Wen is working with Natracare to call for greater transparency and specific regulation for all period products, both single use disposable and reusables such as pads, cups and period pants.
We believe regulation should encompass the safety, sustainability, affordability of all period products throughout their lifecycle.
It might come as a bit of shock to hear that we have more information about what’s in our toothpaste than what’s in our period products?
Did you know that period product manufacturers have virtually zero legal obligation to publish the full list of ingredients in your pads, tampons, cups, and pants?
But why should we be concerned?
Lack of specific legislation and transparency about the hidden ingredients in our period products means we could be exposed to harmful chemicals and fragrances without our knowledge. Independent tests have found a toxic cocktail of chemical residues in period products, many of which are linked to cancer, and developmental and reproductive disorders such as endometriosis. They can also disrupt hormones and trigger allergic reactions.
Seeing red? Want to put some pressure on the UK government and period product manufacturers to find out exactly what is in these products? Want to see them regulated like cosmetics and personal care products?
There are 3 ways you can ensure this happens:
(1) SIGN OUR OPEN LETTER
Wen, along with 17 other NGO’s, campaigning organisations and individuals, reusable, organic and plastic free single use disposable period product producers, have written to those in the UK government with the capacity to bring about this change. Read the open letter below or download it. If you are a campaigner or organisation, then please sign this letter by completing this short form.
Rt Hon George Eustice MP – Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Liz Truss Minister for Women and Equalities
Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dr Jenny Harries – Chief Executive, UK Health Security Agency
Professor Chris Whitty – Chief Medical Officer
Jonathan Marron – Director General, Prevention, Community and Social Care
MPs and ministers –
Maggie Throup MP, Selaine Saxby MP, Steve Double MP, Geraint Davies MP ,Sally Ann Hart MP, Kerry McCarthy MP , Ben Lake MP, Alberto Costa MP, Fleur Anderson MP.
Chair of ENVI committee – Neil Parish MP.
Call for greater transparency and specific regulation for all period products
We are writing to you to call for greater transparency and specific regulation for all period products, both single use disposable and reusables such as pads, cups and period pants.
We believe regulation for period products should encompass:
- regulation of ingredients in order to protect the health and safety of women, girls and people who menstruate
- transparency of ingredients
- sustainability, given the heavy plastic burden of disposable menstrual products
- period poverty.
To illustrate the scale of the problem, every woman, girl or person who menstruates uses more than 11,000 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime, generating 200kg of waste per person. It has been estimated that each pad can contain up to 90% plastic and each pack of pads can be the equivalent of 5 plastic bags [i]. Between 1.5 -2 billion period products are thought to be flushed down the loo each year. That’s about 35-47% of products, littering beaches and causing blocked sewage pipes, while the other 53% could end up in landfill or incinerated [ii].
Regulating period products
Currently period products are regulated under the General Products Safety Regulations [iii] but not specifically mentioned in it. Period products deserve to be regulated like tattoo inks, cosmetics and clothing especially given the close skin contact and absorbency of the skin in the vagina or next to the vulva.
Exposure to EDCs
Research has shown that period products can be a significant source of exposure for Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) [iv] such as phthalates. This is due to the dermal absorption from the use of pads, panty liners and tampons. As a mucous membrane, the vagina is capable of secreting and absorbing fluids at a higher rate than skin, and rapidly absorbs chemicals without metabolizing them. Depending on the absorbency rate, this could be as high as absorption rates from personal care products such as perfumes and deodorants [v], [vi] .
Of particular concern is that for black women and marginalised ethnic communities these exposures can be greater due to research suggesting the use of other products such as douches containing similar harmful chemicals [vii], [viii].
Added fragrances can also be found in many period products, although sometimes disguised under confusing terms such as ‘odour controlling technologies’ [ix]. This is not communicated to the consumer, and we are not allowed to know the chemicals or material content. Synthetic fragrances can be made from a cocktail of up to 3,000 chemicals [x] including hormone-disruptors and chemicals linked to cancer. This is, however, a strict requirement in other industries (eg, cosmetics, toys) to ensure adequate consumer protection.
Knowing that the vagina and vulva are more susceptible to allergens and irritants, we believe the presence of these allergens should be disclosed. If similar levels of fragrance were found in personal care products or in toys, they would require mandatory labelling [xi].
