Periods are messy business, but that doesn’t mean they need to be full of toxins, too. Recent research calls into question the safety of some tampons and pads, and the last thing you need to worry about is what’s hiding in your tampon or your medicine cabinet. Here are the 8 toxic mistakes you may be making during your period.
Mistake 1: Using tampons and pads made with rayon or bleached cotton
Most tampons and pads are made with rayon, cotton, or a mix of both. These conventional pads and tampons can contain traces of pesticides, residue from bleaching, adhesives like methyldibromo glutaronitrile, and dioxin, a known endocrine and fertility disruptor. Many researchers and policy groups believe that the FDA’s statement that dioxin exposure from tampons is too low to be harmful is nearsighted, and fails to take into account the permeability of vaginal tissues, frequency of exposure, or the long-term impacts of low levels of dioxin. Multiplied by 12,000, which is about how many tampons a woman will use in a lifetime, these barely detectable chemical residues have the potential to be incredibly dangerous. More research is necessary to know exactly how long-term exposure effects health.
“Women absolutely do need to be concerned about pesticides and dioxin exposure from tampons and pads,” said Eden Fromberg, DO, an integrative obstetrician-gynecologist. “Numerous medical journals and scientists have called for these substances to be better regulated.” Exposure to these chemicals may cause reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, and cancer according to a report from Women’s Voices for the Earth.
Skip the chemical exposure and instead use organic, unbleached tampons and pads. Menstrual cups made out of medical grade silicone and reusable organic cotton pads/period underwear are also safe and effective alternatives.
Mistake 2: Popping pain meds
Drop the bottle! Despite being easy and effective menstrual pain and cramp relief, over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen (Advil, Midol, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can cause more problems than they fix. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen can increase your risk of having a sudden heart attack or stroke without warning, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. They can also cause ulcers, holes, or bleeding in the stomach and intestine, and disrupt or damage the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Frequent use of pain medications can tax or damage your kidneys and liver.
But that doesn’t mean you have to grit your teeth and suffer. Increasing your intake of magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B6 can all help reduce or stop cramping. One large study found that women who took 1,200 mg of calcium daily cut their PMS symptoms like headaches, cramping, moodiness, and food cravings in half.
Fromberg recommends evening primrose oil to help remove excess prostaglandin that can cause cramping, and a heating pad to increase blood flow and relax the nervous system and muscles. Evening primrose oil and vitamin E can also help ease breast tenderness. Most importantly, don’t wait until the cramps or headache start. “Treat symptoms early if you know that they will get worse,” she says. “Breaking the pain cycle early helps minimize the amount of medication or intervention necessary.”
Mistake 3: Not changing your tampon often enough
The longer you wear your tampon or pad, the more bacteria grows. Both options create the perfect environment for bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, which releases a toxin that causes toxic shock syndrome. Change your tampon or pad every 4 to 8 hours. If you need longer-lasting protection, you can use a menstrual cup for up to 12 hours before emptying, washing, and reinserting.
Mistake 4: Using scented products
No one wants to have an unpleasant odor, but scented products should be avoided—they can irritate the body, lead to bacterial or yeast infections, and leach harmful chemicals. They’re loaded with synthetic chemicals like phthalates, parabens, and cancer-causing chemicals like butylated hydroxyanisole. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that women should not use any scented feminine products including pads, tampons, bubble baths, and sprays.
Mistake 5: Douching
While douching may cover up odor for a short period of time, it will likely make problems worse or create new ones. Doctors say you shouldn’t douche for many reasons. Douching has been linked to bacteria or yeast infections, difficulties getting pregnant, vaginal infections, and sexually transmitted infections. Commercial douches contain unknown fragrance chemicals, parabens, and dyes may cause an allergic rash or endocrine disruption. These products upset the natural pH of the vagina and remove some of the normal, beneficial bacteria that help protect you from infection.
It’s normal to have some odor, especially during your period. But the vagina is truly self-cleaning. Changing your tampon or pad frequently can reduce odor, and menstrual cups prevent odor by preventing the collected fluid from being exposed to air. If you think something might not be right, visit your doctor instead of douching and potentially making it worse.
Bottom line, don’t douche or wash with soap. Your vagina doesn’t need it. Clean up the area around your vagina and vulva with warm water only.
Mistake 6: Not getting enough sleep
It’s hard to get enough sleep with the cramping, restlessness, and hormone-induced insomnia, but sleep is especially important when you have your period. “Without enough sleep, the body becomes stressed and inflamed. Stress and inflammation exacerbate symptoms of PMS and menstrual cramps,” said Fromberg. “Sleep and getting good rest can certainly make periods less painful.”
While you sleep, your body repairs itself and boosts the immune system. A lack of sleep can alter your hormone levels and your mood. Getting your recommended seven to eight hours is especially important during menstruation.
Mistake 7: Skipping your daily workout
Besides being a great way to de-stress and sweat out toxins, exercise can help ease cramps and improve sleep. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends getting at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, even when you’re having your period. Research has shown that women who do little to no exercise are more likely to have PMS. Gentle activities like swimming, cycling, or walking can help reduce menstrual pain. Fromberg also suggests hip opening stretches (like these) and poses to release muscle tension; however, she warns against moves that pull apart the groin, which can make cramps worse.