Research conducted for the Tampon Safety and Research Act of 1997 shows that a woman can use up to 11,400 tampons in her lifetime (see References 3). Because tampon use generates waste that ends up in landfills -- and sometimes in waterways -- and because these products make such close contact with sensitive areas, it makes sense to look for alternatives that are gentler on both the body and the environment. The best eco-friendly tampons are free of synthetics and irritants as well as excessive packaging.
Standard tampons use cotton, a derivative of wood pulp known as rayon, or a blend of the two to create the absorbent material; some brands may also use a polypropylene coating to prevent the fibers from shedding while in use. Some tampons may have trace amounts of the chemical dioxin if the manufacturer used chlorine dioxide in the bleaching process. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises that the low levels of dioxin found in a tampon aren't harmful. Many tampons also have a cardboard or plastic applicator, but applicator-free versions are available; plastic applicators aren't recyclable and may contain phthalates, which are added to plastics to make them softer. (See Reference 1)
Types of Environmentally Friendly Tampons
Both natural cotton and organic cotton tampons come entirely from cotton and don't use rayon blends. Although no chlorine bleach is used for dyeing either style, natural cotton may contain trace amounts of pesticides that were used in the growing process, whereas tampons made from 100 percent organic cotton are entirely pesticide-free. Both natural cotton and organic cotton tampons are biodegradable -- cotton is biodegradable -- but they're still disposable, making them less environmentally friendly than reusable products. Some cardboard applicators are also biodegradable. (See Reference 2)
Reusable sea sponges work like tampons. These products are made entirely from sea sponges and don't contain any synthetic material. The Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Young Women’s Health reports that one sea sponge lasts an average of six months. However, sea sponges require regular cleaning to prevent accumulating and transferring bacteria. Menstrual cups made from rubber or silicone come in both reusable and disposable options. Reusable cups can be worn for six to 12 hours, depending on the size and brand and require regular cleaning. (See Reference 2)
Eco-friendly alternatives generally cost more than traditional tampons. For example, sea sponges range from $8 to $15 each and menstrual cups cost about $35. (See Reference 2) Despite the higher initial cost, reusable products may end up costing less overall. Truly eco-friendly brands minimize packaging and make all components of the product, from the box to the cotton string, either recyclable or biodegradable. Note that applicators -- even biodegradable ones -- should never be flushed, and even flushing tampons can cause sewer and septic tank backups and overflows that can pollute waterways (see References 4).
Amelia Jenkins has more than eight years of professional writing experience, covering financial, environmental and travel topics. Her work has appeared on MSN and various other websites and her articles have topped the best-of list for sites like Bankrate and Kipplinger. Jenkins studied English at Tarrant County College.