups collect it from within the vagina, significantly reducing the risks of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome and other infections. And because they can last for up to 10 years, they are much cheaper than buying thousands of single-use products, effectively answering the dual concerns of environmental waste and “period poverty” (i.e. accessibility and cost for low income bleeders).  While the designs are essentially the same, be aware of materials used (silicone is the standard now, but the first menstrual cups were natural latex. Silicone was introduced as an option for those with latex allergies), and subtle design differences.  If one menstrual cup doesn’t work for you, try another before you give up on menstrual cups as a whole!


A recent metastudy of menstrual cups on the market analysed 43 studies, encompassing data from 3,300 females. The review concluded that menstrual cups are a legitimate and safe option for handling menstruation, regardless of income, access to water, or sanitation facilities.  This research was published by The Lancet (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(19)30111-2/fulltext)

Thirteen studies analyzed in this review suggest that around 70 percent of bleeders wanted to continue using menstrual cups once they were familiar with how to do so.

 

Beware of products like “Menstrual Cup Cleasners”! Like douches, these products are attempts to ween more money out of you by convincing you that you “smell” and you need scented synthetic products in order to be “clean”.  In fact, more often than not, these products disrupt your natural vaginal flora, causing infections that actually put off bad odors, letting you know that something is wrong.

All in all, we need to be informed of the hidden truths behind the products we use in our most sacred and sensitive areas. Sustainable products can help immensely in all these downfalls of disposables.

Know anything else? Share in the comments & in our Facebook support group - we’re stronger together!

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