Brave New Period

Safe, eco feminine care - it's not so scary.
By O'Rya Hyde-Keller

Your time of the month certainly isn’t the time of your life, but tampons and pads are easy, effective, and something you hardly even think about. So what’s the problem? All those period products add up, hurting the planet—and maybe your health.

The average woman throws away 200 to 300 pounds of pads, applicators, and tampons in her lifetime, according to Susan Kim, coauthor of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009). And it’s not just the truckloads of waste that make conventional feminine care toxic. Before the 1990s, the absorbent wood pulp in tampons and pads was bleached with chlorine gas, creating a carcinogenic by-product called dioxin. Manufacturers have since reduced dioxin output by whitening products with chlorine dioxide gas, also called elemental chlorine-free bleaching. But the new process isn’t perfect.

“Even elemental chlorine-free bleaching contaminates lakes and rivers,” says Martin Wolf, director of product sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation, maker of chlorine-free pads and tampons. “The pollutants’ adverse effects include human hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and feminization of male fish and reptiles downstream of paper mills.”
What’s more, although the FDA says “no risk of health would be expected from these trace amounts” of dioxin found in feminine care, some experts remain concerned, pointing out that dioxin accumulates in fatty tissue over time.

“With a tampon, you’re regularly inserting a product into an extremely absorbent part of the body,” explains Philip Tierno, PhD, director of microbiology and immunology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Ultimately, it’s the dearth of research that concerns Tierno the most. “There haven’t been any printed and published studies on dioxins and tampons,” he says. “It has definitely not been researched to my satisfaction.”

Mystery also surrounds the synthetic fragrances added to some tampons. These chemical cocktails can contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates—and yet manufacturers aren’t obliged to disclose the scents’ ingredients. At the very least, such chemicals may inhibit or kill normal bacteria in the vagina, causing unwanted bacteria to flourish, says Tierno. And just as the pesticides lingering on nonorganic produce elicit concern, the chemical pesticides used to grow the cotton in conventional tampons can alter hormones and cause cancer.

It’s no wonder a health-conscious, eco-minded gal might go searching for other options. If you’re looking to kick Kotex to the curb, try these alternatives.

Cloth pads
Made from renewable materials like cotton, hemp, and bamboo, reusable pads come in various sizes, shapes, and absorbencies.
The good: You can use one cloth pad for as long as the material holds up, meaning less trash in the landfill and more money saved. Some women find fabric more comfortable than disposable maxis’ petroleum-based polymers.
The bad: Cloth can be bulky, so if you like super-thin disposables, these could take some getting used to. Also, a nonorganic, synthetically dyed cotton cloth pad, while still reusable, is not as eco as its organic, undyed counterpart.
The icky: To clean pads, soak in soapy water, then toss into the washing machine. The yuck factor and labor may dissuade some women.
Try: GladRags’ ( line of cloth pads includes several made from organic, undyed cotton. The Bucket Kit Organic Cotton includes seven sizes of pads and products to launder them. Lunapads ( offer pads and liners in various colors, shapes, and sizes. Organic Lunapanties have a pocket to hold cloth liners.

Menstrual cups
Worn internally, cups made of silicone or rubber catch menstrual blood inside the vagina. They’re safe and FDA approved for menstrual use.
The good: One cup lasts an entire year, and depending on flow, you can keep one in for up to 12 hours. Because they are catchers, not absorbers, cups may be more comfortable for women who experience dryness with tampons. Plus, cups don’t put you at risk for developing the tampon-related bacterial infection toxic shock syndrome (TSS). For more on TSS, visit
The bad: Folding the cup, inserting it properly, and removing it easily involves a learning curve. Plus, you may still need a backup panty liner on heavy flow days.
The icky: Once you’ve mastered it, changing a cup is no messier than changing a tampon. But it does need to be cleaned with soap and water before reinserting.
Try: The DivaCup ( makes silicone cups in two models: one for women under 30 who haven’t had children; one for women over 30 or who have had children. The Keeper ( cups come in natural gum-rubber or silicone, for women allergic to rubber latex.

Natural disposables
Tampons are made from 100 percent organic, chlorine-free cotton; pads contain chlorine-free bleached wood pulp.
The good: Fragrance- and chlorine-free natural tampons and pads reduce your—and the planet’s—chemical exposure. By choosing certified organic–cotton tampons, you’re helping reduce the 55 million pounds of pesticides used to grow cotton each year.
The bad: They’re still disposable, so they end up in landfills and waterways. Plus, they’re more expensive than conventional
or reusable products.
The icky: In terms of mess, your transition from conventional to natural should be seamless.
Try: Natracare ( makes various pads and 100 percent organic-cotton tampons; the Tanga liner fits in a thong. Seventh Generation ( offers an extensive line of pads, liners, and organic-cotton tampons.