New study finds lead and arsenic in tampons. Experts say don’t worry.

Tampons are one of the most popular menstruation products in a growing market that now includes period underwear, menstrual cups and more. They have been around since the 1930s and are still the breakthrough for many, used by up to 80% of people who menstruate.

However, little research has investigated the potential contaminants in tampons and whether they pose a health risk. And many people were surprised by a new study of the first kind: Are tampons safe?

Recent research from UC Berkeley found that many tampons on the market, including organic and inorganic, 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., lead author of the paper. “There wasn’t a particular tampon that we tested that seemed to have … a lower concentration of all the metals.”

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

“This historical taboo is over,” she said. “That doesn’t just affect us in our social lives. It also affects scientific research, and I think it’s one of the reasons we haven’t done as much research on menstrual products.”

Dr. Mitchell Kramer, chair of OB-GYN at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital, called the study “groundbreaking” and shows the need for tampon manufacturers to do more testing on their products.

“It definitely needs more evaluation. … I think it could have a significant impact moving forward in terms of how tampons are produced and the effect on the users,” Kramer said.

That said, it is unclear what, if any, health effects there may be from using tampons containing these metals.

“We don’t know if any of these metals are absorbed vaginally, which is critical for exposure,” said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, OB-GYN and author of the book, “Let’s Talk Down Under: The OB – GYN Answers All Your Burning Questions … No Shame for Asking.”

Shearston — a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management — says one of the limitations of the study is that they don’t know if the metal can even leach from the tampons.

“We just tested whether these metals are present in tampons or not,” she said. “We don’t know if they come out.”

Here’s what you need to know about the study.

Tampons and toxic metals

The paper was published in the journal “Environment International,” and the 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 were looking for – including some toxic metals, such as lead and arsenic – in every tampon they tested.

However, the research does not conclude that the tested tampons and others on the market are not safe. Shearston hopes people don’t “panic” about the study.

“You just want to know more,” 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 menstruation and menstrual products a priority.”

There were different levels of metals based on the type, where they were purchased and whether they were generic or name brand.

“Different amounts of these metals were found, with some higher in organic tampons (like arsenic) and others in regular shampoos (like lead),” Lincoln said. “We don’t know what brands were tested because this was blinded in the study, which I know is frustrating.”

Lincoln, who was not involved in the study, notes that this first study is surprising, but the results make sense.

“I wasn’t surprised that metals were also found in organic tampons, because 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 don’t know that these products are dangerous or that people get very sick. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the levels of these heavy metals are very low.”

A news release about the study also notes that “it is unclear whether the metals found in this study are contributing to any negative health effects.” Shearston says she and her colleagues are currently investigating “whether metals can come out of tampons.”

“We’re doing some leaching experiments,” she says. “We are also testing tampons, these same products, for other chemicals.”

Lincoln also pointed out that it is too early to say what the results mean for consumers looking for the safest pacifiers.

“According to this study, the average amount of lead found in tampons was actually very small, and much lower than what is thought to be in our food or water,” she said. “This does not negate the findings of the study, but it is an important perspective when people are deciding whether or not they want to continue using tampons.”

Catherine Roberts, associate health editor at Consumer Reports, who has covered organic tampons, notes that the study highlights the need for more investigation into tampons.

“This is not actionable takeout for an individual consumer,” Roberts said. “A big takeaway from this is that we need to study this more, and in particular, it would be very helpful if we could study what it means for your physiology to use a tampon contaminated with heavy metals .”

Are non-toxic and organic tampons safer?

All tampons tested contained some amount of toxic metals, including those that claimed to be non-toxic and organic. In fact, these were higher in arsenic than traditional tampons.

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

An organic label on a tampon doesn’t have as much meaning as it might on food, for example.

“It doesn’t add much information to a tampon that’s labeled organic,” Roberts said. “It can mean a lot of different things.”

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

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

Use tampons safely

For tampon users concerned about their exposure to metals, Kramer recommends using tampons as often as relying on other menstrual products.

“Instead of wearing tampons 24/7 during the period, maybe an alternative would be a sanitary pad,” he said. “There are certain things you can try to mitigate some of the exposure.”

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

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it will help you avoid shopping for certain brands or looking at certain (heavy metal) labels,” Roberts said.

Roberts says people can buy fragrance-free tampons, choose tampons with fewer components and skip tampons with polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene or other plastic materials.

“Fragrances are often a big black box,” said Roberts. “You can add fragrances, and you don’t have to reveal what’s in them.”

However, Kramer hopes that people will not panic about the results.

“Tampons have been around for a long time. We haven’t seen people coming in with heavy metal toxicity, and this is very different than the issue of toxic shock syndrome,” he said. “That was a bacterium that had nothing to do with heavy metals.”

Tampon alternatives

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

Menstrual cups

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

Menstrual discs

Like a cup, these products use a bag with a rim to collect the period fluid.

Period underwear

They are like normal underwear but have extra material to absorb the menstrual fluid.

reusable pads

These are cloth pads that you can tuck into your underwear to absorb the liquid but are also washable and reusable, unlike standard pads, which you throw away.

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