Menstrual care products may be an important source of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, according to two new studies that add to the mounting evidence.
Endocrine disruptors interfere with the normal function of the hormone system and can contribute to an array of negative health impacts. Many of the chemicals detected in these two studies, including phthalates, parabens and bisphenol-A, have been linked to harm to reproductive health and to cancer.
The skin surrounding the genital area, including the vulvar and vaginal mucosa, is thin and more permeable than skin covering the rest of the body, which makes the results of the studies particularly concerning. Researchers from one of the studies estimated that exposure to EDCs from menstrual products is at least 10 times higher than the estimated absorption rates through skin elsewhere on the body.
The first study detected two dozen endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the 77 different products analyzed, of which 43 were menstrual care products. Scientists from the Wadsworth Center at the New York State Department of Health tested seven categories of menstrual care products, including pads, panty liners and tampons, and found a range of phthalates, parabens, bisphenols and triclocarban.
Phthalates were also detected in a study led by researchers from Jinan University, in China. Those researchers detected EDCs in 98 percent of the menstrual napkins or pads and 86 percent of other genital care products that were tested. The scientists concluded that phthalates are ubiquitous in menstrual care products sold in China.
Phthalates are a group of plasticizer chemicals found in many consumer goods, including personal care products and plastics, and associated with reproductive toxicity, endometriosis, early onset of puberty and ovulation disorders. The phthalates found in pads, panty liners and tampons may come from adhesives, polypropylene and polyethene materials that may have been used in the manufacturing process, or fragrance ingredients added to the products.
Parabens, commonly used as preservatives in personal care products, were detected in the highest concentrations in the bactericidal creams and solutions tested. Studies suggest that parabens can disrupt hormones, harm fertility and reproductive organs, affect birth outcomes, and increase the risk of cancer.
Given the widespread, frequent and long-term use of menstrual care products, and the increased risk of exposure, more research is needed to highlight the chemicals of concern they commonly contain. U.S. manufacturers of menstrual products are not required to test or disclose their ingredients to consumers, since the Food and Drug Administration considers them to be medical devices.
In October, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that requires ingredient disclosure of menstrual products, making New York the first state to do so. The law will take effect this year, and manufacturers will have a little more than a year to update their labels and packing.
Until the ingredients in menstrual and genital care products are appropriately labeled, it will be nearly impossible for consumers to find products that do not expose them to potentially harmful chemicals. For more information on the toxic chemicals used in menstrual products and tips to avoid them, visit Women’s Voices for the Earth's resource pages.