Overall feminine sexual health can encompass everything from products utilized during intimacy to feminine hygiene products that are used every month. Having a healthy lifestyle includes taking care of the whole body — even the parts you may not usually consider.
Being intimate with your partner in a safe and healthy way may be more challenging than you think. When looking at the ingredients in every day items used to protect or enhance your sex life, you may be surprised at what you find on the side of the box of items such as condoms and personal lubricants. Although there is a focus on natural and organic living through eating properly, the products used for feminine sexual health and hygiene can be just as important for clean and healthy living.
What Is In a Typical Condom?
Pick up a box of condoms and you may be surprised to see what they are manufactured with. Sometimes there is no list provided at all. Condoms aren’t regulated the way food is, so the companies that produce them may or may not share what goes into them. This in itself is a red flag, but after further investigation, some of the ingredients found in many of the major condom brands may give people pause.
Some major condom distributors use the following ingredients:
Parabens. Used as a preservative in cosmetics, foods and drugs, there have been ongoing studies that show parabens to be xenoestrogens, which can be disruptive to the estrogen that occurs naturally within the body. With certain types of cancers, especially breast cancer, parabens may exacerbate already existing cancer cells (1).
Talc. Used to absorb moisture and reduce friction, studies show that talcum powder could increase the risk of some cancers, such as ovarian cancer. Although research is still underway, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has deemed the genital use of talc-based powders as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (2).
Nonoxynol 9. Used in spermicide present in some condoms for extra protection against pregnancy, Nonoxynol 9 has been found to be ineffective against HIV and STI in both vaginal and rectal intercourse and could increase risk by causing damage to the cells in the walls of both. The higher the exposure to Nonoxynol 9, the greater the increase in the susceptibility to consumers to contract a disease by a high-risk partner (3, 4).
Casein. Used to assist in making the rubber component of a condom and to make the latex smoother, casein is the principal protein found in milk. Vegans and those with dairy allergies will want to steer clear of these particular condoms.
Glycerin. Used as a lubricant on the condom, glycerin can be obtained from either a plant or an animal source and chances are this won’t be indicated on the package. This is another ingredient that vegans will want to avoid. In addition to this, glycerin can transform into sugar after time, which can throw off the pH balance in the vagina causing infection.
There are many options currently available on the market for vegan condoms as well as those that are free of the chemicals listed above. Fair Trade and non-GMO condoms are growing in popularity as well as those created with all natural ingredients.
Vaginal dryness can occur at any age and a good personal lubricant can assist in making intimacy more pleasurable. Some of the most mainstream items for lubrication contain ingredients that may be both uncomfortable and harmful.
Chlorhexidine. This is a disinfectant and preservative used in multiple over-the-counter products as well as prescribed medications. Side effects of chlorhexidine applied topically may include redness, burning, itching and other skin irritations (5).
Methylparaban. Yes, parabens again. This particular type of paraben is typically used as a preservative and fungicide. This chemical compound can cause issues with naturally occurring estrogen in the body.
Petroleum. Used as the lubricant, petroleum has been found to increase the risk of bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections in women. In addition, when used with latex condoms, it can cause the latex to rupture.
Propylene glycol. Used as a preservative and solvent, propylene glycol can be very irritating to the skin. It is an ingredient in antifreeze and is mostly used to create resins.
Sodium hydroxide. Also known as lye, it is an irritant and corrosive. Sodium hydroxide is added to some lubricants to act as a base to help control the pH and acidity in the vagina. Not only could the pH become unbalanced and lead to infection, but some people experience skin irritation from use (6).
Some natural and organic sites recommend the use of organic olive and coconut oil as a personal lubricant. If this comes across as a little too natural, there are several companies offering petroleum-, chemical-, preservative- and paraben-free alternatives.
When it comes to women’s feminine products, looking at the labels may be equally important.
