Between the advent of "organic" tampons and Kourtney Kardashian saying to KUWTK last year that she doesn’t use tampons because she thinks they're not “healthy,” you may have started to wonder: Are tampons bad for you?
Of course, you’ve heard that tampon use can put you at a small risk of developing a potentially dangerous infection called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). “When tampons are not used as directed and are not changed as indicated every eight to 12 hours, there is the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome,” says Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology at The University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago. TSS can lead to inflammation and even organ failure if it’s caught in time. But, again, TSS is rare—according to research from the University of Minnesota, approximately one in every 100,000 women who use tampons contract TSS every year (that’s 0.001 percent of tampon users, BTW).
Tampons can also leave you open to bacterial infections if you forget that you have one in and leave it up there, Shepherd says. However, she points out, tampons are “relatively safe” and “only cause issues when they are not used correctly or as directed.”
You may have heard that the ingredients in tampons are potentially troublesome, but Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says there’s really nothing to worry about. According to the FDA, which regulates tampons, the products are made of cotton, rayon, or a blend of the two, noting that rayon is made from cellulose fibers derived from wood pulp. "In this process, the wood pulp is bleached," the FDA explains. In the past, the bleaching process has taken some heat for potentially being a source of trace amounts of dioxins (toxic chemical compounds that can cause reproductive and developmental problems), but the FDA notes that bleaching method is no longer used.
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"Rayon raw material used in U.S. tampons is now produced using elemental chlorine-free or totally chlorine-free bleaching processes," the FDA says, adding that tampons that are totally chlorine-free may use hydrogen peroxide as the bleaching agent.
“There are no toxins, no chemicals,” Streicher says. Just steer clear of scented tampons: They can cause vulvar irritation, she says.
If you’re interested in using an alternative to tampons, experts say you should go for it—just don’t do so because you’re afraid tampons are bad for your health. “If someone wants to use a menstrual cup because it’s good for the environment, god bless—but it’s not healthier for them,” Streicher says. “There’s no downside to using a regular tampon.”