Menstrual products have evolved over the centuries from ancient home-made rags to current sanitary pads and menstrual cups. Though many products are available, sanitary pads are still commonly preferred. It is estimated that regular women utilize sanitary pads for about 1800 menstrual days. An average female is expected to use about 40,000 pads during her life time. The modern sanitary pads use synthetic plastic materials in order to improve the softness and functionality of these products. This could be highly damaging and may lead to cancer in the long run, shares Dr. L. Rohit Reddy, Consultant Medical Oncologist & Hemato Oncologist, Yashoda Hospitals, Hyderabad.
What makes sanitary pads harmful?
Some of the plastic materials used in sanitary pads may release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals such as phthalates that are absorbed via sensitive vaginal skin and mucosa. Vaginal absorption of these products is 18-20 times more than oral mucosal absorption. After absorption they may travel into the systemic circulation.
It is important to understand that excess levels of these chemicals in sanitary pads may be associated with ovarian and breast cancer. They might eventually lead to issues like irregular menstruation by affecting female hormones like oestrogen.
The possibility of excess chemicals, especially VOCs in sanitary pads was first reported in August 2014 by the group Women’s voices for earth. They reported that a famous brand of sanitary pads had excess amounts of styrene, chloroform and chloromethane, compounds which are toxic.
Also Read: Why Cotton Pads Are Better Than Regular Ones
Later on, in 2017 a South Korean report also showed excess levels of VOCs in pads. The company was in fact sued by a women’s group. But these reports were qualitative in nature as there was no strict causal relationship that was established. But a study using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2001–2004 data reported a statistically significant and positive correlation between the frequency of vaginal douching and blood concentrations of 1,4-dichlorobenzene among women aged 20–49 years. This particular compound is notorious for causing cancers. This report established causality of VOCs with cancer.
Can using sanitary pads cause cancer?
- VOCs are used in menstrual products as fragrances, softeners, adsorbents, adhesives and binders. Also, in order to create a ‘feeling of freshness’, multiple VOCs are added into the sanitary pads.
- Notable VOCs include benzene which is a proven carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane a possible carcinogen and naphthalene a likely carcinogen.
- Apart from carcinogenicity they are also possibly associated with many known or suspected effects such as irritation to eyes, skin and nose; damage to the respiratory system, liver and kidney and reproductive effects.
- It is also important to know that VOC composition and concentration on a particular product. Not all labels indicating ‘organic’ and ‘for sensitive skin’ are healthy as they may also contain VOCs.
- Most Indian products contain several VOCs that are considered toxic, but at widely varying concentrations.
It is also unfortunate that most Indian sanitary pads are also not properly tested for VOCs concentration. Most information about Indian products is not readily available. In order to appear clean and white, many of them are bleached, that may lead to production of harmful chemical dioxin. Dioxin is associated with infertility, liver dysfunction and cancer.
Sanitary pads are bad for the environment
Besides, disposal of sanitary pads in India is not ecofriendly as most of these products are ultimately incinerated releasing dioxins and furans into the air which are toxic and potentially carcinogenic to other people who are inhaling these fumes.
How to stay safe while using sanitary pads
- Routine change of pads irrespective of the menstrual flow
- Staying hydrated to reduce the chances of perineal infections
- Maintaining perineal hygiene
- Avoid pads with fragrance, be watchful of terms such as “organic”.
- Look out for signs of perineal infection such as itching and redness.
People must also be sensitized regarding these aspects. Commercially available products must display the chemicals used in making of their products. These measures may help to a certain extent. But ultimately other alternatives must be also explored.