It's a rite of passage every woman goes through: getting your first period. But once the initial shock of puberty wears of, it becomes just another monthly responsibility.
Most of us have become accustomed to using our go-to feminine hygiene product, which tends to be tampons. In fact, using them becomes such a regular routine that we probably don't give it a second thought.
But should we re-think our tampons? Lately, there's been a lot of talk about the dangers of tampons, as well as a lot of alternative options that have cropped up on the market. We went to the experts to find out the real deal with tampons.
The Truth About Tampons
In terms of regulations, tampons exist in murky territory. Because the FDA considers tampons to be "medical devices," the FDA doesn't require any tampon or pad product to disclose their entire ingredient list, explains Suzie Welsh, RN, fertility nurse and founder of Binto. Similar to the personal care/beauty industry, this means that tampons and pads are not fully regulated by the FDA like foods or prescriptions are — and we don't know exactly what's in them.
But what researchers have found out is more than a little unsettling. According to a 2013 report, feminine hygiene products like tampons and pads have been found to contain potential hazardous such as dioxins and furans (which arise from the chlorine bleaching process), pesticide residues and unknown fragrance chemicals.
These ingredients have been associated with health concerns such as cancer, reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, and allergic rash, the same report found. While the exposure from each tampon may be minimal, think about how many tampons a woman may use over her lifetime — it adds up.
An even bigger problem: Tampons are inserted into your vagina, which is the most absorbent part of your body — even more absorbent than your mouth, Nurse Suzie explains. This means these potentially harmful chemicals are going directly into your bloodstream.
Finally, you've probably heard of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare, yet possible, side effect of using tampons. "When tampons are used incorrectly, like being in left in too long, there can be a dangerous build up of bacteria," says Lori Noble, MD, a primary care physician and member of Binto's science advisory board.
Symptoms of TSS include high fever, rash, vomiting or diarrhea, confusion, muscle aches, headache, and seizures. To prevent this, a tampon should not be left in for any longer than is recommended in the instructions, should not be used overnight, and you should use the lightest absorbency tampon possible, Noble says.
If all this makes you uneasy, know that you have options. If you prefer to use tampons, Nurse Suzie suggests opting for organic, chlorine-free, cotton tampons. These are both better for the environment and don't contain potentially dangerous ingredients.
We like Cora's applicator tampons, which are comfortable and protect against leaks – without using questionable chemicals, pesticides, or fragrances.
If you prefer not to use tampons at all, you have other safe choices. The main downsides to options like these are the lack of convenience and hygiene challenges they pose, Noble notes.
First, you can simply use organic cotton pads. Cora's "period pads" combine a 100% organic cotton topsheet with a powerfully absorbent pad, allowing you to move, bend, and run while using.
Menstrual cups are another option. These are inserted into the vagina and can be left in for 12 hours. The Diva Cup, for example, is eco-friendly and reusable, making it an economic option. It's also free of dyes, latex, and plastic.
Finally, "period underwear" recently appeared on the feminine hygiene market. They're washable, reusable undies that absorb your period and are a more sustainable solution. Thinx's "period-proof" underwear comes in a variety of styles, colors, and even activewear versions.