Hits and myths: are tampons toxic?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 6:06pm

Can feminine hygiene products cause cervical cancer?

The straight answer: No

The facts: Are the tampons you're using toxic? Some feminine hygiene product companies seem to think so. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of organic or "natural" brands claiming to be safer than non-organic or conventional ones. The main difference between them: a human carcinogen called dioxin.

During the manufacturing process, rayon, the synthetic material that is used to make many feminine hygiene products, undergoes chlorine bleaching to render it an aesthetically pleasing white colour.

Dioxin is a by-product of this chemical process, and it is thought to contribute to the ever-increasing number of cervical cancer cases around the world.

In addition to dioxin, conventional pads, liners and tampons may also contain pesticides, plastic, and other harmful chemicals and synthetics.

Organic feminine hygiene products, on the other hand, are made from organic materials. They are thought to be safer for long-term use because the cotton they are made of is free of pesticides, herbicides and other dangerous chemicals. Secondly, no bleaching is involved, so the products are also free of dioxin.

But there is no solid scientific evidence to support the fact that using non-organic feminine hygiene products can cause cervical and other female reproductive cancers.

According to the World Health Organisation, dioxins are found in the environment and they accumulate in the food chain. Once this toxin has entered the body, it is absorbed by fatty tissue, where it is stored for an extended period of time.

More than 90 per cent of human exposure to dioxin is through food - mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish.

Dr Ann Tan, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Women & Fetal Centre in Singapore, says cervical cancer is due to an infection with certain strains of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

"The commonest high-risk types are the 16 and the 18, which account for 70 per cent of all cervical cancers," she says.

"Maintaining good vaginal health and using condoms are likely to reduce the risk of contracting the infection. The best protection is to have the HPV vaccine if you are sexually active.

"Other cancers such as those of the uterus and ovaries are linked to hormonal imbalances, for example, oestrogen dominance, which may result in the endometrium growing excessively and abnormally," she says.

Keeping your vagina healthy is important, whether or not you use organic feminine hygiene products.

Tan advises keeping the perineum dry and taking probiotics. If you use tampons, be sure to change them regularly.

The use of silver-impregnated panty liners or silver gels has also been shown to reduce the amount of bacteria around the perineum, and may help reduce your risk of infections in this area.