Feminine hygiene products and the environment

Feminine hygiene products and the environment

feminine hygiene products and the environment

What is the cost of convenience when it comes to feminine hygiene products?

Have you considered the impact your feminine hygiene products have on your health and the environment?

Every month, millions of women around the world grab a box or packet of feminine hygiene products – tampons, pads, liners – that have been improved over the years to help women deal with their monthly period as discreetly as possible. In commercials, women in white dresses or pants prance about without embarrassment, marketing
snow-white pads and silky-smooth tampons for daily comfort. We’re led to believe that these products are safe,
engineered specifically for women.

But have you ever seen a list of ingredients on the packaging of your tampons or pads? What exactly are they putting
into these so-called remarkable products that have revolutionised ease and convenience for womankind over the decades? The thing is – we don’t know. Most companies don’t want us to know either.

A multibillion dollar industry, it’s estimated that a woman will use around 11 000 tampons in her life (Safecosmetics.org). Add to that the number of sanitary pads and liners, and the manufacturers are making a small fortune. Even today, they’re not legally required to disclose each and every ingredient that goes into creating feminine hygiene products. However, numerous tests and studies have shown they may contain harmful products and chemicals proven to seriously damage our health.


The health impact

Sanitary pads and tampons mainly consist of bleached cotton, wood pulp or viscose rayon, with a host of chemicals to make them super-absorbent. These are then treated with chlorine to bleach them a sparkling white, which leaves behind an array of harmful elements like dioxins and furans, not to mention the residual of pesticides used to treat the GMO cotton grown to make them. Add the adhesive chemicals used to make pads and liners stay in place, the plastics used to create the leak-proof layer, and the inclusion of ‘fragrances’ – a loose term pertaining to the undisclosed mixture of chemicals used to make the product odour-free – and it becomes a toxic cocktail of substances meant to help us feel ‘fresher’, which is in contact with the most sensitive and delicate part of your body.

Unlike trace toxins present in food, which can easily be broken down by enzymes in the stomach, the vaginal lining is a thin layer of skin that can easily absorb elements from items that are in close contact. These enter the bloodstream and can accumulate within the body and organs. The unregulated use of chemicals in feminine care products has
been associated with problems that include an increased risk of cancer, reproductive health problems (like endometritis), allergies (do you suffer from chronic thrush?), and hormonal imbalances. Because tampons are
so absorbent, they also draw moisture from the vaginal walls and disrupt the natural pH balance, which can affect the severity of menstrual cramps. Regular use of tampons, especially those made from rayon, can cause small tears
in the vaginal tissue, which acts as the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus
(staph) or group A streptococcus (strep), responsible for toxic shock syndrome (rather alarmingly, tampon manufacturers do warn about this in their leaflets!). Overall, women underestimate the effect these
common, yet seemingly necessary, items have on their bodies.

Did you know? One sanitary pad contains the same amount of plastic components as four plastic bags?

The ecological impact

Have you ever thought about where those 11 000 tampons are likely to end up? Most tampons are tossed into landfill, incinerated, or make their way through the world’s water systems. The plastic lining in pads can take around 50 years to break down, and while cotton is viewed as more eco-friendly, this is only true when composted correctly. A study by
The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm carried out a life cycle assessment on the impact of tampons and sanitary pads on the environment. While the environmental footprint is large for each woman making use of sanitary products in terms of landfill waste, the main impact was felt in the processing of the raw materials used to create the products, especially low-density polyethylene, which is the plastic used in the backing of pads and tampon applicators. The production of these materials utilises a high amount of energy, which affects fossil fuel consumption.

What are the alternatives?

The good news is there are other products on the market that are reusable, eco-friendly, and much healthier for your body. While it might be daunting to forgo the ease of commercially available feminine products, it’s essential that women start thinking about their periods in a more sustainable way.

The menstrual cup 

These reusable cups, usually made from medical grade silicone, have been available since the late 1930s. Because they’re reusable and can last up to 10 years, they have less impact on the environment. Inserted similarly to a tampon, there are no chemicals or strands that will get absorbed or left behind in your body. They don’t dry out the vaginal lining and they can hold up to three tampons’ worth of menstrual blood, meaning they can last up to 12 hours before changing. Simply rinse with warm water and place in a bag after sterilising (follow cleaning instructions specific to your cup).

Personal testimony: ‘I initially decided to try it simply because of the cost. I paid R250 for my Pink Cup, and it’ll last me about five years. When I thought of how much I was spending on pads (for sleeping), tampons (for use during the day), and panty liners (in case of leaks) each month, it just made much more sense to go with the cup. Unlike wearing a tampon, once it was in I almost forgot I was wearing it. It was really comfortable! I was worried about leaks at first, but after nipping to the bathroom a few times to check, I felt pretty confident that it wasn’t going to leak. It’s now been over two years and I love it!’ Candice, 27


Washable sanitary pads and period panties

These come in a variety of colours, sizes and absorbencies to suit your needs. Reusable pads are generally
made from fabric – mostly nontreated cotton – with ‘wings’ that clip over your underwear, allowing for
a snug fit and no leakage. Chemical-free, they’re a much healthier alternative to disposable sanitary
pads. Simply pop into the wash and hang out to dry when finished using. Many brands last for two to three
years. Reusable panties have a built-in pad, making them streamlined and comfortable.

Organic cotton tampons and sanitary pads

100% organic products, such as Natracare’s organic sanitary tampons and organic sanitary pads, are made
from organically grown cotton that is not treated with pesticides or bleach. Plastic-, chlorine- and rayon-free,
these items are also compostable and can break down naturally within 90 days, if composted correctly.

Available in South Africa at the following online shops:
Butterflywings.co.za (the moon cup)





Joni van der Merwe

About Joni van der Merwe

Digital editor I’m getting married in 2018 and I think it’s the perfect time to focus on my relationship with not only my fiance but my friends, family and colleagues too. I want to nurture and cherish the people I love by being more understanding and present in their lives.


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