Despite reassurances from period product manufacturers (PPMs) that any chemical residues found in period products are ‘at safe levels’. We know there are no safe levels for EDCs [xii] and we are not just exposed via period products. We can be exposed to multiple sources for example through our use of cosmetics and personal care products, from certain plastics and food packaging, and also through the work we do for example those working with plastics, cleaning products or as firefighters.
These chemicals, even at low concentrations and in combination, can trigger reactions in the body which increases the risk of cancers such as breast and prostate, obesity, reproductive and developmental and neurological disorders, and diabetes [xiii]. They can also be passed transgenerationally [xiv].
For decades, period advertising has promoted shame-inducing messages, suggesting that our vaginas and periods are dirty. Women, girls, and people who menstruate are encouraged to believe that in order to feel ‘clean’ we need to use heavily fragranced period products. A healthy vagina is self-cleaning. Perfumes are not necessary. This toxic marketing can increase our exposure to harmful ingredients in fragrances. Women, girls and people who menstruate have a right to know what is in the products we use monthly.
An appetite for change
In a recent YouGov survey conducted by Wen and Natracare, 85% of women, girls, and people who menstruate want full ingredient transparency in their period products [xv]. And an industry report cited the use of harmful chemicals in period products was of concern to 42% of women who menstruated [xvi].
How can we avoid harmful chemicals if they are not listed on the label?
We do not have a full picture about how these products are impacting our health or environment because they are not considered in Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) or the effects are underestimated. According to UNEP this is due to gaps in data on the identity and quantities of chemicals used, as well as gaps in the ability of LCA models to describe the effects arising from the toxicity of these chemicals when they get into the environment [xvii]. This could be addressed by regulation, and greater transparency from the Period Product Manufacturers (PPMs).
Rise of reusables
The problem is compounded in the rush of innovation for reusable products. These bring benefits of reducing plastic and waste but also, due to lack of regulation, can contain hidden harmful chemicals such as Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). Known as a ‘forever chemicals’ due to their persistency, PFAS are linked to certain cancers, infertility, miscarriage and cardiovascular disease. PFAS was found in some brands of period pants in the US, compounding the need for urgent UK regulation for all period products, both single use disposable and reusable [xviii].
The Menstrual Products Right to Know Act
Recent legislation in New York State requires every menstrual product on the market to disclose its ingredients on the packaging [xix]. The Menstrual Products Right to Know Act [xx], which was championed by New York State Assembly Member, Linda Rosenthal, requires brands to print a conspicuous list of ingredients on all menstrual product packages or boxes including tampons and pads. The law came into effect in January 2020. The California governor Gavin Newsom also signed a bill (in September 2020) requiring brands to disclose their ingredients on menstrual products [xxi].
The European Parliament passed a resolution in June this year about the sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health [xxii]. The resolution urges the Member States to encourage the widespread availability of toxic-free and reusable menstrual products, specifically in large retailer outlets and pharmacies across EU Countries (which should at least match the proportion of single-use items on sale), accompanied by awareness-raising measures on the benefits of reusable menstrual products compared to single-use ones.
UK NGOs call for stricter chemicals control
Currently in the UK chemicals regulations are being updated after Brexit. A campaigning group of 26 health and environmental organizations developed 12 Key Asks for the UK chemicals Strategy. The Asks include a call for the phase out of the most hazardous chemicals from consumer products for all non-essential uses, and a plan to address endocrine disrupting chemicals including timelines to phase them out [xxiii].
Support from RCOG
Gynaecologists and Obstetricians are on the front line of hearing about health impacts from period products. In a statement to support Wen’s work on menstruation, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said: “The onus on addressing the toxic ingredients and plastic that is still contained within many period products is on the companies that sell these products and on the Government. For those women and girls who can, we encourage them to consider the choices they make when deciding which period products to use, and to do their best to make healthy and eco-friendly choices, but these must also suit their lifestyle and should not create barriers for them.”
Call to action
To address this very serious and widespread social, health and environmental issue we are calling on the UK government and all period products manufacturers to:
- Enact specific legislation on all period products to ensure safety, affordability, and transparency throughout the life cycle. Legislation needs to be linked to the UK Chemicals Strategy in relation to chemicals, waste, and plastic.
- Publish all period product tests results on PPM websites and all ingredients printed on period product packaging.
- Remove all tax on period products including on reusables items such as period pants.
