New study finds lead and arsenic in tampons. It’s still unclear what effect this has on health

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Tampons are one of the most popular menstrual products in a growing market that now includes menstrual underwear, menstrual cups, and more. They have been around since the 1930s and remain the preferred choice for 80% of people who menstruate.

However, little research has looked at potential contaminants in tampons and whether they pose a health risk. A new study, the first of its kind, has many wondering: Are tampons safe?

A recent UC Berkeley investigation found that many tampons on the market, including organic and non-organic ones, may contain Toxic metals, such as lead and arsenicThe researchers studied tampons sold in both the United States and Europe.

“Some tampons had higher concentrations of one metal and lower concentrations of another,” said Jenni A. Shearston, Ph.D., lead author of the paper. “We didn’t find any particular tampon that appeared to have… a lower concentration of all metals.”

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

“Historically, menstruation has been a taboo subject,” she added. “That doesn’t just affect us in our social lives. It also affects scientific research, and I think that’s one of the reasons we haven’t done enough research on menstrual products.”

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

“There’s definitely a need for more evaluation. … I think it potentially has a significant impact in terms of how tampons are produced and the effect of tampons on users,” Kramer said.

That said, it’s unclear what, if any, health impacts there may be from using tampons containing these metals.

“We don’t know if any of these metals are absorbed vaginally, which is key when it comes to exposure,” said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an obstetrician, gynecologist and author of the book Let’s Talk about Down There (Let’s talk about down there)”.

Shearston, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, adds that one limitation of the study is that they don’t know if the metal can even leach out of tampons.

“We’re only looking at whether these metals are present in the tampons,” she said. “We don’t know if they come out of the tampons.”

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

Tampons and toxic metals

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

However, the research 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 like to encourage people to do is support more research and ask more questions about this to try to make research on menstrual products and menstruation a priority.”

Metal levels varied depending on the type, where they were purchased, and whether they were generic or brand name.

“These metals were found in varying amounts, some higher in organic tampons (like arsenic) and others 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.”

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

Are tampons safe?

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

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

For tampon users concerned about metal exposure, Kramer suggests using tampons less frequently and relying on other menstrual products.

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

Tampon alternatives

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

  • Menstrual cups

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

  • Menstrual discs

Like a cup, these products use a rimmed pouch to collect menstrual fluid.

  • Menstrual underwear

They look like regular underwear but contain additional material to absorb menstrual fluid.

  • Reusable pads

These are cloth sanitary pads that you put in your underwear to absorb the liquid, but they can also be washed and reused, unlike standard sanitary pads, which are thrown away.