Toxic Substances in Tampons and Pads Near You (Really Near You)

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In a Journal of Women’s Health preprint, researchers at the University of Michigan have published the results of their study of exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in 25 users of tampons and menstrual pads.

Here is an excerpt from Ning Ding et al., Feminine Hygiene Products & Volatile Organic Compounds in Reproductive-Aged Women Across the Menstrual Cycle: A Longitudinal Pilot Study, J. Women’s Health (2021), DOI: 10.1089/jwh.2021.0153:

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include a wide variety of chemicals in many household products, including personal care products, paints, adhesives, gasoline, and building materials….VOC exposure has been associated with developmental, reproductive, neurologic, immunologic, and carcinogenic effects in animal models and humans. Several VOCs are listed on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)’s Substance Priority List due to their known or suspected toxicity and the potential threat to human health. ***

Vaginal and vulvar tissues are more permeable than exposed skin due to differences in tissue structure,  occlusion,  hydration,  and  susceptibility to friction. The mucosa of vaginal and vulvar epithelia have high permeability to contaminants given the absence of a keratinized stratum corneum and loosely packed skin layers. Arteries, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels are abundant in the walls of the vagina, which allows for direct uptake of chemicals through peripheral circulation.

Given the  toxicity  of  certain  VOCs  and  the  unique characteristics of the vaginal and vulvar tissues, potential VOC exposure through this exposure pathway should be minimized. ***

In the present study, we detected 36 VOCs in a small cohort of women, including hexane, n-nonane, hexanal, non- anal, benzene, toluene, p-isopropyltoluene, 2-butanone, and methyl isobutyl ketone. We did not observe significant longitudinal changes in urinary VOC concentrations across the menstrual cycles. Compared with women who used pads or liners during the period, tampon users had significantly higher 2-butanone and methyl isobutyl ketone concentrations. Higher n-nonane, benzene, and toluene estimated from menstrual products were associated with higher urinary concentrations in women. While our findings from this pilot study do not support the hypothesis that the use of menstrual products increases urinary VOC concentrations during the period, they do suggest that tampons may contribute to higher exposure to 2-butanone and methyl isobutyl ketone than sanitary pads. Future studies with repeated measurements and a larger sample size are warranted to confirm our results.

Upshot: There is a whole lot we don’t know about the safety of tampons and pads. Menstrual products are almost entirely unregulated by the federal government, as Emily Waldman and I explain in our forthcoming book, Menstruation Matters: Challenging Law’s Silence on Periods (NYU Press 2022). And state disclosure laws have been so watered down as to be largely ineffective.

The lack of knowledge about the long-term safety of menstrual products used close to highly-absorbent tissue or inside the human body should ring alarm bells. But it’s not clear that our legislators are listening.


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