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Are period products safe? 'People who menstruate cannot win,' critics say

What options do people who menstruate have for safe, environmentally friendly and effective period options?

period underwear
What options do people who menstruate have for safe, environmentally friendly and effective period options? (Photo via Getty Images)

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In 2021, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome after years of symptoms that went unexplained.

I found myself bleeding for weeks, even months at a time. I was going through an unreasonable number of pads per day — and, I had just found out about the toxic materials being used in them. Something had to give.

Around that time, I started seeing ads for Knix, a Canadian, woman-owned period underwear company. I ordered three pairs, each one able to contain a different volume of liquids. I was sold on them almost immediately. Using them alongside my menstrual cup, my periods became seamless, mess free, and, since I was no longer using five pads a day, sustainable.

Kathleen Jagoondath, an engineer based in Orlando, Fla., also made the switch to period underwear during the pandemic. She said she always had rough periods, which started when she was 10 years old. She too was eventually diagnosed with PCOS, which made her flow extremely heavy.

“It was awful. And I always leaked. I never felt comfortable," she said. "It always was miserable.”

That all changed in 2020, when she decided to give Thinx period underwear a try.

“When I found out about period underwear, my friends and I went in on an order together to try them," she explained. "It changed my period experience."

Then, a health-conscious friend warned Jagoondath about toxic materials possibly being used in the game-changing underwear.

“I felt defeated by the fact that, once again, there seemed no good options for period products that were sustainable, not dangerous to my person, and made my period more tolerable," she said.

I felt defeated by the fact that, once again, there seemed no good options for period products that were sustainable, not dangerous to my person, and made my period more tolerable.Kathleen Jagoondath

In 2020, the same year Jagoondath decided to try Thinx, a class action lawsuit was filed against the company for "misleading marketing." The lawsuit stated that Thinx wrongfully advertised their products as organic and free of harmful chemicals. The products were tested for PFAS in 2020, after columnist Jessian Choy requested it. When tested by nuclear scientist Dr. Graham Peaslee for PFAs, it was noted that, “one pair of Thinx underwear contained 3,264 parts per million, or ppm, and another contained 2,053 ppm.”

The discovery of PFAS in Thinx underwear goes directly against their messaging. Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances, known in short as PFAS, are found in a variety of everyday items — but having them directly against your mucous lining for hours on end is cause for concern, according to toxicologist and emergency medicine doctor, Dr. Cherie Obilom.

Obilom explained that, based on studies in animals, that there is a list of harmful health effects that comes from prolonged exposure.

"They found that there's some evidence that they could increase your liver enzymes. It could increase your cholesterol levels. It can increase incidences of ulcerative colitis – a gastrointestinal disease," she said.

She also went on to explain that there was an increased risk of various cancers, like kidney cancer.

When asked about the use of PFAS in Thinx underwear, Thinx representatives maintained that it was "not included in their product design."

“All underwear in the Thinx family of brands is independently certified through OEKO-TEX® 100 Class II, Annexure IV. We require suppliers of our raw materials to sign a Supplier Code of Conduct and Chemical Supplier Agreement confirming compliance with the AFIRM Restricted Substances List," they said.

Still, in 2021, PFAS were found in Thinx underwear after independent testing by Mamavation.

The eco-wellness investigation site for moms tested 17 pairs of period underwear and found that “about 65% of the products tested had detectable levels of fluorine [the chemical that unites PFAs] present in either the outer or inner layer of the crotch. Of the 17 pairs of period underwear tested, 11 pairs had detectable fluorine present.”

At Knix we do not intentionally use PFAS in the manufacturing of our leakproof products. However, PFAS are now so widely dispersed in the environment that even the water we drink has low levels of contamination that, unfortunately, cannot be avoided.Knix

Thinx recently settled the three-year-long class action lawsuit. Those who bought Thinx underwear in the U.S. between November 12, 2016, and November 28, 2022, are eligible to submit a claim form for a small refund.

Thinx maintained that they have done nothing unlawful.

Knix representatives linked me to this blog post from December 2022, about product testing and safety.

“At Knix we do not intentionally use PFAS in the manufacturing of our leakproof products. However, PFAS are now so widely dispersed in the environment that even the water we drink has low levels of contamination that, unfortunately, cannot be avoided," it detailed.

“PFAS are so ubiquitous in our daily life,” Obilom agreed, adding that removing them all would be "virtually impossible."

"I don't see a complete elimination of PFAS as a possible thing, just because it's in our bodies. It hangs around our bodies, up to two to nine years."

“I think they can reach a point where it's not going to be clinically significant, where people are not going to become ill from it,” she explained.

I would prefer there to be stricter regulations. Once we, as a consumer collective, take back that power and be like, ‘No, we don't want to purchase your product. We demand transparency.’ Like, ’You cannot put this in your product.'Dr. Cherie Obilom, toxicologist and emergency medicine doctor

Obilom’s advice to the public is to ask for further laws against using PFAS in period products — and to not purchase until there is more transparency.

“I would prefer there to be stricter regulations. Once we, as a consumer collective, take back that power and be like, ‘No, we don't want to purchase your product. We demand transparency.’ Like, ’You cannot put this in your product," she said, adding that she thinks "the Thinx settlement is like the first step.”

So, other than a class action lawsuit, what are the options for someone who is just trying to have a stress-, mess- and chemical-free period?

One option is menstrual cups, which Jagoondath also uses alongside her period underwear. Pads, she said, made her "miserable," too.

Jagoondath also considered cloth pads, but they can prove to be high maintenance.

“I have to go to work. I can't be in the work bathroom rinsing out my cloth pads every three hours.”

We can’t win. People who menstruate cannot win,” Jagoondath said. “I think it's more of, ‘What are you willing to put up with?’Kathleen Jagoondath

“We can’t win. People who menstruate cannot win,” Jagoondath said. “I think it's more of, ‘What are you willing to put up with?’”

It turns out, Jagoondath is willing to put up with the risks of exposure to PFAS.

“The options that are the least harmful to people who menstruate, are the ones that are the most harmful to people that have to menstruate and work," she said.

She notes that other alternatives are simply inaccessible not just for people who work, but also people experiencing period poverty.

“I have a cousin in Trinidad, her PCOS is so bad. And they don't I mean, this was 10 years ago, but they didn't have access to anything except for box brand pads and tampons. But her period was so bad. She missed school for weeks at a time. It's very inaccessible, and I think Thinx's [period underwear] makes it a little bit more accessible.”

“If that means I have to put my health on the line a little bit, then I will,” Jagoondath concluded. “But people who menstruate should not have to do this.”

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