How to Choose Non-Toxic Feminine Hygiene ProductsDate: 02/04/2022
Not long ago I wrote an article on toxins in clothing and fabrics, and it really got me thinking: what about the products I use in one of the most sensitive parts of my body?
I made the switch to organic tampons to improve my health almost 20 years ago, about when I began to monitor which feminine hygiene products (FHPs) I was using, read product packaging and about other women’s experiences, and ultimately found that there are plenty of ways to support the health of our vaginas that can make a whole world of difference to our bodies—and to our underwear (haha!).
But more recently I’ve learned the true dangers of what the average feminine hygiene product (FHP) can do to our lady parts.
And since I already have a ton to say about water pH and filtration, and about how toxins that permeate through the clothes we wear can affect one’s health…I felt it would be a good moment to share what I’ve learned with my readers about which FHPs are best.
As we begin to look at different feminine hygiene products as well, I think it’s best if we split them up into two categories: products that target menstrual flow, and products explicitly meant to improve vaginal hygiene.
What comes next is a summary of everything I found so far!
What’s ‘normal’ when it comes to vaginal health?
Mucous, discharge, periods. These are words so many of us shy away from, but they are a part of us. More interestingly, they are normal parts of having a vagina! That being said, it’s always good to have at least a general idea of what the signs of a healthy vagina are for the average woman.
According to this article, your vagina is healthy if you…
- Have whitish discharge
- Experience a familiar scent (no fishy or foul scent)
- Don’t experience itchiness or irregular bleeding
- Have no pain during urination or sex
Here’s a little biology refresher as well: Vagina is the word to describe the internal passage where you’d put a tampon or through which you birth a child, whereas your vulva would be considered the external parts, more often known as the clitoris and labias, the urethral opening, vaginal opening, and in most biology, includes your anus and mons pubis.
Most physicians recommend that if you experience any irregularities in any of these areas, including excess or colored discharge, smell, or pain, then you should ask them about it right away!
That being said, when you begin to seek out products that better support ‘normal’ vaginal health and functioning, you might find that certain symptoms change, or clear up entirely.
Menstrual Products & Toxic Exposure
First, I started with menstrual products, since they stand out for me as being something many of us use all the time. In fact, most women use them about two to seven days per month on average from a young age, which is like, 1800 days out of our lives! Of course, those who choose to wear IUDs or who take birth control may experience a bit more variance in that schedule, or no menstrual flow at all.
Even if that’s the case, I found some surprising information that’s come out as recently as 2020 about the common ingredients found in menstrual products like pads, tampons, sea-sponge, and menstrual cups, including health-related outcomes about their prolonged use, as well as about which menstrual products we should avoid.
Considering everything I’ve read so far, here are three pieces of advice I would give to anyone out there who really wants to promote their personal ‘down-there’ health!
1. We should avoid menstrual products with fragrances, or which have been chemically treated.
When we experience menstrual flow each month, we each have a choice to make. There are tons of products out there to help ‘stem’ the flow for easy management, but not all women are made alike, and it is likely you and I use different products during that time of the month.
Still, with so many new studies coming out about menstrual products, I think it’s important to note that one of the easiest things we can do when making that choice is to stay away from products that have been made from chemically-treated materials.
Not that this is always easy, since there are very few regulations which require manufacturers to disclose their ingredients, and access to sanitary products is limited or non-existent in some parts of the world.
When I then consider the amount of time we go about using these products, and the permeability associated with our vagina and vulvar tissues, it becomes clear what a risk we pose to our overall health whenever we try to stem the bleed.
However, there are some cases which give us a hint about how we can distinguish between different products to choose ones that are best for us.
For example, this study talks about how many tested menstrual products like tampons and pads – even products labeled as natural, organic, or for sensitive skin – have high ratios of VOCs. Choosing products which are explicit about their ingredients and manufacturing methods are sure to offer better options than the average.
- phthalates have been shown to be harmful to women’s reproduction systems, and are often found in personal care products according to the New York Times;
- pads with liquid absorbents are often filled with synthetic plastics;
- tampons, which are used by about 86% of US women may be a growing concern when it comes to pesticide and metal absorption in the vagina; and
- dioxins released from menstrual products are currently being popularized in related studies…which are what’s used to bleach the fabric of certain flow-products a pearly white color.
Together, this makes up a list of toxins most of us want to stay FAR away from—and yet we’re putting them close to one of our most sensitive areas! I’m still on the hunt for great options outside of the mainstream, so if you have any suggestions please send them my way!
2. We need to be wary of bacterial growth; and more so when we are using specific menstrual products.
One of the top indicators that something isn’t quite right with our lady parts (inside, or out) is the presence of undesirable bacteria. As this article puts it, “vaginal mucous can be altered by menstrual products”, which can ultimately cause a whole host of problems, including vaginal ulcers!
However, one of the most common associations I found in the research is between menstrual products and the bacteria growth that can result in toxic shock syndrome (staphylococcus aureus). Indeed, studies pursued as early as the 1960s found that menstrual products can in fact amplify the growth of that bacteria.
