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Some Menstrual Products Contain PFAS

Menstrual pads with red glitter on them.
Credit: iStock.
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Menstrual products – including tampons, panty liners, pads and menstrual cups – are used during a menstrual bleed to help people feel more comfortable and sanitary. Approximately 22 menstrual products are used each cycle, equating to ~11,000 products in a lifetime. Unfortunately, there are menstrual product manufacturers that fail to list the ingredients of their products on the packaging, meaning customers might be unaware of what they are using on or in their bodies.

At this year’s American Chemical Society fall meeting, researchers from Professor Graham Peaslee’s laboratory at the University of Notre Dame present new evidence that some menstrual products contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Based on the high concentrations of fluorine in some products, the researchers suggest their use is intentional by manufacturers.

Fluorine in menstrual products is an indicator of PFAS

Also known as “forever chemicals”, PFAS is an umbrella term that accounts for approximately 12,000 compounds that are stain-, stick- and water-resistant. While these properties might seem useful for consumer products like food packaging or pots and pans, PFAS do not break down very easily. Instead, they bioaccumulate, and have been associated with adverse effects on the environment and human health.

Peaslee’s laboratory has analyzed many consumer products for fluorinated compounds, an indicator of potentially harmful PFAS, including school uniforms, cosmetics and food packaging. This is the first time they’ve turned their attention to menstrual products, an idea put forward by Alyssa Wicks, a graduate student in the lab.

“I think this is the first observation of PFAS in menstrual products in the US,” says Peaslee.

The Peaslee laboratory uses a rapid screening technique called particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy, which is considered a gold-standard tool for detecting light elements in depths of surface layers. Our first step was a screening that’s done quickly and simply,” says Wicks. “We determined if these products had organic fluorine as a surrogate for PFAS.” A total of 123 menstrual products that are sold in the US were analyzed.

Wicks cut small portions of each item and analyzed them using PIGE spectroscopy in under three minutes. For menstrual products that contain multiple layers, such as pads and period underwear, the layers were sampled separately. Wicks also measured total fluorine levels in the packaging of some single-use menstrual products like tampons. 

Menstrual underwear has high levels of fluorine

The analyses suggest that, from the products tested, there’s a mixed bag in terms of which ones may contain PFAS. “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.” However, the presence of total fluorine in the wrappers for pad and tampon products, and the outer layers of the period underwear products, was much higher – in some instances, 1,000 to several thousand parts per million total fluorine.

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Wicks suggests that, for the menstrual underwear products, the levels of fluorine were high enough that the team consider their use in these products to be intentional: “The levels were high enough that we would consider it to contain polymeric PFAS, which when they make the synthetic fibers that are in the underwear, they are adding PFAS to these fibers,” she explains. Wicks suggests that PFAS might be utilized in wrappers to prevent moisture from affecting the products, and in the case of menstrual underwear, to prevent leakage of blood from the outer layers of period that might stain clothing.

Should menstrual product users be concerned?

Peaslee emphasizes that, currently, there is no safe PFAS that scientists are aware of. If PFAS are present in menstrual products, it’s not only a concern for the wearer but also for the environment. “Luckily, there are thousands of studies published on the ecological and health impacts of PFAS. Very low concentrations correlate with adverse health effects. In humans, they’re concerned with several types of cancer, hypertension, ulcerative colitis and even thyroid disease,” Peaslee explains. “Of course, you’re concerned for the wearer, but we’re also concerned about the ecological impact because PFAS are ‘forever chemicals’. 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.”

Next, Wicks plans to run deeper analyses on the products tested, and include samples from other countries outside of the US: “We used PIGE as a way to quantify the total fluorine in our samples. PIGE is a great tool, but it doesn’t tell you what specific PFAS compounds are in all of these products,” she says. “To figure that out, we need to do targeted analyses using liquid-chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS) where we target for 31 PFAS compounds. We just got our new PFAS compound standard set, so I’ll be busy these upcoming weeks doing targeted analyses to look for trends in what types of PFAS are being found in these products,” says Wicks. 

The scientists believe that the absence of fluorine in some products tested is encouraging, as it implies the use of PFAS is not essential in this context. “Feminine products are essential, but the need for a fluorinated wrapper, or the need for a fluorinated layer, doesn’t seem to be, because plenty of them are made without relying on these compounds,” Peaslee says

This article is based on research findings that are yet to be peer-reviewed. Results are therefore regarded as preliminary and should be interpreted as such. Find out about the role of the peer review process in research here. For further information, please contact the cited source.