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With a typical woman using thousands of sanitary pads or tampons in her lifetime, the big question remains, “are feminine hygiene products safe?” Concerns have been raised, more than once, about the ingredients used in these products, and some reports show they may be linked to certain types of cancers.

Keeping Your Vulva and Vagina Clean

Before we get into the details, here’s a little anatomy refresher. In medical terms, the vulva refers to the external parts of the female genital tract. That is, the area around the vagina, which includes the inner and outer vagina lips (labia), the clitoris, the clitoral hood, pubic mound, and the urethra. The vagina is the internal muscular tract that extends from the cervix to the vaginal opening.

The vagina is a complex organ that is still being studied to date. What has come to light is that to maintain the health of your vulva and vagina, you must ensure that the pH level and bacterial populations are balanced. Otherwise, you might start getting infections. According to studies, the vulva pH ranges between 3.5-4.7, while the vaginal pH varies from person to person, depending on factors like age and the stage of their menstrual cycle.

Medical experts say that the vagina is a self-cleansing organ and therefore doesn’t need to be washed. The pH value of 3.5-4.7 is slightly acidic, which helps to prevent bad bacteria from thriving. Washing inside the vagina using any of the vagina cleansing products disrupts this natural balance, and this can result in yeast infection, irritation, or bacterial vaginosis.

The vulva, on the other hand, should be washed using warm water. However, certain products can be used to really cleanse and moisturize your vulva between showers. Just keep in mind that any product you use can enter the vagina, which is super-sensitive, and end up causing infections.

Toxic Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products

The general assumption would be that tampons and pads are made with cotton. However, this might not be the case. Some of these products are made from synthetic materials like rayon and Super Absorbent Polymers (SAPs), which are often bleached with chlorine to make them look good.

The problem is that the byproducts that result from the bleaching process, such as dioxins and furans can be toxic and have been linked to cancer. Additionally, those pads and tampons that are actually made from cotton have traces of pesticide residues since the cotton is not organic.

If you use scented tampons and pads, you could be exposing your most intimate parts to unnecessary harm since you don’t actually know what fragrance ingredients have been used. The chemicals used in these products can even affect your reproductive organs. Concerns have also been raised about the risk of contracting toxic shock syndrome (TSS) through the use of tampons. So, when buying tampons, make sure they are fragrance-free.

When it comes to menstrual cups, one should ensure they are made from 100 percent medical-grade silicone. This way, the pH balance of your vagina will be maintained.

The problem is that in most countries, the law doesn’t require companies to broadcast what goes into the making of feminine hygiene products. In 2018, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) ran an assessment on feminine care products. They found traces of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs), fragrances, and pesticides in products with carcinogenic, mutagenic, or reprotoxic (CMR), skin-sensitizing, or endocrine-disrupting properties. However, conclusions were made that the substances were in low concentrations, and therefore didn’t pose negative effects on feminine hygiene. 

Another research by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, concluded that the use of gel sanitizers was associated with the increase in a woman’s risk of developing yeast infection and around 20 times higher risk of developing a bacterial infection. The 2018 study also found a link between the use of intimate washes and over three times higher the risk of bacterial infections and urinary tract infection (UTI).

Kieran O’Doherty, the lead study author, stated that the products prevented the growth of healthy bacteria to fight off infection.

What’s Next?

The society has been misled that the female genitalia is unclean to increase the demand for vaginal hygiene products. The Office on Women’s Health suggests it’s best to let your vagina clean itself through the discharge it produces naturally. When cleaning your vulva, it’s advisable to use warm water since using soap may cause dry skin and irritation.

While it’s normal to be worried about vaginal odor, it’s important to point out that vaginas naturally have a unique, musky scent. If your vaginal discharge changes color or has a peculiar smell, the best option is to speak to a healthcare provider to get expert advice.

When shopping for feminine hygiene products like sanitary pads and tampons, be sure to read the labels and avoid scented products. Additionally, use the lowest absorbency required to control your flow. That is, opt for a regular tampon or pad instead of super or super plus. When using tampons, don’t leave them in for more than eight hours and switch to pads when sleeping.

Most vaginal washes contain ingredients that the FDA has classified to be safe for “External use only”. Considering how the feminine washes are used, internal contact is inevitable. Therefore, you should try to eliminate the use of feminine care products.

All images by Shutterstock

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