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Expert opinion: The hidden plastics in period care products

Do you know what your tampons and pads are made from? Petroleum-derived plastics are hiding in our everyday products, including period care.

Here, Dr Nuthana Bhayankaram, a doctor with a keen interest in sustainability explores the hidden plastics in conventional tampons and pads and tells us why she’s championing sustainable period products.

“When we think of plastics, we usually think of carrier bags, bottles, gloves and aprons. So what does this have to do with period products? Here are a few stats that I found particularly interesting when exploring the topic of period care and plastics:

  • Every year in the UK alone, over 200,000 tonnes of waste is produced from disposable period products.
  • We use an average 11,000 disposable period products and throw away up to 200kg of menstrual products over a lifetime.
  • On average, the plastic in a pack of disposable pads is 36 grams, the equivalent of five plastic bags. This is a lot of plastic waste that takes around 500 years to degrade.
  • In the UK, 1.4 million period pads incorrectly get flushed down the toilet and end up in our waterways. Period pads are now the fifth most common single-use item found on European beaches.

So, how can you tell how much plastic is in your period care?

It can be really difficult to determine the exact composition of materials in traditional disposable menstrual products, often as ingredient labelling on these products has always been vague. Besides the obvious plastics such as a plastic applicator or wrapping, it can be difficult to tell how much plastic a product contains. This means that they contain ‘invisible or hidden plastics’ and many of us might not be aware that the tampons and pads we are using contains plastic. It’s often the case with pads due to the way they are made, when in fact they can contain up to 90% plastic.

In my research,  I have been visiting different shops examining what different brands state on their products. Most say ‘made up of synthetic fibres’ and there are signs on the packaging that say ‘plastic in product’ but it doesn’t make it clear whether that refers to the packaging itself or the pads.

It’s only through doing research for this blog that I have found out about what products are made of. This shows that there needs to be more transparency in what products are made of, as I’m sure many of us are unaware of how much plastic they contain.

Just looking at pads, for example. To be able to absorb blood, a lot of pads on the market contain super absorbent polymers which are made from petrochemicals and are not biodegradable, lasting around 500 years. Polyethylene and polypropylenes are used for the top sheet of pads and are extracted from petroleum. This process of extraction releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. Pads can also contain polyester, which are made of non-biodegradable plastics and release microplastics which are particularly harmful to aquatic life.

Ditching period plastics for natural and organic cotton products: What are the benefits?

From an environmental perspective, period care products made of organic and natural materials have less impact on the planet. From the way the materials are sourced, to the way the products are made, these products typically aim to protect the planet at each step. Organic cotton period products are usually made using less water than conventional cotton and avoid toxic pesticides making them safer for those making the products and kinder to the planet. Furthermore, by using organic and natural materials instead of synthetic materials such as polyethylene, it means the product will degrade quicker after disposal.

Organic and natural period care products can also offer more comfort and help prevent irritation. This is because cotton is much more breathable for our skin than plastics.

Expanding on this, as well as plastics, disposable products usually contain chemicals such as fragrance, dyes and titanium dioxide, and these products are placed against areas of skin or inserted into the vagina which absorbs into the bloodstream. Not to mention that the plastics and fragrance used in disposable, traditional period pads can cause irritation and affect the pH balance of the vagina, resulting in itchiness or thrush. Plasticizers such as BPA and parabens can be used to make pads softer and more flexible, but these chemicals can mimic hormones such as oestrogen.

Why I’m proud to champion sustainable period care products

I believe that climate change is the biggest threat to health globally and it affects every single one of us, so I am passionate about us all doing something to look after the planet. There is such a huge volume of single use plastics from menstrual products and it would be great to reduce this. I’m also really passionate about educating people about what products we use actually contain and the effects they have on us and the planet. It would be great for sustainable period products to be the norm! This would be better for our bodies and the planet.”

My top tips to help you have a plastic-free period:

  • Please do not flush period products down the toilet.
  • Try to have conversations with friends and family about plastic being in period products to help spread more awareness.
  • Have a look at what the products you use might contain to look for hidden plastics – if in doubt, ask the brand you’re purchasing from for an ingredient list.
  • Consider trying organic period care products.

Thanks to Dr Nuthana for sharing these insights on hidden period plastics and tips. Dr Nuthana Bhayankaram is a doctor, Sustainability Fellow, Vice President of @medicalwomenuk and the Host/Producer The Medical Women Podcast. Ready to make a sustainable switch? Explore our planet-friendly period care range here.

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