When it’s time to stock up on period products each month, chances are you probably chuck a pack of tampons in your supermarket trolley without a second thought.
You might for a moment bemoan the cost, or the fact that you have to keep on buying them every few weeks, or briefly wonder about their impact on the environment.
It’s estimated that you’ll spend $15,000-$20,000 on disposable period products throughout your lifetime. And if you suffer from severe period pain or endometriosis, chances are you spend even more on your period – on painkillers, other medication or doctors’ appointments just to cope with the discomfort.
But it turns out there could be an even greater cost to your overall health with tampon use, and it’s all down to what they’re made of.
According to a small New Zealand study commissioned by period product brand Organic Initiative, some tampons contain toxic chemicals that could cause health issues or even affect your fertility.
In the study, conducted by Insitugen, researchers at the University of Otago found that one in four popular tampon brands tested showed “significant” endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) activity.
But what does this mean for our health? Do we need to be worried? And should we be changing our period care routines?
What are EDCs?
Your endocrine system is made of hormone-producing glands that affect your energy levels, growth, mood, stress response, metabolism and reproduction.
One of the tampon brands tested in the study was found to contain xeno-oestrogens, which are a class of EDC – endocrine-disrupting chemicals – contained in common forms of plastic. EDCs are associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, infertility in both men and women and several cancers including breast cancer.
It’s important to note that this was a pilot study that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed. Academics are calling for further research.
Dr Alison Heather, chief scientist at Insitugen and professor of physiology at the University of Otago, explains that xeno-oestrogens mimic natural oestrogens in the body.
“While it’s established that oestrogen mimics, at concentrations sufficient to disrupt oestrogen signalling, can cause health issues in general, we still lack sufficient information to determine whether the specific type and levels of the chemical observed in our study would result in health concerns, as seen with other oestrogen mimics,” she tells the Herald.
“We are actively conducting ongoing testing on additional batches of tampons, expanding beyond those already examined. Additionally, we are broadening our investigation to include a variety of tampon brands to assess the prevalence of oestrogen mimics in this product category.”
Further research will look at other feminine hygiene products, as scientists attempt to find out the exact chemical nature of the oestrogen mimic found.
Dr Emma Ellis, an Auckland-based obstetrician and gynaecologist, says it’s important for people not to panic about the results of the study, given that more work is needed.
“But I think what it’s showing us is that we know that these types of chemicals are in our environment,” she tells the Herald.
“They’re all over the place, but we have to start thinking a bit more carefully about where we might get exposed to them, and how we might get exposed to them. And certainly, there’s more research to be done.
“Oestrogen receptors are all over the body, not just in things associated with women’s health, but they’re in the brain, the heart, the breasts, obviously the uterus and ovaries, and they’re also located in the prostate – men have oestrogen receptors as well.”
For Ellis, it’s “a bit of a wakeup call” and she wants us to “think a bit more carefully about what we’re putting in our bodies”.
What to look for on the label
Heather notes that other period products contain several types of plastics too – it’s not just tampons.
“Some products like pads may consist of as much as 90 per cent plastic, posing environmental concerns.”
So when you get to the hygiene aisle, what should you reach for?
“For a long time now I’ve felt that it’s really important to reduce our exposure and try and buy organic [period products] if I can get hold of it and afford it,” Ellis says. “I think it is just a whole-life kind of approach if you can do it.”
Currently, manufacturers don’t have to list everything that’s in period products, but there are a couple of things to look out for on the label, she says.
“You want to be sure that it’s certified organic and that you know about the provenance of your product right from the beginning: where is the cotton grown, how is it treated?
“Is everything, all the way along, certified [organic]? And then you can say, it seems pretty unlikely that you’d have anything like a chemical in there that’s going to mimic an oestrogen.”
In New Zealand, cervical screening is recommended every five years. It’s available to those aged 25 to 69 and is free for women aged 30 and over who have either never had a cervical screen, or have not had one in the last five years, as well as for Pasifika, Māori and those with a Community Services card.
A new self-test was introduced by Te Whatu Ora in September. You can check if you’re due for screening by contacting your doctor. If you’re not currently enrolled with a doctor, Screening Support Services can help you book a test and can be reached on 0800 729 729.
Bethany Reitsma is an Auckland-based journalist covering lifestyle and entertainment stories, who joined the Herald in 2019. She specialises in telling Kiwis’ real-life stories, money-saving hacks and anything even remotely related to coffee.