It’s long been known that some additives used in pads and tampons—like chlorine and rayon—are potentially harmful. Yet for decades, period care companies have not had to disclose their ingredients on their packaging prior to a recent bill passed into law in New York. Now, a similar bill has made its way through the California legislature, making the West Coast giant the second state to attempt mandating such protections for people who menstruate. (It is currently waiting to be signed into law.)
This new bill, known as AB 1989 or “Menstrual Products Right to Know Act of 2020,” goes some distance toward period product transparency, and therefore safety, but it does have limitations. While the New York bill requires that every single ingredient intentionally added to a product be listed alongside its percentage use, the California bill offers period product manufacturers some exceptions.
Jamie McConnell, director of programs and policy at Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), a nonprofit which works specifically on ingredient disclosure and contributed to both the New York and California bills, tells me her organization considers New York’s to be the industry standard. The California bill, by comparison, falls short of this standard despite its gains, she says.
For starters, she explains that the bill allows for added fragrance which falls under a certain threshold to be left off of ingredient lists, so California consumers will remain unaware of their inclusion in products. “This is concerning because these are products that are coming into contact with sensitive, absorptive tissue, and even fragrance ingredients below 100 parts per million could pose some health concerns,” she says. For example, scented menstrual products can irritate vulvar and vaginal skin, and can even disrupt the vagina’s natural pH levels—leading to an increased risk of infections.
“If an ingredient is intentionally added… [companies] should disclose it no matter what. It’s the right thing to do.” —Jamie McConnell, director of programs and policy, Women’s Voices for the Earth
The California bill also allows other ingredients to be kept under wraps as “confidential business information”, so long as they aren’t on the Chemical Candidates List of designated hazards. But this loophole troubles McConnell. “We are concerned that allergens in menstrual products that have been known to cause anogenital dermatitis [allergic contact dermatitis in the anal and genital regions], like MI and MCI, do not have to be disclosed under this bill,” McConnell says. (She’s referring to the ingredients methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, which are preservatives that can prevent bacteria and yeast growth, but have also been linked to allergic reactions and skin irritation.)
One problem is that the above-mentioned list of hazards was created based off of standards used for evaluating the safety of cleaning products, and cleaning products are typically not inserted into your vagina. It therefore does not necessarily include all ingredients to be wary of in this particular application. Another problem is that no chemical hazard list of any kind is necessarily comprehensive. “We know that just because an ingredient isn’t on a designated hazard list, that doesn’t mean it’s not an emerging chemical of concern, or an ingredient that a person who menstruates may want to avoid,” says McConnell.
With that said, the organization was able to lower some of the threshold levels allowed in earlier drafts of this bill so that what ultimately passed is a better, safer version than originally written. Still, McConnell says it doesn’t make much sense to have a lesser standard in California when there is already an existing, higher standard elsewhere.
Ultimately, she says, it will be interesting to see what happens as the New York law goes into effect next year, as it’s not exactly cost effective for companies to print different packaging for different states—meaning that hypothetically, New York’s comprehensive law could be the tide that rises all boats by forcing transparent packaging into every market. For this reason, she says, the industry may yet try to fight what’s happening in New York and then do the same on the West Coast, too.
To prevent this, McConnell says the best actions consumers can take is to call period product manufacturers to voice support for transparent packaging. “If an ingredient is intentionally added, that means they’re knowingly putting it into the product and if they’re doing that then they should disclose it no matter what,” she says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
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