A recently released report found that products such as tampons, menstrual pads, douches, sprays and washes contain chemicals that are known carcinogens, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, pesticides and allergens.
The report, Chem Fatale, which was published by Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) — a national organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that harm women’s health — says that current regulations on chemicals used in feminine-care products are not sufficient to protect public health, since no government agency requires the maker to disclose the ingredients used.
According to the report, the most popular feminine-care products are tampons and menstrual pads, which are used by 70-85 percent of women. WVE reported that tampons were found to have dioxins or pesticide residue, which are chemicals that have been linked to cancer, hormone disruptors, allergens and irritants from unlisted fragrance ingredients.
Douches, sprays, washes, and wipes are used by a smaller percentage of women, between 10-40 percent, and are used more among black, Hispanic and low-income women. These products were found to contain toxic preservatives such as parabens, hormone disruptors, and other chemicals that release cancer-causing formaldehyde.
WVE released the report as part of a campaign to encourage consumers of feminine-care products to demand more federal oversight when it comes to the $3 billion feminine-care industry. Specifically, the organization wants Procter & Gamble, the makers of Tampax and Always, to share the ingredients used in tampons and pads and to pledge to eliminate toxic chemicals from the ingredient list.
The chemicals found in feminine care products are “virtually unregulated by governmental agencies in the United States,” since neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the “direct authority to monitor or require safety testing for feminine-care products.
“According to the law, cosmetics, including feminine care products, sold in the United States must be free of poisonous or deleterious substances that might harm users under conditions of normal use. However, the FDA admits that it does not assess or pre-approve products before they are marketed,” the report says.
“The chemicals used in these products are a real concern given the inevitable exposure to sensitive and absorptive vulvar and vaginal tissue,” said Dr. Ami Zota, a professor of occupational and environmental health at George Washington University. “There is a clear need for more research on the health effects of these exposures on women’s health.”
According to the report’s authors, part of the concern with these products is that they are “intended for use on or in an incredibly absorbent part of a woman’s body,” but are “marketed and sold with little to no data, assuring the ingredients they contain are safe.
“Ingredients are determined ‘safe,’ operating under the premise that they are used on ordinary skin just like other cosmetic products. That means chemicals of concern such as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, and allergens are being used on, or even in, the extremely permeable mucus membranes of the vaginal area.”
Alexandra Scranton, WVE’s director of science and research and author of the report, said feminine care products are not just average cosmetics because they are used on exceptionally sensitive and absorbent parts of the body. “Greater scrutiny, oversight and research are badly needed to assure the safety of their ingredients on women’s health,” Scranton said.
Though some products such as feminine washes, wipes, and sprays are classified as “cosmetics” and are regulated under those guidelines, other products such as tampons and pads are regulated as medical devices.
According to the report, the makers of medical devices are “not required to disclose ingredients to the consumer,” which makes it “nearly impossible for consumers to avoid chemicals of concern found in these products.
Other products such as anti-itch creams and medicated douches are considered over-the-counter drugs, and are also potentially dangerous because the FDA solely reviews the active ingredient(s) in these products.
What makes the findings in the WVE’s report so concerning to some is that “vaginal exposure to hormone-mimicking chemicals that may be present in feminine-care products may lead to higher than expected exposures in the rest of the body.”
Minorities take the brunt
Although women of all races, ethnicities and income levels were found to use tampons and pads, the report found that other feminine-care products, such as douches, were more often used by minorities and low-income women, despite the fact that both the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have recommended women do not douche, since doing so increases a woman’s chances of developing a bacterial infection.
According to the report, often times the fragrances in feminine care products are allergens that worsen the symptoms a woman may be attempting to treat with these products, but the female body often has a way to take care of things on its own. In those instances, when medical help is needed, women should speak to their doctors before reaching for a feminine-care product.
Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman, director of environmental health for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said it is well known that black women face health disparities for numerous diseases, adding that this report highlights how much more there is to know about the potential impact of feminine-care products on black women’s health.
Knowledge is power, but not adequate in itself, according to Cristina Aguilar, Interim Executive Director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. “But in this case, we know that many of the most dangerous products that are found to cause chronic diseases also target women of color. The reality is knowledge isn’t enough—Latinas who already have health disparities, also face financial, economic, and geographic barriers to accessing safe alternatives.”