A new report by Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) details how the feminine care industry sells products containing unregulated and potentially harmful chemicals, including preservatives, pesticides, fragrances and dyes.
The report, Chem Fatale, kicks off a campaign that will target Proctor & Gamble, makers of Tampax and Always, to disclose the ingredients in tampons and pads, and eliminate toxic chemicals. The campaign also wants to encourage consumers to demand more government oversight of the $3 billion feminine care industry.
“Feminine care products are not just your average cosmetics because they are used on an exceptionally sensitive and absorbent part of a woman’s body,” Alexandra Scranton, WVE’s director of science and research and author of the report said in a media release. “Greater scrutiny, oversight and research are badly needed to assure the safety of their ingredients on women’s health.”
Tampons are used by up to 85 percent of menstruating women and may contain dioxins or pesticide residues linked to cancer, hormone disruptors, allergens and irritants from fragrance, WVE said. Feminine wipes, feminine washes and feminine deodorant products contain toxic preservatives like parabens, which may be hormone disruptors, or quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin, which release cancer-causing formaldehyde. Most feminine care products are fragranced and commonly contain known fragrance allergens—including anti-itch products. These chemicals sometimes exacerbate the very symptoms a woman is attempting to self-treat with these products.
According to the report, black and Latina women may be disproportionately affected by these chemicals as they are greater users of products such as douches and feminine wipes. Black women are more likely to use feminine sprays and powders than women of other races and ethnicities.
“It is well known that black women face health disparities for numerous diseases,” said Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman, director of environmental health for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “This report highlights how much more we need to know about the potential impact of feminine care product use on black women’s health.”
Current regulations on chemicals used in feminine care products are insufficient to protect public health, and often don’t require the ingredient disclosure needed to assess safety, according to WVE’s report. Tampons and pads are regulated as medical devices, which means that companies are not required to disclose the ingredients. Other feminine care products that are regulated as cosmetics must label their ingredients, but fragrance ingredients can be kept from consumers.
“Knowledge is power,” said Cristina Aguilar, interim executive director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. “But in this case, we know that many of the most dangerous products that are found to cause chronic diseases also target women of color. The reality is knowledge isn’t enough—Latinas who already have health disparities also face financial, economic, and geographic barriers to accessing safe alternatives.”
The American Public Health Association and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) specifically recommend against intravaginal cleaning (douching) and have associated the practice with adverse health outcomes such as increased bacterial infections. The ACOG also recommends against use of fragranced tampons and pads, feminine sprays and powders to help prevent or clear up vulvar disorders.
“The chemicals used in these products are a real concern given the inevitable exposure to sensitive and absorptive vulvar and vaginal tissue,” said Dr. Ami Zota, a professor of occupational and environmental health at George Washington University. “There is a clear need for more research on the health effects of these exposures on women’s health.”
The report includes a “Hall of Shame” appendix highlighting examples of feminine care products that contain toxic chemicals by brand name.
In this video, Scranton, the WVE director of science and research, discusses the report findings.
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