Tampons are one of the most popular menstruation products in a growing market that now includes period underwear, menstrual cups and more. They’ve been around since the 1930s and are still the go-to for many, used by up to 80% of people who menstruate.

However, little research has investigated the potential contaminants in tampons and whether they pose a health risk. And a new, first-of-its kind study has many wondering: Are tampons safe?

The recent research out of UC Berkeley found that many tampons on the market, including organic and non-organic, may contain toxic metals, such as lead and arsenic. The researchers looked at tampons sold both in the United States and Europe.

“Some tampons had higher concentrations of one metal, lower concentrations of another,” Jenni A. Shearston, Ph.D., the lead author on the paper said. “There wasn’t a specific tampon that we tested that seemed to have … a lower concentration of all the metals.” 

Shearston said she and her colleagues began investigating tampons after noticing there was little about their components in the research literature.

“There’s been this historical taboo around menstruation,” she said. “That doesn’t just impact us in our social lives. It also impacts scientific research, and I think it’s one of the reasons we haven’t had as much research on menstrual products.” 

Dr. Mitchell Kramer, chair of OB-GYN at Huntington Hospital Northwell Health, said the study is “groundbreaking” and indicates a need for tampon manufacturers to conduct more testing on their products.

“It certainly requires more evaluation. … I think it has potentially some significant impact moving forward in terms of how tampons are produced and the effect on the users,” Kramer said.

That said, it’s unclear what the potential health impact, if any, may be of using tampons containing these metals.

“We don’t know if any of these metals are absorbed vaginally, which is key when it comes to exposure,” said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an OB-GYN and author of the book, “Let’s Talk about Down There: An OB-GYN Answers All of your Burning Questions … Without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking.”

Shearston — a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley School of Public Health and department of environmental science, policy and management — adds that one of the limitations of the study is that they do not know if the metal can even seep out of the tampons.

“We only tested whether or not these metals are present in tampons,” she said. “We don’t know whether they come out.”

Here’s what to know about the study.

Tampons and toxic metals

The paper published was in the journal “Environment International,” and researchers looked at 30 different tampons from 14 brands to determine the metal levels in the tampons. They found “measurable concentrations” of all 16 metals they looked for — including some toxic metals, such as lead and arsenic — in all the tampons tested.

However, the research does not conclude that the tested tampons and others on the market are not safe. Shearston hopes people don’t “panic” about the study.

“We just need more information,” she said. “What I would like to encourage people to do is support more research and ask more questions about this to try to make research on menstrual products and menstruation a priority.”

The levels of metals varied based on the type, where they were purchased and if they were generic or name brand.

“These metals were found in different amounts, with some higher in organic tampons (like arsenic) and others in conventional tampons (such as lead),” Lincoln said. “We don’t know what brands were tested as this was blinded in the study, which I know is frustrating.”

Lincoln, who was not involved in the study, notes it’s somewhat surprising that this study is a first, but that the findings make sense.

“I was not surprised that metals were found in organic tampons as well, since they can be absorbed from the soil, and organic farming still uses pesticides,” she said.

Are tampons safe?

Yes, it is still safe to use tampons, the experts say.

“People do not need to panic,” Kramer said. “We haven’t established that these products are dangerous or causing people to get really sick. I don’t think that’s the case. I think these levels of these heavy metals are very low.”

A news release about the study also notes that “it’s unclear if the metals detected by this study are contributing to any negative health effects.” Shearston says she and her colleagues are currently investigating “if metals can come out of the tampons.”

“We’re doing some leaching experiment,” she says. “We’re also testing tampons, these same products, for other chemicals.” 

Lincoln also stressed that it’s too soon to say what the findings mean for consumers looking for the safest tampons.

“Per this study, the average amount of lead found in tampons was actually very small, and far lower than what is considered concerning in our food or water,” she said. “This doesn’t negate the study’s findings, but it’s an important perspective when people are deciding if they want to continue using tampons or not.”

Catherine Roberts, an associate editor of health at Consumer Reports, who covered organic tampons, notes that study highlights the need for more investigation into tampons.

“This is not an actionable takeaway for an individual consumer,” Roberts said. “A huge takeaway from this is we really need to study this more, and in particular, it would be very helpful if we could study what it means for your physiology to use a tampon that is contaminated with heavy metals.” 

Are nontoxic and organic tampons safer?

All tampons tested had some degree of toxic metals, including those claiming to be non-toxic and organic. In fact, these were higher in arsenic than conventional tampons.

“I do hope this demonstrates for people that organic is not always necessarily better, especially with period products,” Lincoln says.

An organic label on a tampon doesn’t have as much meaning as it might on food, for example.

“It doesn’t carry a lot of information to have a tampon that’s labeled as organic,” Roberts said. “It can mean a lot of different things.” 

Lincoln added that you should choose period products based on what works best for you.

“This study shouldn’t be the reason we all throw out our tampons ASAP, but it is important that people decide what feels right for them,” she said. “It’s important to realize what period products you use is a personal choice. Not everyone feels comfortable with pads or cups or period underwear, and for them, tampons are clutch.”

Using tampons safely

For tampon users worried about their exposure to metal, Kramer suggests wearing tampons less often and relying on other menstrual products.

“Instead of wearing tampons 24/7 during the period, maybe alternate between that and a sanitary pad,” he said. “There are certain things you can try to mitigate some of the exposure.”

There are other things consumers can consider when selecting tampons to avoid unknown ingredients.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like shopping for particular brands or looking at particular labels is necessarily going to help you avoid (heavy metals),” Roberts said. 

Roberts says people can buy fragrance-free tampons, select tampons with fewer components and skip tampons with polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene or other plastic materials

“Fragrances are a big black box regulatorily,” Roberts said. “You can add fragrance, and you don’t have to disclose what’s in them.” 

Still, Kramer hopes people do not panic about the findings.

“Tampons have been around for a very long time. We haven’t seen people coming in with heavy metal toxicity, and this is very different than the toxic shock syndrome issue,” he said. “That was a bacteria that had nothing to do with heavy metals.”

Tampon alternatives

If you’re interested in trying other types of period products, look into these tampon alternatives:

Menstrual cups

One popular brand is the Diva Cup. These are cups that you insert into the vagina to collect the menstrual fluid.

Menstrual discs

Similar to a cup, these products use a bag with a rim to collect the period fluid.

Period underwear

These resemble normal underwear but they contain extra material to absorb the menstrual fluid.

Reusable pads

These are cloth pads that you can put in your underwear to absorb the fluid but can also be washed and reused, unlike standard pads, which you throw away.

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