Are There Toxic Chemicals in Your Tampons?

Is it possible today’s feminine hygiene products are exposing me to cancer-causing chemicals? Unfortunately, this question doesn’t have a simple answer.

Pile of unwrapped tampons
Image Source / Getty Images

There Are Toxins All Around Us

The reality of life today is that you are bombarded with multiple chemical exposures. Chemicals are everywhere. They are in your food, your clothes, your makeup, and skincare products just to name a few of your daily exposures. And many of these chemicals have been associated with contributing to cancer and other medical problems.

Let’s look at the concerns around today’s feminine hygiene products, specifically national brand tampons and pads. These products are made from cotton and it is actually the cotton contained in these products that are the potential problem.

What Is the Problem With GMO Cotton?

Let's take a moment to review cotton production and the concept of GMO (genetically modified organism) farming.

For about the last twenty years the majority of cotton farmers have been using seeds that were modified to have resistance to a major herbicide known as glyphosate. This means that farmers could use this herbicide to kill the weeds in their fields without worrying about it harming the cotton crops. Not surprisingly, because it is easier to spray weeds than it is to remove them by hand or machine, farmers started using more and more of this herbicide. The problem is, although the cotton is resistant to the effects of the herbicide glyphosate, the chemical is still absorbed by the plant. And since the chemical is in the cotton plant it will also be in the cotton produced from the plant. Ultimately the end product produced from the cotton may also contain some amount of the chemical.

What’s the Big Deal?

The potential problem lies in the specific chemical. Glyphosate is from a class of chemicals known as endocrine disrupters. Mounting evidence has resulted in the World Health Organization labeling glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs can act like the naturally occurring hormones in your body. Exposure to these chemicals can then interfere with important processes in your body. This disruption of certain biological pathways can lead to the development of the disease.

We are starting to recognize the health concerns of this class of chemicals. It is thought that exposure to the developing fetus may be the time when these chemicals have some of the most significant impacts on future health. Because of this, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists along with the American Reproductive Medicine Society have published a statement encouraging doctors to discuss environmental exposures including certain chemicals especially before and during pregnancy.

What Exposure Could Mean for Your Reproductive Health

There is accumulating data suggesting an association with the EDCs (including the glyphosate found in cotton) with several conditions including but not limited to:

Are They Really Dangerous?

This is a complicated question. Probably, at this point in time, the best answer is, “We don’t know.” Likely the amount of glyphosate in feminine hygiene products is relatively small.

As far as hypothetical exposure risk, the tampon would pose a more significant exposure as it is worn internally. Although the vagina is a mucous membrane through which a chemical could be absorbed we don’t know for sure if this actually happens and if it does how much glyphosate is actually absorbed. Likely in your daily life, you have much more significant exposures to this class of chemicals.

That being said, you may choose to avoid this particular potential exposure. If that is the case, you can avoid glyphosate by using alternative feminine hygiene products. These options are often referred to as green alternatives and include:

  • Tampons and pads made from organic cotton
  • Menstrual cup
  • Reusable pads
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Diamanti-Kandarakis E et al, Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement, Endocrine Review 2009 Jun;30(4) 293-342

By Andrea Chisholm, MD
Andrea Chisolm, MD, is a board-certified OB/GYN who has taught at both Tufts University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.