Why it’s important to know what’s in your tampons

organic tampons

I used pads for the first two years of having my period. I couldn’t quite figure out the cardboard applicators I found in my mom’s bathroom drawer, and I don’t think I even attempted to unwrap the mysterious, applicator-free OB tampon a friend’s mom handed me one summer day at a pool party. I got my period fairly young—I was 11—so it was easiest to use pads and let this monthly occurrence shrink into the background of my life.

Sometime in early high school, I decided I could no longer stand the feeling that I was sitting in my own blood, so I grabbed a box of Tampax, read the directions, studied the diagram, and figured it out. Sometime in college, obsessed with what my vagina was supposed to look and smell like, I discovered scented tampons, which made my period smell like a Cabbage Patch Kid (does anyone remember how their heads were scented? So weird.) mixed with blood and Clinique “Happy.”

I’m glad my Cabbage Patch tampon days were short-lived because “fragrance” (which is how the ingredient is listed on scented tampon boxes) can contain up to 3,000 different chemicals.

I changed brands and eventually realized my period didn’t need to smell like anything other than a period, but I never paid much attention to the products I purchased. I usually opted for the lowest price tag, choosing generic drugstore tampons. Even as I read about—and started eating—organic food as well as cutting out soda and most artificial foods (I’m still a sucker for Doritos and sour candies), I never took a step back to see the irony in the fact I wasn’t paying any attention at all to something I had inside of my body for 25 percent of my life.

That is until I got a job at Cora, a feminine health company best known for its organic tampons. Cora tends to appeal to women for three main reasons: a mission to give back and provide period products to women and girls in need; sleek, modern packaging; and premium, organic tampons.

I’ll admit, I was eager to join the team based on points one and two—the third was an added bonus. Then I started reading. Over the past few months, I’ve sifted through hundreds of articles—a backlog of content for an upcoming project—as well as books, blogs, and conversations to get me up to speed in the women’s health industry. I’ve read so much about tampons—how they’re made, what they’re made of, different types and brands—and listened to our co-founders passionately discuss why it was never a question that Cora tampons would be 100 percent organic cotton. It’s changed my thinking as a consumer and I’m eager to share these learnings with anyone with a period. Here are’s a few of them:

  • I’ll say this outright: to my knowledge, there is no extensive scientific proof that organic tampons are safer than synthetic ones. Here’s what we do know: the FDA doesn’t require period companies to fully disclose what’s in their products. Even when they do disclose ingredients, we don’t yet understand the long-term effects of some of these substances and chemicals. I, for one, don’t think it’s worth the risk when there are plenty of 100 percent organic pads and tampons on the market. Just like I enjoy knowing that the raspberries I ingest are, well, just raspberries, I’d rather put just cotton in my vagina.

  • I’m glad my Cabbage Patch tampon days were short-lived because “fragrance” (which is how the ingredient is listed on scented tampon boxes) can contain up to 3,000 different chemicals.

  • Studies have shown that the highly permeable tissue in your vagina absorbs chemicals 10–80 times faster than the same dose would be absorbed orally. It’s important to remember that a tampon isn’t sitting in a vacuum but rather in a highly porous, sensitive, and connected body part.

  • Cotton is one of the dirtiest crops around. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers possess a chemical structure that is not easily broken down by natural processes. Some brands use chlorine to bleach the cotton, which can leave behind traces of dioxin, a known carcinogen.

  • Not only can chemicals from pesticides make their way from your tampon into your body, they’re also harmful to the environment and cotton farmers. One study even said that one pad uses the equivalent of four plastic bags in crude oil plastic.

  • Working at Cora also made me think in a way I hadn’t before about who makes my tampons. Cora is GOTS certified, which ensures the cotton used in our products are made without chemical pesticides, forced labor, child labor, or unfair wages. I’m happy knowing not only that my tampons are safe for my body, but also that the production process was safe for the people who made them.  

Not everyone has the option to switch to a premium, 100 percent organic tampon or pad, so my goal here isn’t necessarily to convince you to switch to Cora or even organic tampons. We do, however, have the right to know what we’re putting in our bodies and to make decisions based in fact and grounded in knowledge. Whether you switch to organic today or use your voice to demand change from the FDA and other government officials, I urge you to make yourself aware of your options and do your research before reaching for the cheapest box of tampons or the ones you’ve used forever “just because.”

It’s been nearly a 20-year journey from my first period until now. From pads to just about every tampon under the sun (or at least on the shelves at CVS) to 100 percent organic tampons, I’ve never felt more empowered by my period. My cycle—its ups and downs, twists and turns—is mine, and it’s only natural that the choices I make regarding the products I use are mine, too.

 

Megan Lierley (@megblierley) is the head of content at Cora and editor of Blood + Milk. She lives, works, and writes in San Francisco, CA.