Sanitary Napkins: Can they be harmful?

Only 12% of India's 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins. Over 88% women resort to alternatives such as non-sanitary cloth, ashes, and even husk sand at times. The major reason behind these statistics is the problem of accessibility and affordability. Around 70% of women in India say their families can't afford to buy sanitary napkins. Many rural women cannot afford these basic amenities, as they have access to very few resources.

In the urban spaces with access to safer hygiene products, sanitary devices other than napkins— such as tampons or menstrual cups— will take relatively more time to gain popularity in India. Tampon sales in India is seven times lower than that of sanitary napkins, according to a survey. While there is no detailed survey available on the sale of tampons, Johnson & Johnson is believed to dominate this segment in India.

What are these pads made of?

Independent studies by women’s health organizations have found chemicals of concern like dioxin, carcinogens, and reproductive toxins in tampons and pads. The companies that manufacture sanitary pads are under no obligation to disclose the content of the pads— the reason being that sanitary napkins are feminine hygiene products which are also and alternatively considered "medical devices." In an experiment conducted, 100% organic cotton pads burns slow and clean, leaving no sooty residue; however the super absorbent ultra-thin pads create lots of black smoke and thick residue, indicating that the pads may contain dioxins, synthetic fibers and petrochemical additives.

Synthetics and plastic used in pads may some times also restrict the free flow of air and can trap heat and dampness, potentially promoting a variety of infections within the vaginal area.

To make pads look white, the fibers used must be bleached. Chlorine is commonly used for this. This can create toxic dioxin and other disinfection-by-products (DBPs) such as trihalomethane. 

Why do so many people still use sanitary in India? 

In spite of ruling out the connection between virginity and the hymen, a lot of women still fear the use of tampons. Many Indian women still assume that tampons are meant only for those who are not ‘virgins’. However, even married women do not prefer tampons for various reasons – one of the reasons being lack of awareness. Many women haven’t heard of tampons and are afraid to experiment with it. Tampons are priced higher than sanitary napkins and hence people often prefer sanitary napkins over tampons. Other alternatives such as menstrual cups etc. are practically unheard of in most places.

WHL TIP: Despite the several reasons why sanitary napkins may be harmful for the body as well as the environment, they still remain, relatively, the most easily accessible hygiene products for women. Most women find them the most convenient to use. To minimise negative health impacts, change your pads regularly. Cloth pads and biodegradable sanitary napkins are slowly gaining currency. Women who can access these alternatives easily, are encouraged to try.

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WHL Staff

The WHL staff comprises a group of ladies out to give you exhaustive, practical health tips and resources.