How large is the market for feminine hygiene products and what does it mean to Mother Earth? According to Global Industry Analysts, Inc., the 2015 global market projection for tampons alone is $2.6 billion USD. At an average unit price of 20 cents, that’s 13 billion tampons each year, plus their packaging and applicators, that end up in the world’s overburdened landfills and in sewage treatment plants—many ultimately in our oceans and rivers where they are harmful to plants and animals.

The total market, including all types of sanitary pads, was $13 billion USD in 2010 as reported by Medical News Today.

Women’s health related to these products is a more serious concern. The U.S. FDA and Health Canada, both regulating tampons as medical devices, specify certain requirements for manufacturers of these products, not including ingredient labeling. They do require provision of information about the risk and symptoms of toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

Repeatedly since 1997, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of NY introduced a bill to the U.S. Congress, The Robin Danielson Act (H.R. 2332). This Act would amend the Public Health Service Act to establish a program of research regarding the risks posed by the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers and other additives in feminine hygiene products, and to establish a program for the collection and analysis of TSS data.

Chemicals in Sanitary Supplies

A textile industry article by Pancholi and Dr. Naik explains a sanitary pad’s manufacturing process. High absorption is achieved by mixing shredded wood pulp with acrylic-based, super absorbent polymers (SAPs—sodium, potassium and alkyl acrylate), which enable the pad to hold up to 30 times its weight in water. The process of bleaching the wood creates dioxin, a known carcinogen.

Next, a permeable, nonwoven top layer of fabric is attached to the pad. After adding a non-permeable polyethylene bottom sheet, the three layers are glued and sealed for a leak-proof pad.

Mt. Holyoke College’s Environmental Action Coalition states, “Tampons are made from rayon, produced from wood pulp and cotton which is a heavy pesticide crop. Of all insecticides, 25 percent are used on cotton, and…the vaginal walls are the most absorbent part of a woman's body,” so the insecticides and other chemicals slide easily into the bloodstream.

Tampons are made from cotton, rayon or a blend of both materials—each prone to problems—conventional cotton due to pesticides, and rayon, made from cellulose that comes from processed wood pulp. Many have questioned whether rayon is related to the occurrence of TSS.

The problems with tampons and sanitary pads are further compounded when chemical fragrances are added. Fragrances often consist of hundreds of synthetic chemicals including phthalates that can pose chronic, long-term health risks including hormonal and reproductive issues.

Innovative Alternatives

Due to the significant negative impacts to the environment and to women’s health caused by the manufacture, use and disposal of feminine hygiene products, companies such as Corman, Natracare, Mooncup and Diva International have responded by developing safer, more responsible alternatives.

There are two major types of healthier feminine hygiene products: safer options that resemble the more traditional disposable tampons and pads, and more environmentally responsible, reusable silicon menstrual cups that collect menstrual flow rather than absorbing it.

Corman SpA of Italy markets, under the Organ(y)c brand launched in 2008, offers a full line of feminine pads and tampons made from 100 percent certified organic cotton. The products are hypoallergenic and naturally biodegradable, and outer wraps are a biodegradable and compostable bi-polymer. The company admits that when it comes to feminine hygiene, women need more education about healthier alternatives. “We committed ourselves to explain the advantages of 100-percent certified organic cotton products,” they explain. “The results, in sales growth, show that consumers choose what they perceive as true and reliable and distrust imitations [of natural products].” The Organ(y)c line is most popular in North America and Europe, but is experiencing rapid growth in the Asian and the Middle Eastern markets as well as distribution has climbed to 25 countries.

Even in a slumped economy, Corman anticipates continued growth of the Organ(y)c brand in 2012. From 2010 to 2011 alone, the brand grew by nearly 50 percent. The higher price point of organic certified products does not seem to be a barrier. “It’s better for you and better for the environment,” says a Corman representative. “We know that when women learn these differences, they’re willing to pay a bit more.” This year, the brand plans to unveil their new line of baby care products, introducing 100-percent organic cotton Sweet Caress baby wipes at the 2012 BioFach fair in Nuremberg, Germany.

Several companies offer convenient alternative to tampons and pads altogether. UK-based Mooncup and Canada-based Diva International, with its DivaCup, each provide an environmentally responsible, reusable sanitary cup. These products are resurrected versions of the original rubber latex cups first manufactured in the 1930s but soon out-marketed by the manufacturers of disposable tampons and pads. Today, the cups are made from soft, high-quality medical grade silicone to collect menstrual flow as they rest at the lower base of the vaginal canal. The cups are simply rinsed and replaced and have proven a reliable alternative.

Mooncup Ltd. reports that in the UK alone, 4.3 billion disposable sanitary products are used every year, with one woman using over 11,000 products in a lifetime. Currently, the Mooncup is distributed in over fifty countries, and is increasingly stocked in mainstream stores such as UK-based pharmacy Boots. In 2004, it became the first manufacturer of sanitary products to become a certified ethical business for its commitment to people- and animal-friendly practices.

We anticipate further growth in this more natural, organic industry segment as consumers realize the benefits to their health and the environment of choosing different options for their feminine hygiene products. As at least half of the world’s 6.9 billion population are women, the market can only be expected to increase along with consumer awareness.