Code Red

05.02.14

The Next Big Environmental Fight: Tampons?

Climate change, clean water, eco-friendly tampons? Feminine products are the new focus of environmental groups.

When people think of the great environmental issues of our time, they are likely to mention the usual suspects: climate change, clean water, and overpopulation, among others. It is doubtful many think of feminine hygiene. But increasingly, environmentally conscious women are choosing which hygiene products they use as a decision on par with whether or not to recycle. This has led to a burgeoning industry of small businesses, founded and run by women specializing in eco-friendly hygiene products.

“We can’t even package our sponges fast enough. We can’t even keep up with the demand,” said Gloria Starita, founder of Jade and Pearl, a company that sells natural products, including organic tampons, menstrual cups, and reusable sponges that can be used in place of traditional tampons. “I’ve been involved with reusable menstrual products since 2000, and I’ve noticed a constant increase over the years with the number of women finding out about them and using them,” said Obsidian, founder of the site Cloth Pad Shop, where women can order environmentally friendly hygiene products such as washable sanitary pads. (She requested that her full name not be published.)

Starita first opened Jade and Pearl in 1974, but always maintained it as a side project while holding down full-time jobs. But that changed as environmental consciousness blossomed in recent years. “In 1996 the demand got so overwhelming that I made [Jade and Pearl] my focus.” The demand has grown every year. “There are a lot of reasons [for the company’s growth],” Starita said. “Rising environmental consciousness; the rising costs of menstrual products in today’s economy.”

As Starita explained, the average woman may use, at the very least, an entire box of disposable tampons during her period, which can cost around 10 dollars a box. Sponges, which are rinsed after each use, can last up to six months. Two of those cost around 30 dollars.

But another big reason is health concerns. Though actress Alicia Silverstone elicited criticism in her new book with assertions about the potential dangers of toxins in traditional tampons, Starita and others consider such fears very real. “Women are starting to understand they don’t really want to put toxic products up their vaginas at the most sensitive time of the month, when all tissues are receptive to whatever poisons you are putting in there,” she said. Starita was inspired to start her company after being diagnosed with cervical dysplasia and being advised by her doctor to stop using tampons. She began researching ancient methods women used during their periods, and when she discovered that Cleopatra and others used sponges, the idea for her company was born.

“Eco friendly menstruation products are definitely growing in popularity,” Rubi Jones and Ashley Seil Smith, founders of The Period Store, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. The Period Store allows women to order feminine hygiene products online in customized care packages. “We’ve found that many women just didn’t know they existed before, but when women are educated about all of the different products that exist, many of them are interested in organic and environmentally friendly products,” they said.

“Women are starting to understand they don’t really want to put toxic products up their vaginas at the most sensitive time of the month.”

While the site also sells traditional tampons and pads, the largest growth potential seems to be in the future of their eco-friendly products. They noted, “We have seen an uptick any time we introduce a new eco-friendly product into the store. For example, we introduced Organyc in March this year and once women saw a tampon/pad company making 100% organic, chemical-free tampons and pads, many of them switched.”

Though many simply see it as an issue of preference, a vocal, growing minority sees traditional feminine hygiene products as a major public health issue. Dr. Joseph Mercola wrote an article titled, “Women Beware: Most Feminine Hygiene Products Contain Toxic Ingredients.” In the piece he writes, “In my opinion, feminine hygiene products can be likened to a ‘ticking time bomb’ due to years of exposure. The average American woman uses 16,800 tampons in her lifetime—or up to 24,360 if she’s on estrogen replacement therapy.” Among a litany of concerns, he cites the danger of being diagnosed with Toxic Shock Syndrome, a severe, sometimes deadly, infection that has long been associated with being a potential danger of tampons.

But Dr. Rebecca Brightman, an ob-gyn in private practice, cautioned that such fears are overblown. “I’m not terribly concerned about toxins,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “The world we live in is filled with toxins. I’ve never read a scientific study that led me to believe that people were getting some unusual toxins because of feminine hygiene products,” she continued. “In terms of toxic shock syndrome, something all women fear, most ob-gyns practice their entire lifetimes and never see a case of toxic shock syndrome—that’s how rare it is.”

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Jade & Pearl

While she does not consider traditional hygiene products dangerous, Brightman confirmed that environmental concerns regarding such products could be compelling. “For instance, plastic applicators—if women aren’t recycling them, that’s not great for the environment. But there are times I tell a young woman to use the plastic applicator because they are having a problem with the cardboard.” Ultimately the choice regarding which personal hygiene products to use needs to remain a personal choice, not a cultural or societal one. “It’s a matter of personal preference,” Brightman said.

But that’s not the case in all countries. In countries with rampant poverty, disposable hygiene products are a luxury. The more reusable products that exist, the more they will be available for women who desperately need them. Donatepads.org has information on organizations collecting reusable pads for girls in need.

Starita, however, noted that there are plenty of good reasons to try eco-friendly hygiene products that have nothing to do with the environment or health. For example, reusable sponges can be worn comfortably and undetected during sex. “Your partner will not even know you have anything in,” she said. This fact alone has helped her business grow exponentially. “We sell to the oldest brothel in New York City,” she said. “We’ve been selling to them for years. We sell to lots of sex workers,” including adult actresses, who rely on her products to ensure they won’t have to cancel lucrative film shoots because of an inconveniently timed monthly flow.

The businesswomen interviewed by The Daily Beast asserted something else is transforming what hygiene products women buy: the shame and silence long associated with periods is beginning to dissipate. “I think the main reason is the availability of information and community groups that the Internet provides,” said Obsidian. “Women are bringing menstruation out of the closet,” Starita added. “It’s the last taboo.”