- Provide reusable and safe disposable products and facilities in all schools, colleges, and universities and include straightforward information on how to use, dispose or wash products if needed.
- Adopt a more period positive approach to menstruation in education to combat cultural taboos and stigma and make the connections with sustainable development and impacts on climate change.
Thank you for your consideration and anticipate your response. We would be happy to meet with you to discuss how to progress this issue.
Wen (Women’s Environmenstrual Network) – Helen Lynn, Environmenstrual Campaign Manager.
AllMatters – Ida Gjørup – Head of Creative (formerly Organicup)
Bloody Good Period – Gabby Edlin, CEO and Founder.
City to Sea – Jasmine Tribe, Plastic Free Periods manager.
ChemTrust – Dr. Anna Watson, Head of Advocacy.
City to Sea – Natalie Fee, Founder and CEO.
Ecofemme – Laure Huys – Communications and Social Media.
#EndPeriodPlastic Campaign – Ella Daish, Environmental Activist and Founder.
Hej Support – Olga Speranskaya, PhD Co-Director.
Here We Flo Ltd – Tara Priya Chandra, Director
Mooncup – Lena Koskela – Marketing Manager.
Natracare – Susie Hewson, Founder
Rubycup – Julie Weigaard Kjær, co-founder and CEO.
Surfers Against Sewage – Elsa Pullman, Campaigns Officer.
The Chosen Pads Foundation – Malebogo Letsatle, founder and Director.
This is a Vulva – Jo Corrall – Founder.
WECF International – Chantal Van den Bossche, Communications Manager.
WVE (Women’s Voices for the Earth) – Alex Scranton, Director of Science and Research.
[i] Natracare. Pack of pads contains as much plastic as five carrier bags. June 2019.
[v] Gao, Chong-Jing. Phthalates, bisphenols, parabens, and triclocarban in feminine hygiene products from the United States and their implications for human exposure. Environment International 136 (2020) 105465
[vi] Gao, Chong-Jing et al. Feminine Hygiene Products a Neglected Source of Phthalate Exposure in Women. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2020, 54, 930−937
[vii] Nicole, W. A Question for Women’s Health: Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products and Personal Lubricants. Environ Health Perspect. 2014 Mar; 122(3): A70–A75.
[viii] Dodson, R.E. Personal care product use among diverse women in California: Taking Stock Study. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology (2021) 31:487–502.
[ix] Desmedt B, et al. Sensitizing fragrances in absorbent hygiene products. Contact Dermatitis. 2020;82:279–282.
[xi] Marcelis, Q. Development and application of a novel method to assess exposure levels of sensitizing and irritating substances leaching from menstrual hygiene products. Emerging Contaminants 7 (2021) 116e123.
[xii] La Merrill, MA et al. Consensus on the key characteristics of endocrine- disrupting chemicals as a basis for hazard identification. Nature Reviews | Endocrinology. Nov 2019.
[xiv] Brehm E & Flaws JA. Transgenerational Effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals on Male and Female Reproduction. Endocrinology, Volume 160, Issue 6, June 2019, Pages 1421–1435.
[xvi] Mintel. Intimate Hygiene and Sanitary Protection Products UK. 2021.
[xvii] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Single-Use Menstrual Products and Their Alternatives. 2021.
[xviii] Choy, Jessica. New Independent Study Confirms PFAS in Thinx, Other Products. Why all genders should care, plus how to tell if a product is truly PFAS-free. Sierra Club Magazine. 3/6/21.
[xx] Wen Blog. New York and California Lead the Way in Period Products Transparency. Sept 2021.
[xxii] European Parliament Resolution on the : Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health. 24/6/21.
[xxiii] 12 Key Priority Asks for the UK’s Chemicals Strategy. ACP May 2021.
(2) WRITE TO YOUR MP
Write to your MP telling them why it is so important. You can find your MP here . MPs are more likely to respond if sent a letter from a constituent. Here’s a template letter that you can use. Please feel free to personalise it.
(3) SIGN OUR PETITION
Sign, share and promote our petition to the UK government, ministers, MPs and all period products manufacturers.
HELEN LYNN, HEALTH ADVISER
Helen was Wen’s Health Campaign Coordinator, helped found the Alliance for Cancer Prevention and No More Breast Cancer Campaign. Helen sits on the advisory board of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF).