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Period products shown to contain ‘forever chemicals’, new research shows

Some of our favourite period products could contain traces of ‘forever’ substances, according to a recently published study. What does this mean, and how concerned should we be?

When you think about the plight generations of women before us had to endure when it came to their periods, it’s easy to see how lucky we are. 

These days, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to the period products available on the market. Your average supermarket has an entire aisle stocked with shelves of pads, tampons, liners, menstrual cups and period underwear. 

As consumers, we place a lot of blind trust into the brands producing these products. But a new study presented at the 2023 American Chemical Society this week has found that some brands contain traceable amounts of some pretty nasty substances.

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The study consisted of researchers analysing the concentration of fluorinated compounds in over 100 popular period products. Products containing higher amounts of the fluorinated compounds can be an indicator of potentially harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

The results? Whether added accidentally or intentionally, some products were indeed found to contain PFAS, highlighting the concerning fact that consumers aren’t always made aware of their presence.

According to the study, PFAS substances are described as a category of over 12,000 compounds that have stick, stain, and water-resistant properties. While these are often desirable characteristics for some products, they hold the potential to be harmful in some contexts. 

Nicknamed ‘forever chemicals’, these bioaccumulative compounds don’t break down easily in our bodies or the environment. 

Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN and women’s health expert spoke of her concerns about these compounds existing in our everyday period products to Medical News Today.

“PFAS’s harmful ‘forever chemicals’ can potentially linger in the body and cause hormonal and reproductive problems, immune suppression, and potential cancer risks,” she says. “It’s hard to know whether the period products contain PFAS since it’s not listed on the ingredient list.”

So what does this mean?

This highlights two major issues, according to the study authors. Firstly, any potentially harmful substance that is coming into contact with women through period product use indicates several health concerns. But the potential for harm exists for more than just the direct product users.  

“Of course, you’re concerned for the wearer, but we’re also concerned about the ecological impact because PFAS are ‘forever chemicals,’” says the principal investigator of the project, Graham Peaslee, Ph.D. 

“Once these products are thrown away, they go to landfills and decay, releasing PFAS into groundwater. And we, or later generations, could end up inadvertently ingesting them.”

Alyssa Wicks, a graduate student under Dr Peaslee, hopes to continue the research efforts, casting a wider net to further examine more products. According to the current data, some types of products were found to contain traces more often than others. 

“In general, tampons didn’t seem to contain fluorine,” says Wicks. “Same with menstrual cups and the layers of pads that come in contact with a person’s skin.”

The products themselves weren’t the only things placed under analysis, with the study finding fluorine present in the wrappers for some pads and tampons, as well as the outer layers of certain period underwear brands.

When it comes to the wrappers and outer layers of period clothing, the researchers have deduced some brands might be using PFAS as a moisture barrier to keep the products dry, or in the case of the underwear, to keep blood from leaking onto a person’s clothing.

So, is this even legal?

You might be wondering how manufacturers are possibly allowed to produce and sell products containing such serious substances, and you probably won’t be too thrilled to hear the answer. 

Across the world, there currently are very few regulatory guidelines limiting the inclusion of PFAS in period products and textiles, meaning even brands that were found to contain high traces aren’t technically breaking any laws. 

But, as concerning as some of the findings are, the study does highlight a pretty important silver lining. Given that some products tested were found to be completely free of fluorine and PFAS, it’s clear to see the compounds simply aren’t essential. 

With further research and subsequent tightening of consumer regulations, perhaps we’ll soon see a vast reduction in traces on the market.  

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