EXTRA RESEARCH BITE: This 1995 study found that all-cotton, and cotton + rayon tampon products are at high risk of spurring bacterial growth related to TSS, evidence that has been backed by more recent studies in this area.
So, what menstrual products should we use?
Thankfully, there is information out there about which menstrual products harbor the most bacteria. Incidentally, pads are the highest on this list, followed by the tampon and then the menstrual cup.
Sea sponges have also been shown to have higher bacteria counts than those on tested tampon samples, whereas Softcup (a one-use menstrual cup brand) was found to have NO bacterial colonization, nor did it affect other bacterial growth resulting in vaginosis, UTIs, nor yeast infections.
Translation? When cleaned properly, and used well, the menstrual cup may be our best option to reduce bacterial growth and to reduce exposure to toxins in the FHPs on today’s shelves.
Not that I want to discount those who don’t feel comfortable with using the cup. So, in those cases (and from the research) I would recommend organic pads and tampons with untreated cotton—I use Cora tampons if you need some ideas. You might also want to consider the latest in absorbent underwear like Thinx!
VAGINAL HEALTH, HYGEIENE & pH Balance
So what about every other day of the month?
Our vaginas don’t stop existing whenever we don’t have our periods…so it’s important to use products that promote vaginal health and hygiene all year long! Strangely enough though…it seems the common consensus out there is that the best products…are almost no product at all!
When I went looking, I found a ton of misconceptions around what to use if we want to keep our lady bits clean. More often than not, most of us have been brainwashed to think that we need fragrant soaps and scrubs to keep ourselves smelling nice!
Yet, according to most medical sources on the subject, the vagina itself is a self-cleaning organ. In fact, the discharge you see is its way of rejecting so-called ‘bad’ bacteria to promote a healthy pH balance.
Huh? pH balance?
That’s right. Our vaginas have a pH value all their own—and it’s usually about 3.5 to 4.5, which is slightly acidic, but just enough to keep the area healthy and protected!
That’s why it’s ultra-important not to upset the balance with fragrant soaps and scrubs. “Mild soap and water is really all you need,” says Lauren Streicher, gynecology and obstetrics professor.
More often than not, these soaps and scrubs also contain harmful, toxic chemicals you wouldn’t want to put anywhere near your mouth…so why allow them full access anywhere else?
As in the previous section though, let’s take a look at some of the common research that’s come out in the last 20-odd years concerning feminine hygiene products and the toxins (or toxic results) that have arisen from their use.
Hopefully, the following six conclusions will help us all make more informed purchasing decisions when we think about what we’re using, buying, and wearing across our lady-parts.
6 Tips on Maintaining Vaginal Health & pH
- Most gynecologists assert that we don’t need to clean our vulvar tissue and surrounding area with anything more than mild soap and water. If we do opt to cleanse with our favorite natural products, make sure it is dermatologist-tested, hypoallergenic, and fragrance free!
- DO NOT DOUCHE. Apparently this is the last thing your vagina wants, and has in fact been shown to multiply bacterial growth and even ease the spread of dangerous STIs. Douche products have also been found to contain huge concentrations of those dangerous VOCs we talked about earlier!
- Clean up daily, and always change your underwear after a work-out session. Most doctors suggest making vaginal hygiene a part of your daily wash routine, and advise changing underwear that has been exposed to sweat as soon as your workout is through.
- Don’t buy products that shame you into purchasing them! A good brand will want to target consumers who love themselves and want to maintain a healthy vaginal atmosphere. Brands that shun smells, try to reduce discharge, or in any other way shame the shape or look of your canal…avoid them like the plague!
- There are a lot of products out there on the market, from washes and wipes, to sprays, powders and moisturizers. Your best bet for optimal vaginal health is to keep it simple, and don’t go messing with the balance too much. Always change up the routine if you start seeing strange symptoms, excess discharge, or an unfamiliar smell.
- Don’t always trust a brand just because it advertises using words like ‘organic’, ‘natural’, or ‘for sensitive skin’ (source). As I said before, there’s not a lot of regulation surrounding FHPs, which means brands are free to use health-promoting words without having to back it up. Do your research before you buy!
Apart from these tips and tricks, I did come across a few other hints on how to maintain the external (and internal) health of our vaginas.
For instance, many recommend looking into all-cotton underwear options (again, untreated or organic) and unscented laundry detergents wherever possible—these are all things that will come into contact with your vulvar tissue, and won’t upset that precious pH balance we’ve talked so much about!
Now, I realize this list is not extensive, and that there are many products on the market today which may not have our health in their best interest. More likely, manufacturers aren’t yet aware of how these products may affect us, and so focus more on absorbency and fit than they do the safety of their materials.
Still, if concerns about vaginal health continue to grow in the medical community (and they are!), and if these concerns begin to trigger wide-scale changes in the way our FHPs are produced, then it is likely that in our life-times we will be able to choose products that were made to sustain that pH balance, leaving us fresh, clean, and ready to tackle whatever we have going on in our day.
Here’s hoping that day isn’t too far off!
With plenty of love to each and every one of you,
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