5 Things You Need to Know About Common Tampon Ingredients

Photo: Stocksy / Natalie Jeffcott
It's a little-known fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies tampons, pads, menstrual discs, and menstrual cups as medical devices. This means that under federal law purveyors of these products are not required to list their ingredients. Understandably, this may have you asking questions like: Should I be worried about the ingredients in my tampons? What am I putting in my body, anyway?

Here are the basics: In order to be cleared by the FDA, tampons must be made of cotton, rayon, or a blend of both. The FDA then reviews data submitted by the manufacturer to ensure that both the tampon and the applicator are made with safe materials. Here are a few criteria they look for:

  • tampon absorbency
  • strength, and integrity
  • whether they contribute to the growth of certain harmful bacteria
  • whether they change normal bacteria levels in the vagina.

That said, cotton and rayon aren't the only ingredients that wind up in menstrual products. Below, you'll find a breakdown of six of the more common ingredients present in tampons—so you can make whatever decision feels right for your health.

Remember: If you have lingering questions about what menstrual products deserve space in your bathroom, write down your list of questions and bring them to your OB/GYN or another medical provider you trust. The frustrating fact is that the ingredients in menstrual products are extremely under-researched, so working with a doctor can help you hone your judgement when you're walking the aisle of the drugstore or deciding which tampon subscription makes sense for you.

What You Need To Know About Common Tampon Ingredients

1. Rayon

Rayon is an ingredient derived from wood pulp. According to The Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences, rayons high levels of absorbency may cause the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus to grow and can cause toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare complication brought on by bacterial infection (often stemming from Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, bacteria). However, it's worth noting that only 3 to 6 people in 100,000 get TSS per year.

Philip Tierno, MD, a clinical microbiology and pathology professor at New York University, put it this way in a 2014 study: "[Viscose rayon] was the best of the bad four ingredients [found in tampons], three of which have been taken off the market."

2. Cotton

Although cotton is slightly less absorbent than rayon, Tierno holds that an organic 100 percent cotton tampon is really your best bet. Organic cotton tampons are free of dyes, plastics, bleach, fragrances, and pesticide-treated cotton, while cotton blends may contain any of those ingredients.

3. Titanium Dioxide (Dioxin)

Dioxin is an environmental pollutant that has been linked to endocrine disruption and cancer. While dioxin was once found in conventional tampons when the wood pulp used to make rayon was bleached using chlorine gas, the FDA has since put a stop to the bleaching of tampons with elemental chlorine. Thus, dioxin is really only found in teeny, tiny amounts in tampons. Is that 100 percent safe? The answer is... we don't know yet. More research still needs to be done to know either way. 

4. Fragrance

If you don't buy a 100 percent organic tampon, it may contain fragrances, or organic compounds with strong-smelling odors. And while many sources will claim that this is undeniably a bad thing, the safety of fragrances in tampons specifically hasn't been studied. And thus, we truly don't know either way.

5. BPA

BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical that comes from producing plastic, and old-school tampon applicators may still use the material. However, the widespread claims that BPAs cause cancer just aren't upheld by science, according to the UK Cancer Research Center. Plus, it's still somewhat unclear which tampons use BPAs in these applicators.

The Best 100% Cotton Tampons To Buy

Photo: Target
L . Organic Cotton Full Size Tampons — $10.00

L.’s tampons are made with a 100 percent cotton core. They are also free of chlorine bleaching, pesticides, rayon, fragrances, or dyes. However, they do also contain polyester, glycerin, paraffin, and titanium dioxide.

Rael Organic Cotton Tampons — $7.00

Another option with a cotton core, Rael features a very small ingredients list that includes 100 percent certified organic cotton, water repellant wax (for the tampon string), and a BPA-free plastic applicator. The company also offers panty liners and pads if those options are more comfortable for you.

Cora The Comfort Fit Tampon-Applicator Free — $9.00

If you prefer to ditch the plastic and opt for an applicator-free tampon, this option from Cora is a safe bet. All you’ll find in this tampon is 100 percent organic cotton and a water-resistant wax coating for the string. Bam, that’s it.

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