New research: PFAS detected in some menstrual and incontinence products

Many menstrual and incontinence products contain the harmful “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, according to new testing by university researchers.

Graham Peaslee, Ph.D., of Notre Dame, and his graduate student Alyssa Wicks found low levels of fluorine – an initial measure used to estimate PFAS – in about half of more than 100 products tested. Peaslee and Wicks summarized their findings in a briefing for reporters in advance of their presentation at the American Chemical Society’s science conference on August 13. 

Other products, including some period underwear and pads, had levels of fluorine that were high enough to suggest PFAS were likely added intentionally, possibly to create a “waterproof” barrier to prevent blood from leaking into clothing. 

But not every pad or pair of underwear tested contained fluorine, which shows these products can be successfully manufactured without PFAS. 

In addition to the fluorine measures, Peaslee and Wicks are also testing the products using a more sophisticated method, called liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, which will allow them to determine which specific PFAS are present. They plan to publish their eventual results. 

In 2020, Peaslee first tested period products for PFAS, drawing attention to the issue of forever chemicals in these items used by many people every day.

His laboratory also has tested other products for PFAS, including cosmetics, face masks, firefighter gear, school uniforms, food containers and food packaging. In fact, the 2017 study on the presence of PFAS in food wrappers played a key role in the eventual ban by some states on the chemicals in food packaging. EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews was also a co-author.

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Why does this research matter? 

We still don't know all the sources of exposure for PFAS. Drinking water is often cited as a major source of PFAS exposure. But PFAS are also detected in food, especially fish, clothing, furniture, carpeting, cosmetics, cleaning products, and artificial turf, in addition to food wrappers, and now menstrual and incontinence products. 

The molecular structure of PFAS makes them very difficult to break down and many accumulate in blood and organs, so even small exposures may add to the amount of PFAS in your body. Exposure has been associated with many negative health effects, including immune system effects, increased cholesterol levels, decreased infant and fetal growth, and increased risk of various cancers.

Unlike many other consumer products containing PFAS, menstrual and incontinence products are intended for extended contact with genitals, which makes the exposure more concerning. 

The combined use of menstrual products is estimated to last about 2,540 days of a person's life may be spent menstruating, according to a recent Harvard University study. People who menstruate are likely exposed to the chemicals in these products for most of that time. 

Similarly, incontinence products are worn for extended periods by many people, with an estimated 25 to 45 percent of the population experiencing incontinence. 

In the U.S., most menstrual and incontinence products are categorized as medical devices and fall under the regulatory purview of the Food and Drug Administration. 

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Regulating and banning PFAS 

The federal government is failing to protect us by not regulating or banning PFAS in consumer products. 

In the absence of federal regulation, states have introduced and enacted laws protecting consumers from PFAS. 

In May, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a bill that bans the use of PFAS in menstrual products, cleaning products, cookware and dental floss. It goes into effect in 2032. California and New York have banned PFAS in a variety of textiles.

Last year, Washington enacted a PFAS “phase out” bill that aims to remove PFAS from many consumer products by 2025. 

Also in 2022, California banned PFAS in personal care products. This year, the state is considering EWG-sponsored bills that would ban PFAS in cleaning products and artificial turf

The responsibility for getting PFAS out of consumer products also lies with the companies whose items are made with these chemicals, even when using PFAS aren’t essential.

Peaslee didn’t name menstrual and incontinence brands in his findings, citing the need for further research. But as PFAS testing becomes more widespread, some companies risk harming their reputation if they continue to jeopardize consumers’ health.  

What you can do

Avoiding exposures to harmful chemicals should not be the consumer’s responsibility. But being informed can help you make choices about what products to use. 

It’s crucial to understand the role of marketing claims. As reports of PFAS in menstrual products get more attention, lawsuits are being filed over forever chemicals in some of these items. Some menstrual product brands are starting to claim their products are PFAS-free. But consumers should pay attention to how these claims are stated. Some brands may claim their products are “PFOS and PFOA free,” despite these being only two of over 12,000 PFAS compounds. 

Other brands may say they haven’t treated their finished products with PFAS, not acknowledging that their material suppliers may use PFAS to make parts of their products. 

Still others may claim that no PFAS have been detected in their products – but the fine print might say they really mean no PFAS above a certain level. They could also use tests that measure only some PFAS and not others.

Here are some other steps you can take to reduce or avoid PFAS exposure in these products:

  • Use tampons and menstrual cups. Some wrappers and tampon applicators tested contained fluorine. But the tampons and menstrual cups that were tested did not seem to, so they may be less likely to pose a risk of PFAS exposure. 
  • Be cautious about using period underwear. The researchers reported higher levels of PFAS in period underwear and determined some were intentionally manufactured to contain PFAS. If you still want to use this kind of product, tests commissioned by Better Goods and Mamavation suggest some brands may be safer than others.
  • Read labels. Most menstrual and incontinence products are regulated as medical devices in the U.S. This means full ingredient disclosure is not required, so you can’t rely on labels to know what is in your products, unless you live in a state where label transparency is required for certain menstrual products.
  • Contact brands. Companies should know that consumers are concerned about PFAS in their products. Before selecting a menstrual or incontinence product, you can contact a company.
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