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Organic Feminine Hygiene Products: Are They Worth It?

09/18/2018

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As people continue to make the decision to “go green,” it’s no surprise that more brands are producing organic and environmentally-friendly versions of everyday products. Organic tampons and sanitary pads are becoming increasingly popular, but there’s speculation as to whether they’re better for your health than traditional options.

Is the higher price tag typically associated with organic tampons and pads worth it? We looked at the difference between organic products and their traditional counterparts as well as whether going organic is better for your health.

What’s the difference between organic and non-organic feminine hygiene products?

Traditional tampons and pads that most women are accustomed to are made with either traditionally grown cotton (meaning pesticides or insecticides were used), synthetic rayon (which aids in absorbency) or a mix of both cotton and rayon. Materials used in traditional tampons may also be treated with fragrances to control odor. Applicators for traditional tampons are typically made of a smooth, pearly plastic that makes insertion easier.

Organic tampons and pads are made with cotton grown without pesticides or insecticides and are free of fragrances. Applicators for organic tampons are made from biodegradable materials, such as cardboard. They may also not come with an applicator at all.

cotton tampons with no applicator

The production process

The rayon used in traditional tampons is made from cellulose fibers derived from wood pulp. According to the FDA, until the late 1990s, manufacturers would bleach the wood pulp, which would introduce trace amounts of dioxins into the material.

Today, rayon is produced using elemental chlorine-free or totally chlorine-free bleaching processes, significantly reducing the production of dioxins but not eliminating it. Tampons that are totally chlorine free may use hydrogen peroxide as a bleaching agent instead. Even though dioxins are typically introduced during the rayon production process, tampons made with 100 percent organic cotton may also have very small amounts of dioxins, which are typically found in the air, water and soil, and can be introduced to the cotton any time during the growth process.

Regulations

All menstrual hygiene products, whether organic or not, are regulated by the FDA and classified as medical devices. This means that no matter what material tampons are made of, the absorbency levels must be consistent to meet FDA regulations that seek to reduce the risk of complications such as toxic shock syndrome (TSS). The FDA also requires all tampon manufacturers monitor dioxin levels in their finished products.

Price and availability

Organic tampons and pads are becoming easier to buy in stores, but traditional products still make up the bulk of the current market and are easier to find. Organic products are also typically a bit more expensive than traditional ones and usually come in smaller packages.

But are organic options better for your health?

While organic tampons are produced using fewer chemicals, there is no hard scientific evidence that suggests organic or all-natural tampons and pads are any better for your health than regular varieties.

“There aren’t any studies that I am aware of that show any benefit of organic tampons vs. regular tampons,” says INTEGRIS OB/GYN Dr. Amanda Maxedon Hamilton. “Although, in some of my research, a few companies are offering biodegradable applicators and reportedly a process that is safer for the environment.”

While trace amounts of dioxins may be present in tampons, we are already exposed to these toxins in our food supply, in the environment and in household products. Some scientists have suggested that exposure to small of amounts of these toxins can have a cumulative effect over your lifespan. The average woman uses around 11,000 tampons during her lifetime, meaning tampon use could theoretically increase your risk for diseases caused by chemical exposure later on, but the chance is likely very small.

“If [you’re] concerned about health risks, organic tampons could buy peace of mind, at an increased cost, which may be worth it to some,” Dr. Hamilton says.

Some women may experience irritation of the vulva, called vulvitis, caused by fragrances and chemicals in traditional tampons. In these cases, your gynecologist will likely recommend switching to a non-fragrant tampon brand or opting for an organic variety. Symptoms should clear up once the irritant is removed.

Overall, organic tampons and pads are a good choice for women seeking more natural options for their menstrual health – but they are not essential. It’s best to use whichever tampon and pad you’re most comfortable with. Consult your gynecologist with any concerns you may have.

Toxic shock syndrome

Many manufacturers of organic tampons claim that the all-natural fibers lower your risk of developing TSS, a rare, but very serious complication caused by an overgrowth of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus (staph). However, a recent study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology looked at 11 types of tampons and four types of menstrual cups. The kind of material – whether organic, regular cotton, rayon or a blend – made no difference when it came to the growth of bacteria.

It’s important to note that tampons are only associated with one in 100,000 cases of TSS in the United States. These cases are usually due to improper tampon usage. Symptoms of TSS may include a sensation that your heart is racing, a lightheaded feeling, fever and rash. Although TSS is severe, it is responsive to antibiotics and can be treated if caught early.

woman holding menstrual cup

Menstrual cups

Many women are switching to menstrual cups over tampons and pads. Menstrual cups are flexible cups that are inserted into the vagina during your period to collect menstrual blood. These devices were previously touted as being safer than tampons, but the Applied and Environmental Microbiology study found they may increase your risk of TSS.

Both tampons and menstrual cups can create a breeding ground for staph bacteria because they introduce oxygen into the vaginal canal, which allows the bacteria to rapidly multiply. However, the shape and volume of menstrual cups allow more oxygen to enter, which can allow more bacteria to build up on the cup and in the vaginal canal. Higher levels of staph bacteria greatly increase your risk of TSS.

To reduce the buildup of bacteria, menstrual cups must be washed and bleached thoroughly after use. “It is important to bleach the cup between menses to reduce formation of a biofilm,” Dr. Hamilton says. Proper care for menstrual cups includes washing your hands before and after insertion, only using a cup for six hours at a time, sterilizing between uses and avoiding overnight usage.

Safely using feminine hygiene products

Whether you use organic or regular tampons, you should always use them safely. You can reduce the production of bacteria and your risk of TSS by changing your tampon every two to three hours for a heavy flow and every three to four hours when your flow is lighter. You should never leave a tampon in overnight while sleeping or use more than one tampon at a time. It’s also best to use the lightest absorbency possible.

Avoiding scented feminine hygiene products can also reduce your risk of irritation, inflammation or allergic reactions.

“It is important to find a tampon that fits well to help reduce leakage, whether organic or not,” Dr. Hamilton says. “According to product reviews, many people are happy with either and find different shapes to fit their needs.”

Popular organic tampon and pad brands

There are many brands now producing organic tampons and pads. Popular brands include Lola, Seventh Generation, L.Organic, Natracare, The Honest Company, Cora, Organyc, BON and more. If you’re interested in making the switch from traditional products to organic, talk to your gynecologist about your options and what’s best for your body.

Wants more information about women’s health? Check out more articles from our On Your Health Blog.

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