Are tampons vegan? Are they even safe? This may seem like an odd question at first glance, but the answers may surprise you.
Menstruation. Your Period. Aunt Flow. That Time of The Month. The Crimson Wave. The Red Badge of Courage. Flying Your Colors. The Invasion of the Red Army. Riding the Cotton Pony. Full Stop. (I have a feeling I may have lost the male demographic a while ago…)
For something so little discussed, it has so many names. Menstruation has long been taboo across many cultures, with menstrual cycles regarded as everything from inconvenient to unclean. With the creation and evolution of various feminine hygiene products—terminology which itself frames women as being in need of sanitation—the big red taboo remains, only now with brightly colored packaging and laughably unrealistic advertisements of blissfully happy menstruating women. With the introduction of tampons in the 1930s, a new level of freedom was afforded to menstruating women everywhere. Or so they were told. Underneath the sanitized imagery of these apparently revolutionary devices remains the inter-related and oft-neglected questions: Are tampons vegan? Are they even safe? tweet this
When I started researching for this topic, I figured it would be a relatively simple video to throw together. Twenty-plus hours later, I found myself deep in a US patent document from 1997, tracing down various horrific tampon safety experiments from the 1980s.1
Starting with the obligatory Google search, I found a lot of people asking about the vegan status of tampons, with only uncertainty and vague supposition in response. Certainly they couldn’t be tested on animals—I mean how would that even work? As I dug further into the legal history of tampon regulation and litigation, I realized this article needed to encompass far more than a simple “yes” or “no.”
Today we’ll be looking at three inter-connected aspects of the tampon issue: women’s2 health, animal testing, and environmental impact—though this topic bleeds into many other important areas as well (couldn’t help myself), including important women’s rights issues. We’ll spend a good bit of time on the health aspect because it lays the groundwork for both the animal testing and environmental impact aspects—and is incredibly vital information for women, girls, menstruating individuals, and even anyone who knows someone who menstruates!
There is a list of resources, along with citations to everything I state, at the bottom of this post if you want to delve deeper. This is a rich and complex subject that one could spend a week every month investigating and still have more to learn. (Moving on…)
Feminine hygiene products are marketed as synonymous with feminine health. But are they—and tampons in particular—really in a woman’s best interest? When it comes to the health impact of tampons there are three main variables: the ingredients, the absorbency level, and the bleaching process. Each of these relates to two main health concerns: Toxic Shock Syndrome and dioxin exposure. To address each of these, we need a brief history of the little cotton rockets.
Things have come a long way since the belted-on cotton rag contraptions of old, but really tampons aren’t as new as you may think. Introduced commercially in Europe in the 1930s, they didn’t reach wide acceptance in the United States until around 1974, due to puritanical concerns that they threatened the integrity of a woman’s virginity.3 In 1974, Procter and Gamble released the Rely brand tampon and American women joined their European counterparts in revolutionizing that time of the month. Because what woman doesn’t want “an assurance of daintiness [she’s] never known before”4 while doubled over in pain as her uterus plays out its personal Armageddon?
As early as 1975, anecdotal evidence arose connecting Toxic Shock Syndrome to tampon use. Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is a rare but potentially fatal medical condition caused by toxins produced by a bacterium and characterized by fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, low blood pressure, rash, and sometimes seizures, among other symptoms. Regardless of this disturbing connection to their products, tampon companies didn’t investigate for five years, and only then when confronted by the Center for Disease Control and forced to pay damages to affected women.5 tweet this
Finding the companies had literally no information about the effects of their products on vaginal physiology and microbiology, the CDC undertook it’s own tests, and within 3–4 weeks had established that TSS was caused by a particular toxin secreted by a particular bacterial strain known as staphylococcus aureus.6
In the summer of 1980, the CDC recommended warnings be issued with tampons, a regulation which went into formal effect in 1982 and remains today, as well as cautioned women that if they wanted to avoid the risk of TSS, to stop using tampons.7
The CDC report also found that Procter and Gamble’s Rely tampons carried the highest risk for TSS. Rely tampons were uniquely composed of carboxymethylcellulose and compressed beads of polyester, while other companies utilized a blend of cotton and rayon.8 tweet this
Originally tampons were 100% cotton, but in an effort to combat leakage, companies increased absorbency by introducing blends of synthetic fibers including polyester, polyacrylate rayon, carboxymehtylcellulose and viscose rayon. With the rise of TSS cases, all but cotton and rayon were phased out.9 While the Food and Drug Administration insists that rayon is safe,10 experts like Dr. Philip Tierno, director of microbiology and diagnostic immunology at New York University Medical Center, insists that 100% cotton tampons present the lowest risk.11
But before you run out to purchase a small cotton plantation for residence in your nether regions, it’s important to note that cotton is the dirtiest crop on the planet, occupying only 2.4% of the world’s cropland but using 16–25% of the world’s pesticides.12 Aldicarb, for example, a pesticide commonly used in cotton production, is so toxic that a single drop absorbed through the skin can kill an adult human.13 And let’s not forget Lauren Wasser, the model who at 24 years old had her right leg amputated due to Toxic Shock Syndrome contracted from Kotex Natural Balance cotton tampons.14 Though she’s now she’s doing excellent work challenging and redefining beauty standards.
