The past five years have seen an explosion in period products that carry a higher social currency than their precursors. Organic cotton, sustainability, activism, and more mark an industry desperately aligning with the values of its customers. However, scientists have discovered per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), otherwise known as “forever chemicals”, that have been linked to many health issues residing in menstrual products. What’s the kicker? Both non-organic and organic companies are condemnable. Consumer advocacy group, Mamavation, conducted two separate studies of tampons and pads. The study revealed that 40 to 50% of tampons and pads with traces of PFAS contamination were marketed as “organic,” “natural,” “non-toxic,” or “sustainable.”
PFAS are a chemical family that were created to enhance the war efforts of World War II; at the time, celebrated for their waterproofing properties, PFAS blossomed into a consumer staple through non-stick cookware, raincoats, and other items used to repel water and oils. The widespread use of PFAS, even down to their production, allows chemicals to settle into soil, water, and air unseen. Their durability encourages select compounds in the chemical family to not fully break down. Studies conclude that 99% of the human population have PFAS in their bloodstream due to exposure. Exposure leads to higher risks of developing several health problems inducing cancers and a 40% decrease in fertility.
Organic cotton period products are not new. The United Kingdom’s Natracare created the first organic tampon back in 1989. Other companies, like Seventh Generation, followed suit when the post-Inconvenient Truth era began. Within the last 10 years, the organic menstrual product train took off as consumer awareness has grown through the internet, and wellness brands, like The Honest Companies, emerged. With the public assuming organic products would decrease menstrual cramps, as well as pain that can occur when using products with conditions such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome, people looked to them as a candle in the dark amidst the grim nature of women’s health. Using tampons went from a personal care product to an investment in the planet’s future and spiritual health. Companies pride themselves on aligning with the values of an audience concerned with sustainability and social justice. Organic cotton is similar to organic carrots or tortilla chips. Guidelines such as no pesticides, no genetically modified plants, and no synthetic fertilizers determine if brands can use the term “organic” in branding. If a product fails to maintain these standards, claiming this title is illegal.
With such high standards, how can PFAS sneak into organic products? “Stay dry” fabrics or unique weaving to reduce moisture can be a source. These innovations are an example of waterproofing technology. Plastics in packaging and storage go through the process of fluorination, which makes plastics appear sleek and firm while preventing chemical reactions with materials they come into contact with. Fluorination is a key marker of PFAS. Manufacturers are not intentionally infusing products with PFAS, but because of how well they integrate into the environment, it can be impossible to catch adulteration. The water cycle could be renamed the PFAS cycle due to how dramatic contamination is. As a result, it is up to individual companies to test for these compounds, but because there is no formal regulation from the the Food and Drug Administration or other agencies; there is no consequence for turning a blind eye.
PFAS are related to health problems associated with high mortality rates. When examining the basic mechanics of the vagina, the presence of the chemicals is alarming. Rather than regular skin or muscle tissue, the vagina relies on mucus membranes for protection. When normal skin comes in contact with different substances, there is no worry of absorption into the bloodstream. The vagina’s mucus membrane is the opposite. It can absorb liquids so quickly that an estrogen pill absorbed vaginally is absorbed 10 times faster of the same tablet taken orally. Someone with a monthly menstrual cycle that lasts five days could be exposed to an average of 705 parts per million (ppm) worth of PFAS. A 25-year-old who began their period at 12 could have absorbed 109,980 parts per million just through their vagina.
What can be done to protect against PFAS? Alternatives like the cup, period panties, disks, and cloth period pads market themselves as solutions. However, some of these options are hiding skeletons in their closets: Thinkx period underwear contains PFAS, too. New products, like the disc, shake up the period game each year, and some come out victorious, like DivaCup. Still, there is always room to be cautious in a world of innovation and new ideas.
The period industry has seen momentous evolutions alongside the world’s changes. Companies are advertised as trustworthy choices compared to their competitors, yet the data disproves these claims. There are alternatives for choosing organic when it comes to menstrual decisions, but without further research, shoppers could unintentionally raise their exposure risk. Even being aware that there is a problem is essentially a privilege. Companies must prioritize transparency and safety, but regulation, self-education, and awareness are primary courses of action for health risk prevention.
Meet Haylee, a writer with a passion for the unique and the strange. When she's not writing for The Collegian, you can find her binge-watching Real Housewives or getting lost in the world of plane documentaries. When she's not in front of a screen, she's either tide-pooling or sipping on an oat milk latte, both of which provide her with a sense of peace and calm as a chihuahua dog mom. With a unique perspective and an eye for detail, Haylee uses journalism as a way to understand the world and the people that make it special.