I know menstruation—and the vagina, generally—is a conversational topic that often prompts expressions of disgust, mockery, gross-out jokes or pleas for ignorance, particularly from men. But let’s all agree to be mature adults here, and talk seriously about a health issue that affects nearly every woman on the planet, and is too often ignored out of misguided politeness or squeamishness.
The average woman will have about 350 menses in her lifetime, which, given an estimated average period length of 6 days, means she will spend a total of nearly 6 years of her life menstruating. It’s estimated that the average woman uses up to 11,800 tampons in her lifetime. So that’s a lot of sustained exposure to menstrual products. And in addition to menstrual products, an estimated 10-40% of women use other feminine hygiene products such as douches, wipes, deodorants and creams
The female genitalia is the home to a very delicate balance of bacteria and yeast. If that balance is disturbed, one can end up with painful conditions such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), vaginitis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and yeast infections. Some of these infections, particularly UTIs, can become quite acutely severe.
The best way to safeguard against these common, but potentially serious, infections is to prevent them altogether, and to keep the bacteria and yeast levels in balance. While there are many things you can do to avoid UTIs, yeast infections and other problems—such as urinating before and after sexual intercourse, avoiding over-washing the area with harsh soaps, wiping front-to-back, avoiding bubble baths, and wearing cotton underwear—another is to be very cautious about what types of materials and items you put “down there.”
6 Nasty Substances Found in Feminine Hygiene Products
- Chlorine: Used to bleach cotton menstrual products, particularly tampons and menstrual pads
- Dioxins and furans: Known carcinogens that can cause reproductive, developmental and hormonal problems, and can have a detrimental effect on the immune system. These are by-products of the chlorine used for the bleaching process.
- Pesticide residue: Most cotton used for tampons and pads is made from conventionally-grown cotton, which is treated with heavy pesticides. While the FDA “recommends” that tampons be free of pesticide residue, testing on the popular brand o.b. detects the presence of pesticides like pyrethrum, procymidone, mecarbam and fensulfothion—which are possible carcinogens and linked to endocrine disruption. And, while the Chem Fatale report does not mention this specifically, I would also like to mention that some brands use genetically-modified cotton. If you’re avoiding eating GMO foods, you’ll probably want to reconsider putting GMO products in other parts of your body as well.
- Fragrance: This one simple word can contain multitudes of harmful chemicals—none of which are required to be listed or disclosed on labels. “Fragrances” can include chemicals known to be carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, irritants and allergens. While these fragrances are most commonly found in douches and sanitary wipes (more on that topic later), it’s also common for pads and tampons to come with “scented” versions. Feminine deodorants and perfumes are also well-known to cause irritation and allergic reactions, in large part due to the fragrances used.
- Parabens: Found in vaginal anti-itch creams, feminine wipes and feminine washes, typically as a preservative. Parabens are skin irritants and allergens, and may have damaging estrogenic properties.
- Synthetic materials: Most tampons and pads are not 100% cotton these days, they are made from synthetic fabrics like rayon, or Super Absorbent Powders (SAPs). Some of these substances, along with the other chemicals and fragrances, can cause rashes and skin irritation, particularly when used in menstrual pads.
In addition to the toxicity of these various chemicals found in feminine hygiene products, I would also like to note that there are also certain types of products that are harmful to vaginal health not only due to their ingredients, but because their actual functions and purposes are inherently problematic.
Why “Douchebag” Deserves to be a Bad Word
There’s a good reason that the words “douche” and “douchebag” have become popular pejorative insults. Douches are well-deserving of the negative publicity its common usage in the modern lexicon has granted it. Douches are linked to a host of problems: vaginitis, chronic yeast infections, pregnancy complications, infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Studies have shown a correlation between regular douching and cervical cancer. They may also cause women to be more vulnerable to sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). So, why are they so harmful? And why do they remain so popular?
The reason douches cause so many problems is that they disrupt the natural self-cleaning function of the vagina, wiping out the beneficial bacteria in the vagina and leaving it vulnerable to yeast overgrowth and “bad” bacteria. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ; the mucous that lubricates it also eliminates any harmful substances that enter it, such as bad bacteria or viruses than can cause infections. A healthy vagina needs no cleansing agents; it does just fine on its own, thanks. It certainly doesn’t need the host of disinfectants, “fragrances” or other chemicals that douches, wipes and washes contain. Yet there is still a great deal of stigma and shame regarding the vagina in regards to perceived uncleanliness, or fear of odors, so some women feel compelled to clean it or “freshen” it. And yet, because douching can disrupt the all-important flora-yeast balance in the vagina, douches can actually cause the very odor issues they purported to eliminate.
Teen girls are particularly susceptible to these fears, given the multitude of anxieties surrounding puberty and the onset of menstruation, but douches are also all-too-commonly—and somewhat disproportionately—used by low-income and minority women.
Despite the near-universal condemnation of the practice by the medical and gynecological communities, the belief that douching is “an expected and necessary part of feminine hygiene” likely persists due to advertisements that perpetuate these beliefs by preying on women’s insecurities, but also by well-intentioned but poorly-informed friends and family members.
In the 1950s, a now-notorious series of manipulative ad campaigns aimed at housewives informed them that their vaginas were dirty and smelly, and made them repulsive to their husbands. The solution to their marital woes? To “freshen up” by douching with Lysol (shudder!).
There’s also the persistent myth that douching prevents pregnancy. This is because archaic contraceptive methods involving douching date back practically to prehistory, and remained popular through much of the 20th century, thanks to the aforementioned Lysol ad campaigns, which were subtly angled at selling Lysol douches as a contraceptive. You may notice that, in the ad above, the tag-line refers to Lysol as a “germ-killer,” which just happens to rhyme with “sperm-killer,” and others described Lysol as a “germicide.” Lysol was, frighteningly, the most popular contraceptive in America from the 1920s until the early 1960s. Of course, it didn’t really work; a 1933 study showed that half the women surveyed who used Lysol as a contraceptive became pregnant. In some cases, douching can increase risk of pregnancy by pushing sperm up into the cervix, rather than washing it out!
So please, if you spot a bottle of Summer’s Eve under your friend, wife, daughter or partner’s bathroom sink, share this information with them, and help stop the—if you’ll pardon the bad pun—“flow” of bad information about women’s health. And, use this information to make conscious and informed choices about the products you choose to put in your body—especially in such a sensitive area!
Check back here next week, we’ll list the top natural, chemical-free alternatives to Tampax and common drugstore menstrual products!
About the Author: Ally Bacaj is the Gerson Institute’s Communications Specialist. She joined the Institute after graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2010. Ally manages the design and content of our website and our blog. She also shares news from the Gerson Institute on our Facebook page, Pinterest and Twitter.
In her spare time, you can find Ally unearthing vintage treasures at the swap meet, with her nose stuck in a book or snuggling with her pet bunny, Dennis Hopper.
Photo credits: Whispered Between Women, Smithsonian Magazine