What are tampons made of?

Thanks to the passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, feminine care products like tampons, pads, period underwear, menstrual cups, and more are now qualified health expenses available for FSA and HSA spending - for the first time ever!

For the 70+ million FSA and HSA users out there, this is a huge new product category that they can factor into their yearly tax-free healthcare account contribution. But for FSA users in particular, this is a chance to truly explore your menstrual care options to see what is the right match for your overall comfort and lifestyle. After all, most of us have some extra FSA dollars to spend before each deadline, but if you find yourself with a surplus at any point in your plan year, this could be a perfect opportunity to explore new kinds of period products.

If you're firmly on team tampon, you still have an opportunity to explore the many innovations that have emerged in recent years around these products, and specifically new manufacturing methods and tampon ingredients that could help you reduce your carbon footprint, improve your overall comfort and more. Let's take a closer look at what's in tampons and how you can make an informed decision the next time it's time to re-up.

What is the history of tampon ingredients?

First a little history. According to The Atlantic, objects used to curb menstrual flow date back as far as ancient Rome where women were known to fashion tampons out of wool. The intravaginal devices that we know today first emerged in Europe in the 17th century, but were often used as contraceptives as opposed to being a sanitary item.

The first commercial applicator tampons that we know today were first patented in the 1930s by a Colorado-based general practitioner named Earle Cleveland Haas. With most women using the bulky menstrual pads of that era, Haas developed a new device that was made with compressed cotton. Because he wanted the ability to insert and remove without having to be touched directly, he created an "applicator" from paper tubes. He patented this design in 1933, and he combined the terms "vaginal packs" and "tampons" to create "Tampax". Sound familiar?

What are tampons made of today?

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates tampons as medical devices, and they are available in a variety of forms, including "organic" and standard varieties, unscented and scented as well as those that utilize a cardboard or plastic applicator that is inserted or those designed to be directly inserted without the use of an applicator (FDA)

Today, the most commonly used tampon ingredients are cotton and viscose rayon (a product made from processed wood pulp), and these make up the ingredients in most standard tampons. Organic tampons differ from these variants by using 100 percent organic cotton (Women's Health). But where these two products really differ is in the manufacturing process. And with many new studies examining the impact of these methods on the user's body, the jury is still out as to whether these ingredients could have long-term health effects.

Are tampon ingredients dangerous?

The subject of tampon ingredients has become a much bigger issue in recent years as more studies have been conducted on chemicals that may be present in tampons and what the primary ingredients may be exposed to during the manufacturing process. In 2019, New York became the first state in the U.S. to require all tampons and menstrual products to list their ingredients, notably pesticides used in growing the fibers or any chemical byproducts produced during the manufacturing process.

One of the chief concerns in the manufacturing process is dioxin, a byproduct of the bleaching process that manufacturers use to clean rayon through the use of chlorine. Dioxin has been linked to conditions like cancer and endometriosis in the past, but few studies have been conducted on its risk from feminine care products. However, a study conducted in 2002 found that "dioxins are found in trace amounts in both cotton and rayon tampons, they do not "significantly contribute to dioxin exposures in the United States." In fact, the researchers concluded that dioxins are actually more of a risk in food products than they are in menstrual care products.

But while this study examined immediate exposure, there is much less research conducted on what long-term exposure to dioxin could produce, even in the nominal levels found in common feminine care products. An additional concern is chemical exposure long before the manufacturing process. As cotton and rayon are both highly absorbent plants, there is a chance they could soak up pesticides and heavy metals that may be present in the soil. After all, women may use up to 12,000 tampons in their lifetimes, so the long-term risk of exposure to these ingredients is still not fully understood.

Although the New York State law requires manufacturers to list ingredients, they are not required to list pesticides used in growing the fibers or any chemical byproducts produced, so shoppers may not be getting the full story when reading the back of the package. But thankfully, according to Medium, gynecologists believe that the risk from these ingredients is nominal, and if women are still worried about their risk of exposure, silicon options like menstrual cups may be the best option.

Should I keep using tampons?

If they work for you, keep it going! Ultimately, feminine care options come down to personal preference, and thankfully, there are more options than ever to help you find the ideal mix of comfort, hygiene and versatility to adapt to your lifestyle. Thanks to efforts from New York legislators and the ever-growing sustainable, organic feminine care movement, women can make an informed choice when it comes to their menstrual care products to find the safest, most reliable choice for their long-term health.

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