But tampon ingredients aren’t the only factor. In 1980, two influential studies were published which indicated that tampon absorbency rating was a greater risk factor for TSS than tampon ingredients, with the risk rising with absorbency level.15 The FDA sprung into action and four years later proposed the creation of federal regulations for absorbency standards. After only another five years of lively back and forth with industry leaders, the FDA finally released their ruling for “Ranges of Absorbency Labeling” for menstrual tampons on October 26th, 1989.16 Made it in under a decade. Well done.
While women could now take comfort in the uniformity of tampon absorbency levels, it was still impossible for them to know exactly what they were putting in their bodies.
As early as 1982, the FDA was asked to require ingredient labeling for tampons due to growing customer concerns. But despite the advice of its own Obstetrics-Gynecology Devices Panel, it refused to do so.17 For a product that has such prolonged and intimate contact with one of the most sensitive and absorbent part of the body, the nondisclosure of ingredients is unsettling at best.
Because the FDA classifies tampons as medical devices, companies are under no obligation to reveal what’s in their tampons. Which leads us to the second major health concern: dioxin exposure in relation to the bleaching process of tampon production.
Dioxins are a group of chemically-related compounds that are persistent environmental (or ‘organic’) pollutants (POPs) which, due to their fat solubility, accumulate and remain in the body for 7–11 years.18 According to the World Health organization, “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”19
While the majority of dioxins people come into contact with are through meat, dairy, fish and shellfish consumption,20 they are also a byproduct of the chlorine bleaching process used in the manufacture of paper products, including the rayon in tampons.21
In 1987, an FDA scientist stated:
It is critical to an adequate risk assessment that the level of dioxins in tampons, sanitary pads, diapers, and other medical devices be measured. The capacity to measure such levels exists within [the] FDA. Extraction data for dioxin from these products… would improve the accuracy of any risk assessment.22
Yet the FDA again refused the advice of its own people, saying there wasn’t adequate data on dioxins to warrant labeling. Later in 1990, along with the EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission, the FDA authored a study of risks related to products containing chlorine-bleached wood pulp and found the dioxin levels to be negligible.15 However, numerous specialists disagreed with their conclusion.23
One particularly firm voice was that of House of Representatives Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, who introduced a bill on November 7, 1997 proposing an act entitled “The Tampon Safety and Research Act of 1997.” The act “provided for research to determine the extent to which the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers, and other additives in menstrual tampons pose any risks to the health of women.”24
Sadly, Maloney’s act wasn’t passed. But, ever persistent, she resubmitted it in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2015, now calling it “The Robin Danielson Act,” after a woman who died from TSS in 1998.25
An important element of Maloney’s argument remains that the FDA itself doesn’t monitor dioxin levels, but rather relies on companies to self-monitor and submit reports.26 Because if ever there were someone the honor system was made for, it’s faceless multi-billion dollar corporations!
