There are some things you know are worth buying organic, like milk and strawberries. And there are others that might be pretty low in your list (organic energy drinks, anyone?). Then there’s the stuff that falls in the middle, like organic tampons. They seem like a good idea—but are they really worth the extra cost?
The answer might be yes. Because even though you don’t eat them or slather them onto your skin, conventional tampons are loaded with chemicals that your body can readily soak up. “The vagina is a mucus membrane. Whatever you put into it is always rapidly absorbed—and that includes things like pesticides and petrochemicals,” says Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, integrative women’s health expert and author of Bodywise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing.
Tampons are made from cotton, which can be a pretty dirty crop. Conventional cotton accounts for 16% of the world’s pesticide use, and the World Health Organization rates eight of the 10 pesticides commonly used to grow the stuff as moderately or highly hazardous to health. That’s bad for women, since many common pesticides can mimic hormones like estrogen that may raise the risk for some cancers (like breast and ovarian cancer), as well as endometriosis and uterine fibroids, says Abrams. Yikes.
It’s not great for the environment, either. Aldicarb, one of the most commonly used cotton pesticides, has shown up in the groundwater of 16 states—where it could potentially harm surrounding wildlife.
Pesticides aren’t the only problem, though. Because consumers associate bright white with squeaky clean, conventional tampons are bleached. Problem is, the chlorine bleaching process produces chemical byproducts like dioxins, a class of toxic pollutants that are linked to cancer, reproductive issues, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. And once dioxins get into the body, they tend to accumulate in fat tissue and hang around for a while.
There aren’t any studies that directly link conventional tampons to health problems. And while there’s no way to quantify your chemical exposure from using them, experts like Abrams say its better to be safe than sorry. “We don’t know that tampons cause [cancer or other health problems], but it’s not a leap to suspect that they might lead a woman in the direction of having more risks of those things because of their exposure,” she says.
Since organic tampons are produced without pesticides or bleach, choosing them is an easy way to lower your chemical load. And if you tend to suffer from discomfort down there, they might help you find relief. Many women with chronic vaginitis or vaginal irritation are sensitive to the chemicals used in conventional tampons, and switching to organic products often helps, says Abrams. (Here are 3 organic tampons worth trying.)
Yes, organic tampons are slightly pricier. A box of 16 tends to cost about the same as a box of 32 conventional ones. But that extra $6 might be worth it. “When we’re ranking exposures, this is a concerning one,” Abrams says. “It’s as if you were drinking or eating toxic food or medication, because it’s readily absorbed into a vulnerable part of the body.”
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