Women, girls and people who menstruate place an incredible amount of trust in the period product manufacturers. We trust that what we are using in our vaginas or next to our vulvas is safe. Couple this with the stigma that still exists around sexual, reproductive and menstrual health, what results is many people who use these products are suffering in silence from adverse reactions to the toxic chemicals in the most well-known and widely stocked disposable period products.


Last year, new legislation (The Menstrual Products Right To Know Act) came into effect in New York State to make listing the ingredients of period products on packaging and dispensers a legal requirement – the first State to legislate for this transparency. Thanks to the passing of the Act, this year all manufacturers are now expected to have all ingredients listed on menstrual products on sale in the state. The State of California passed a similar bill last year, which will come into effect in January 2023. The California bill included the additional requirement for companies to list ingredients on their website. Other states in the US have not legislated for such transparency.


In June this year, the EU passed a new resolution on sexual health and rights, urging member states to encourage wide availability of toxin-free and reusable menstrual products. Sadly, as the UK are no longer a member of the EU, our government have made no such pledge. In the UK it is a requirement to list ingredients in food and cosmetic products, but not in period or incontinence products.


As part of the development of The Menstrual Products Right to Know Act, in 2018 New York Assembly member Linda Rosenthal partnered with Women’s Voices for the Earth to test the ingredients and trace chemicals found in the most popular super absorbency tampon brands in the US such as Tampax and Playtex. Eight chemicals of concern were tested for, including chemicals that are thought to be irritants, carcinogens, and reproductive toxicants. The most frequent chemical found was carbon disulphide, which is used in the production of rayon (this chemical was found to be present in all the tampons that contained rayon). Alarmingly, exposure to carbon disulphide among female workers in factories using rayon has been linked to an increased risk of menstrual disorders. There is currently no established safe limit of exposure to these chemicals in period products.


This feels like something of a betrayal when many of the largest and most widely stocked manufacturers of disposable tampons and pads are inviting us to use these products that interact with the most absorbent and delicate natural ecosystem that our bodies maintain. The monopoly that the largest manufacturers have on a market worth over £20 billion by 2027, and the taboos that surround periods (just think of the adverts showing pads and tampons absorbing blue liquid instead of something resembling period blood) mean many have not questioned if there are other, better, safer product options. Our consumption of products to discretely handle our bleeding has been out of silent necessity, rather than conscious consumption.


Speaking to Wen, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) consultant gynaecologist and specialist in psychosexual medicine, Dr Leila Frodsham, has described the harm that period products on the UK market have been having on women, girls and people who menstruate. Fragrance and super absorbency gels added to disposable pads, along with dyes or bleaches used to alter the appearance of tampons, have been causing issues such as vulvovaginitis, incredibly sore skin that on occasion has manifested in a clear outline of the menstrual pad where the vulva has been irritated. One treatment option that Dr Frodsham suggests to her patients is to move to using reusable pads or period pants, or to switch to disposable bamboo or cotton pads.  

Dr Frodsham describes the outcome of switching products as ‘remarkable’. “Within the space of six weeks…they come back saying, ‘I have seen multiple specialists, and no-one has mentioned this before, but my skin is so much better that I’m no longer uncomfortable’. It’s a really simple thing and that leads me to thinking we need to change things.

‘I have yet to have a woman who has converted to period pants or washable pads and come back. A lot of them say to me ‘Thank god I stopped using those. I feel healthier, and each time now if I ever do use a disposable pad, I feel sore, and I feel such guilt that I’m putting all that plastic into our oceans’ – Dr Leila Frodsham


However, in the rush for innovation of reusable products, recent tests have raised concerns. Forever chemicals, PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances), linked to certain cancers, infertility, miscarriage and cardiovascular disease have been found in some period pants, highlighting the urgent need for UK regulation of all period products, both single use disposable and reusable.


Women, girls and people who menstruate should have the right to know what is in their period products, to be able to make an informed choice about the products we want to use, and to be able to avoid chemicals of concern. For too long the environmental and health impacts of our menstrual products have been kept secret, and consumers have been kept in the dark. The states of New York and California have shown that transparency can and should be legislated for.


We need to expose the products that are potentially harmful and bring safer and more sustainable alternatives, free from chemicals of concern and which reduce their environmental impact, into the mainstream.    


2018 tampon testing results 

Interview with RCOG spokesperson Dr. Leila Frodsham and Wen. 

Find out more at Environmenstrual Week webinar 13th October 2021 4.30pm

This article was written by Wen volunteer, Franki Appleton.


Franki is an intersectional eco-feminist with a background in Public Affairs, advising charities, campaigns, Government, and Councils. She has a passion for reproductive and environmental justice and works to break down barriers that cause inequality and inaction on climate change. She also frequently litter picks to stem the tide of plastics entering our waters.

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