The dioxin levels found to be negligible by these organizations are based on one tampon, negating the accumulation over time within the body. Maloney compares this to basing the health risks of smoking on a single cigarette.27
While tampon companies have moved from the original chlorine gas bleaching methods to either elemental chlorine-free bleaching or totally chlorine-free bleaching, most manufacturers use the former, which still produces dioxins.28
Now know what you must be thinking. “Okay, okay, I get it! Tampons are toxic, infection-filled cancer sticks for my naughty bits. It’s a tamponspiracy! But what’s that got to do with veganism?” I’m so glad you asked.
Well, with all the aforementioned safety issues, scientists of course realized that the only way to keep women safe from the great white threat was to torture and kill mice, rabbits, chickens, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, goats and baboons. Because nothing says feminine daintiness like brutal vivisection. tweet this
While I’ve always had to dig down several layers to get to the substantial studies when I’ve researched animal testing for particular products like medication, cigarettes or what have you, there’s always been some readily accessible information with which to start. This was not the case with tampons.
Outside of questions and debates on vegan forums and a totally uncited excerpt posted and reposted on vegan tumblrs, I couldn’t find specific information on how or even if tampons are tested on animals. tweet this
However, much like nature’s gift to women itself, I’m nothing if not persistent. I eventually found my way to a document for US Patent number 5641503 A for additives to tampons, filed on January 13th, 1995 and published June 24th, 1997, on behalf of Mcneil-Ppc, Inc, owned by the more widely known Johnson & Johnson.29 This document described several experiments, giving me just enough to search out the original papers as a starting place.
Now I’m not sure the difficulty of finding such studies was purposeful, but it was certainly in the best interest of tampon producers everywhere. I’ll briefly describe some choice examples of the very un-vegan side of tampons, but do refer to the links below for additional and more thorough examples.
To start, almost every experiment I encountered, whether using live animals or not, at least employed the use of rabbits’ blood30 and either bovine brain heart agar—which is exactly what it sounds like—or31 some sort of beef heart medium,32 with several also employing sheep erythrocytes, and one using fetal calf serum.33
A rather unique study incubated fertilized hen’s eggs for 11days and then injected the live chicken embryos with Toxic Shock Syndrome Toxin One, knows as TSST-1. The embryos were then “examined for death 24 hours after the injection.”34
Rabbit models for tampon safety come in several variations. Some rabbits received multiple intradermal injections into their back of the TSS toxin over a period of 7 weeks at which point “the rabbits were bled.”35 One experiment described strapping the rabbits into a rack for four hours to “acclimate” them so they’d fight less when restrained for injection. Then their “deaths were recorded and surviving rabbits were observed after four days for gross myocardial and liver necrosis.” Some were also given endotoxins “to determine their susceptibility to lethal shock.”36
Other methods implanted subcutaneous diffusion chambers under the rabbits’ skin for a steady release of toxins. One such experiment included that their diffusion chambers were made of “perforated polyethylene gold balls.”37
Yet other rabbits had four diffusion chambers implanted in their uteruses, releasing toxins directly into their wombs. The chambers were “recovered at the time of death or after 14 days when the experiment was terminated,” at which time all remaining rabbits were killed and dissected.38
Some rabbits endured the repeated vaginal insertion of actual tampons laced with live TSST positive bacteria. In one such experiment, rabbits had an infected tampon inserted and left for four hours before having it removed and the process repeated with a sterile tampon, and then again with a third that was left in for 14–16 hours to simulate overnight usage.39 Menstruation was simulated by injecting a mixture of rabbit blood and bovine serum albumin into the rabbits’ vaginas once the tampons were in place.40
Perhaps the most bizarre iteration was an experiment where tampons were inserted subcutaneously into the tissue on the back of the rabbits’ necks.41
The forced vaginal insertion of toxin-laced tampons was also inflicted upon baboons, with one experiment leaving them in for twelve hours at a time “to allow for additional growth of staphylococcus aureus and TSST-1 production within the vaginal cavity”42
Guinea pigs also received intravaginal innoculations of the TSS toxin and other associated strains in an experiment carried out at a University 15 minutes from where I currently live.43
One report used terminology I’ve never before seen a scientific paper stating that the rabbits who hadn’t already died were “sacrificed” for dissection,44 a term which actually captures rather simply the main argument for animal testing. Namely that it’s a necessary sacrifice for the greater good.
