How Safe Are Tampons For Women Of Color? ASK AN OBGYN

Dear SuzyKnew!,  

I saw pictures of model who had lost her leg due to toxic shock syndrome from tampons.  How safe are tampons, anyway?   Are there any specific issues for women of color?  

Dear Reader,

Since an outbreak in the 1980’s, there is a clear link between toxic shock syndrome (TSS) and tampons.  TSS is rare, but extremely dangerous.  It is caused by a bacterium called streptococcus that lives on the skin of some people and most of the time is harmless.   But when it is introduced into the vagina, it can grow like wildfire.

The vagina is a dark, moist environment and the fibrous material in a tampon makes an optimal growth media- so basically, it’s a perfect bacterial storm.  Once TSS is introduced into the blood stream, it quickly spreads to the vital organs and can send you into organ failure within a matter of days.

The package insert in most tampon brands recommends that tampons be changed every 4-8 hours.  Most doctors will recommend that you do not sleep with a tampon because it is not uncommon for young women to sleep much more than 8 hours.  But is that small print warning about toxic shock syndrome (TSS) enough to educate today’s girls and women?

Model Lauren Wasser would likely say no.  She contracted TSS and had severe tissue damage to both her lower limbs, resulting in a below the knee amputation. Since her near-death experience, she has become a voice for education about toxic shock.   There are many other stories women and young girls who have died from TSS.

Given the severity of this illness, it’s so important for SuzyKnew readers to understand the risks of tampons and other feminine hygiene products.

You have a great question- How safe are tampons?  The truth is that we really don’t know enough about the safety of tampons and other feminine hygiene products.  What do we know about the long-term effects of tampon use- considering that we use these for one week per month for DECADES?  What do we know about the synthetic materials, bleaches and dyes used in tampons? What do we know about the safety of other feminine products such as wipes, douches, or sprays?

If women’s health champions like Congresswoman Carolyn Mahoney of New York have anything to say about it, we will soon know a lot more.   In March of 2015 she re-introduced HR-1708, a bill that directs the National Institutes of Health to study the risks posed by the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers, chemical fragrances, and other components of feminine hygiene products.  Her argument is that women are using products inside their bodies that have not been properly studied.  This is rooted in a history of women and women’s health issues not being equally represented in clinical research.   In addition, feminine hygiene products such as tampons, pads, wipes and washes are subject to varied rules and consumer protections.

While this bill is debated in Congress, independent groups of advocates have stepped up and asked about the safety of feminine hygiene products.  A report by Women’s Voices for the Earth examines products such as wipes and douches that contain potentially harmful ingredients such as pesticides, dyes, dioxin, quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin.  The report includes a “Hall of Shame” appendix that features examples of feminine care brands that contain toxic chemicals.

The WVE report also notes that feminine wipes and washes are used in greater numbers by Black and Latina women. Part of this is likely because women are color are disproportionately targeted by advertisers of douching and feminine hygiene products.   So if more women of color are using products that have ingredients that have not been properly studied, then yeah, that’s a big problem, and one the Representative Mahoney’s bill will hopefully address.

Take care.