New research finds lead and arsenic in tampons. Experts say don’t panic.

Tampons are one of the most popular menstrual products in a growing market that now includes period underwear, menstrual cups, and more. They’ve been around since the 1930s and are still the go-to for many, used by a whopping 80% of menstruators.

However, little research has been done on the potential contaminants in tampons and whether they pose a health risk. And a new, unique study has many wondering: Are tampons safe?

The recent UC Berkeley study found that many tampons on the market, including organic and non-organic, may contain toxic metals such as lead and arsenic. The researchers looked at tampons sold in both the United States and Europe.

“Some tampons had higher concentrations of one metal, lower concentrations of another,” said Jenni A. Shearston, Ph.D., the paper’s lead author. “There was no specific tampon that we tested that appeared to have … a lower concentration of all metals.”

Shearston said she and her colleagues began studying tampons after noticing that there was little information in the research literature about their ingredients.

“There’s a historical taboo around menstruation,” she said. “That doesn’t just affect our social lives. It affects scientific research, and I think that’s one of the reasons why there hasn’t been as much research done on menstrual products.”

Dr. Mitchell Kramer, chief of OB-GYN at Huntington Hospital Northwell Health, said the study is “groundbreaking” and indicates that tampon manufacturers need to do more testing on their products.

“There is definitely more evaluation needed. … I think it has the potential to have a significant impact on the way tampons are manufactured and the effect on users,” Kramer said.

However, it is unclear what the possible health effects are of using tampons containing these metals.

“We don’t know if these metals are absorbed vaginally, which is critical when it comes to exposure,” said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of the book “Let’s Talk about Down There: An OB-GYN Answers All of Your Burning Questions … Without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking.”

Shearston, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the department of environmental science, policy and management, adds that one limitation of the study is that they don’t know whether the metal can seep out of the tampons at all.

“We only tested to see if these metals are in tampons,” she said. “We don’t know if they’re coming out.”

This is what you need to know about the research.

Tampons and Toxic Metals

The published paper was in the journal “Environment International” and researchers looked at 30 different tampons from 14 brands to determine the metal levels in the tampons. They found “measurable concentrations” of all 16 metals they looked for — including several toxic metals, such as lead and arsenic — in all of the tampons tested.

However, the study does not conclude that the tampons tested and others on the market are unsafe. Shearston hopes that people will not “panic” over the study.

“We just need more information,” she said. “What I would encourage people to do is support more research and ask more questions about this to try to make research on period products and menstruation a priority.”

The amount of metals varied based on the type, location of purchase, and whether they were generic or brand name.

“These metals were found in varying amounts, some in higher concentrations in organic tampons (like arsenic) and some in conventional tampons (like lead),” Lincoln said. “We don’t know which brands were tested because the study was blinded, which I know is frustrating.”

Lincoln, who was not involved in the study, notes that it’s somewhat surprising that this is an initial study, but that the findings make sense.

“I was not surprised that metals were also found in organic tampons, as they can be absorbed from the soil and organic farming still uses pesticides,” she said.

Are tampons safe?

Yes, it’s still safe to use tampons, experts say.

“People don’t need to panic,” Kramer said. “We haven’t found that these products are dangerous or are causing people to get really sick. I don’t think that’s the case. I think these levels of these heavy metals are very low.”

A press release about the study also notes that “it is unclear whether the metals found in this study contribute to adverse health effects.” Shearston says she and her colleagues are currently investigating “whether metals can be released from the tampons.”

“We do a kind of leaching experiment,” she says. “We also test tampons, the same products, for other chemicals.”

Lincoln also stressed that it’s too early to say what the findings mean for consumers looking for the safest tampons.

“According to this study, the average amount of lead found in tampons was actually very small, and much lower than what would be considered of concern in our food or water,” she said. “This doesn’t invalidate the study’s findings, but it’s an important perspective when people are deciding whether or not to continue using tampons.”

Catherine Roberts, deputy health editor at Consumer Reports, who covered organic tampons, notes that the study underscores the need for more research on tampons.

“This is not a useful lesson for an individual consumer,” Roberts said. “A big lesson here is that we really need to study this more. It would be especially useful if we could study what it means to your physiology to use a tampon that’s contaminated with heavy metals.”

Are Non-Toxic and Organic Tampons Safer?

All tampons tested contained some level of toxic metals, including those that claimed to be non-toxic and organic. In fact, these contained more arsenic than conventional tampons.

“I hope this shows people that organic isn’t always better, especially when it comes to period products,” Lincoln says.

An organic label on a tampon does not have as much meaning as, for example, a label on food.

“It doesn’t give you a lot of information to have a tampon that’s labeled organic,” Roberts said. “It could mean a lot of different things.”

Lincoln added that you should choose menstrual products based on what works best for you.

“This study shouldn’t be the reason we all throw away our tampons as soon as possible, but it’s important for people to decide for themselves what feels right for them,” she said. “It’s important to realize that what menstrual products you use is a personal choice. Not everyone is comfortable with pads, cups or period underwear, and for them, tampons are a godsend.”

Using tampons safely

For tampon users concerned about metal exposure, Kramer advises wearing tampons less often and using other menstrual products instead.

“Instead of wearing tampons 24/7 during your period, maybe you can alternate between that and a pad,” he said. “There are certain things you can try to reduce some of the exposure.”

There are other things consumers can consider when choosing tampons to avoid unfamiliar ingredients.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that buying specific brands or looking at specific labels actually helps you avoid (heavy metals),” Roberts said.

According to Roberts, people can buy tampons without fragrance, choose tampons with fewer components, and skip tampons made with polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene or other plastic materials.

“Fragrances are a big black box in terms of regulation,” Roberts said. “You can add fragrance to them and you don’t have to disclose what’s in them.”

Still, Kramer hopes that people will not panic over the findings.

“Tampons have been around for a long time. We’ve never seen people come in with heavy metal poisoning, and this is very different from the toxic shock syndrome problem,” he said. “That was a bacteria that had nothing to do with heavy metals.”

Alternatives to tampons

If you’re interested in trying other types of menstrual products, check out these tampon alternatives:

Menstrual cups

A popular brand is the Diva Cup. These are cups that you insert into the vagina to collect menstrual fluid.

Menstrual discs

These products resemble a cup and use a bag with a rim to collect menstrual fluid.

Period underwear

These look like regular underwear, but contain extra material to absorb menstrual fluid.

Reusable pads

These are pads that you can put in your underwear to absorb the moisture, but you can also wash and reuse them, unlike standard pads that you throw away.

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