I have an entire video series on animal testing delving into this argument and more, but a summary review on Toxic Shock Syndrome research from within the scientific community itself and one that’s in favor of continued experimentation, says it better than I ever could:
That S. aureus strains produce a wide number of extracellular products (e.g., alpha-toxin, leukocidin, epidermolytic toxin, and enterotoxins) which cause severe biologic effects in some animals makes it difficult to confirm that the symptoms noted in animals given TSST-1 or infected with TSST-1-producing strains are specific for TSS in humans.45
This basically means that because these are mice, rabbits, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, goats, and baboons—and not humans—the results cannot be relied upon as indicators of human reactions. So, what was the point? Well, the report assures that, “Nonetheless, most animal model data relating to the effects of TSST-1 strongly support its role as the most prominent toxin causing TSS.”46
Excellent. Now we know that the Toxic Shock Syndrome Toxin Number One is the most prominent cause of Toxic Shock Syndrome. I’m sure every one of those beings who was injected, cut into, raped with toxin-laced tampons, and “sacrificed” can rest easy knowing their invaluable contribution to science was not in vain.
While most of the specific experiments I described were from the eighties and nineties, with a few in the 2000’s, this kind of experimentation continues today all over the world—right in our own backyards.
Now if what we’ve covered already isn’t reason enough to ditch the little toxic seeds of vaginal destruction, let’s briefly look into the environmental impact of our Monthly Visitor.tweet this The average woman will throw away 250–300 pounds of menstruation products47 including as many as 16,800 tampons in her lifetime.48 tweet this
While both tampons and pads leach chemicals—including dioxins—into the water and soil, tampons in particular are a major hazard to marine life. The buoyant applicators can float out for miles and are often eaten by marine wildlife, becoming lodged in their digestive tracts, causing them to slowly starve to death.49 Some also contain bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor proven to have harmful effects on aquatic wildlife.50 Used tampons and pads can harbor harmful pathogens and bacteria, and their decomposition in landfills is unlikely to impossible51 with a 2005 study showing tampons to be the slowest to degrade of all paper/cotton products.52
I think it’s safe to say, after all of this, that mainstream tampons are decidedly not vegan and very, very likely, not safe. So what’s a girl to do when the Uterine Ninjas arrive? Well, luckily there are alternatives which I have links to below.
There are several brands of 100% organic cotton tampons, which sidesteps the toxic chemicals of conventional cotton and the questionable affects of rayon, though can still contribute to pollution even if labeled biodegradable. The ones I have listed have clear “no animal testing” policies.
An alternative that checks all the boxes is a menstrual cup, which, believe it or not, even predates the tampon, with the first known concept arising in 1867.53
Though distributed since the 1930’s, menstrual cups have not seen the same success as tampons, possibly in part because of their lack of built in obsolescence, meaning most of the companies are small and independently run. Options include the Keeper, the Diva Cup, and more.
Additionally, for your pads, as they are composed of the same questionable materials and toxins, and just as environmentally destructive, there are reusable cloth options like GladRags and Lunapads, with organic non-bleached options.
Both the cups and reusable pads have to struggle against societal norms and menstruation taboos as they require a bit more intimacy with your own anatomy. But when you think of your health, the needless torture of animals, and the destruction of the planet and its marine life, getting a little more acquainted with your private parts seems a small price to pay. And, since cups and cloth last for years, you actually save money!
I hope that this video post has been helpful. It’s far longer than I originally envisioned but in seeing how very little reliable information is out there on this topic, I really wanted to be thorough. Menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of or secretive about. Just like the importance of exposing the animal products industries, it’s only when we shine a light on what’s hidden that we can know what we are supporting and choose to make different decisions from here on out.
The time it took to produce this video clocks in at about 62 hours. If you’d like to help support Bite Size Vegan so I can keep putting in the long hours to bring you this educational resource, please check out the support page. I’d like to give a special thanks my $50 and above patrons and my whole Patreon family for making this and all of my videos possible. You are beyond awesomtastic.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this red-hot report. Did you know this information about tampons? What alternatives do you use or think you’d like to try in place of the treacherous tomes of toxic death? Let me know in the comments!
— Emily Moran Barwick