The Truth About Tampons
Growing up, most women are educated about the main concern regarding the use of tampons, Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). What most women don’t realize is that TSS is not the only issue they should be concerned about. Even though there is some regulation of tampons by the government, there is no transparency of how much of what materials are actually being used in their creation. For example, materials used for many of the components of a tampon are listed using an “and/or” tactic for the item. For example one portion of a tampon is created with cotton and/or rayon, or perhaps rayon and polyester or polyethylene and polypropylene. Also, the ingredients used to make up the fragrance are typically withheld as well. Here is a break down of some of the materials that could or could not be used in tampons.
Cotton. Cotton alone may not be problematic as a material used in tampons. What could be problematic is the chemicals and sprays that are applied to the cotton before it gets turned into a tampon and placed inside your body. There is no full disclosure of where the cotton is coming from or what it has been treated with before it is manufactured. There is also no way of knowing how much of the tampon is created using cotton instead of the more abrasive rayon.
Rayon. Made from cellulose fibers derived from wood pulp, one of the main issues with rayon is that the wood pulp has been bleached, creating dioxin, a chemical that could be related to some cancers and developmental issues. In response to this, a new system of bleaching, called elemental chlorine-free bleaching, was implemented. With this new system, the levels of dioxin are now in trace amounts. Even so, with the repetitive use of tampons over the prolonged period of time that a woman menstruates, these amounts add up. The permeable lining of the vaginal walls makes even those trace amounts more absorbable and could be cause for concern.
The Applicator. This could be made from cardboard, tightly wound paper, or plastic with pigments added on for color or decoration. Since the composition isn’t definitive, it would be hard to say where the materials came from. Some applicators can contain phthalates, which is a hormone disrupting chemical.
Alternatives to Conventional Tampons
Whether the reason for switching from conventional tampons is for better health or to help save the environment, there are alternatives to tampons out in the natural and organic market that are well established and that have existed for years.
Menstrual cups. This is a reusable soft cup that is inserted into the vagina and washed between uses. Not only is the cup a great alternative to assist in protecting the environment, it is typically made of medical grade silicone or rubber which won’t interfere with the pH balance in the vagina. They are also a very economic way to handle monthly menstrual cycles.
Natural/Organic cotton tampons. These are similar to conventional tampons but are made from 100% organic cotton with no rayon, plastics or dyes. If the product is organic, then the concern for pesticides is eliminated as well. The applicators are made from biodegradable cardboard and are chlorine-free.
Sea sponges. All natural, reusable and free of chemicals, sea sponges have been growing in popularity as an alternative to tampons. When properly cared for they can last 3-6 months.
Sanitary Pads. Sanitary pads can have many of the same issues tampons do since they are made from many of the same materials. Like tampons, some of the companies don’t list the ingredients on the box. The cotton and rayon used in sanitary pads, the low levels of dioxin and the fragrances added could potentially be irritating and harmful over a prolonged use. As an alternative there are natural/organic sanitary pads similar to the tampons described earlier. There are also organic reusable cloth pads available that can be washed between uses.
Not limited to diet, feminine hygiene and sexual health can be an integral part of healthy and clean living. WF
- “Should People Be Concerned about Parabens in Beauty Products?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-people-be-concerned-about-parabens-in-beauty-products/ . Accessed 1/3/2016.
- 2. “Talcum Powder and Cancer.” American Cancer Society http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/talcum-powder-and-cancer, Accessed 1/3/2016.
- 3. “What You Need to Know About Nonoxynol-9.” http://www.cervicalbarriers.org/documents/Web_FactSheetN-9.pdf , Accessed 1/3/2016.
- “Male Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/forpatients/illness/hivaids/prevention/ucm126372.htm , Accessed 1/3/2016.
- “Chlorhexidine.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0000381/, Accessed 1/3/2016.
- “Medical Management Guidelines for Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH).” ATSDR. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mmg/mmg.asp?id=246&tid=45, Accessed 1/3/2016.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine February 2017