☽ march 2019 ☽
Some of you may have read this article, by Catherine Sanz, calling for safety checks on menstrual products in Ireland. MEP Lynn Boylan called for the lack of regulatory control on menstrual products to be debated at the EU parliament, but they refused. She said, “[i]n the absence of the EU taking action on this matter, it is essential that the Irish government commission research on the products”. I couldn’t agree more! It is high time that menstrual products receive thorough, impartial and transparent regulation. And how incredible if Ireland became leaders in calling for this regulation in the EU — let’s make this happen!
The article mostly focuses on safety concerns about menstrual cups and cites this Danish study which found that “menstrual cups emitted ‘substantial amount’ of volatile unknown substances”. As a menstrual cup user, I wanted to find out more about these ‘volatile unknown substances’ – I was imagining volcanos erupting inside my vagina.
Unfortunately, the study itself is vague about these volatile compounds, saying only that, “[t]he specific volatile substances are unknown and the potential effects of these substances are therefore unknown as well.” The study also found that “menstrual cups did not show significant findings of unwanted chemicals,” which is important to quote to give a more complete idea of what the study says. It’s also worth noting that the study does not suggest avoiding menstrual cups but instead, “advises consumers to carefully follow the guidelines of the manufacturers and boil the products before they start to use them and every time before using the product again. During heating a large part of the volatile compounds will be released.” For anyone who hasn’t used a menstrual cup, it is standard cleaning procedure to boil your cup before and after your period, so this is good news.
After reading Sanz’s article I wrote to four menstrual cup companies of the seven listed in the Danish study: Ruby Cup, Organicup, Lunette and Me Luna (at my menstrual workshops I have samples from all four of these brands). They sent me the following information about the regulation and safety of their menstrual cups.
Hanna Hildenbrand from Ruby Cup responded with a thorough explanation of the tests their cups undergo, including the dyes they use, how they are soon to be registered with the FDA and how their cups are manufactured. Regarding volatile compounds she wrote:
“VOM (volatile organic matter) is always present in medical grade silicone, which is what Ruby Cup is made off. As we care deeply about the safety of our product, we ensure that Ruby Cup is compliant with the EC Regulation 1935/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 October 2004 on volatile organic matter. We welcome every initiative that encourages transparency in the ingredients of menstrual cups.”
Franziska from Me Luna wrote back stating that their menstrual cups are constantly being examined by the German health authorities who find no problems with them. Their menstrual cups were tested by a German independent consumer magazine called ÖKO-TEST, which found no problems. Their menstrual cups are approved as a medical device in the USA and have been extensively tested by the FDA. Franziska also added that Me Luna® is an open company, who stand for transparency and openness. And she invited anyone to come by and watch their production.
These are excerpts and summaries of much longer emails from Ruby Cup and Me Luna, if you would like to know more about what they said please get in touch with me!
Organicup are in the process of replying to me and I am awaiting a response from Lunette. I’ll update this blog when I receive them.
These four companies, like many menstrual cup companies, are small, women-centred companies who genuinely care about making a safe and healthy product for women. This is also true of companies such as Natracare which sell organic, chlorine-free, plastic free disposable pads and tampons in Ireland. In my experience these companies are very approachable and transparent about their materials and manufacturing practices. I would encourage those who are concerned about issues raised in this article to contact these companies directly. For too long menstrual products have been designed by men and manufactured by corporations where the deciding factor is profit. It is important to keep in mind the difference in ethos between menstrual product companies as we decide which products to use. That said there are certainly issues of affordability with these products: organic products tend to be more expensive, while cups usually cost around €20 - €30 but last for up to five years.
I also contacted Put A Cup In It, founded by two women Kim and Amanda, they cover all things to do with reusable and their information is always very well researched and steeped in their years of experience in this field. Amanda wrote back to me with her opinion of the study. From the study she highlighted (as I’ve stated above) that:
"menstrual cups do not contain significant amounts of the problematic substances tested for" but that some did turn up with VOCs, which are unknown. It also shows that boiling, as recommended before using by all brands, will release most of those if present.”
She added that her personal takeaway is that:
“this illustrates why it's so important to purchase a cup that is from a trusted brand. There are many brands registered with the FDA (which is not the same as being approved of or directly tested by the FDA) but I think it's important to look deeper than that and get a feel for the brand and whether or not they've done their own research and testing (especially on the colorants used), and who invest in quality control and real customer service.”
MÍOSTA’s takeaway is buy your menstrual cup from a trusted company. Reach out to the company if you have any questions about their products or reach out to educators like myself for advice on where to purchase. If the price of the cup seems too good to be true it probably is. And make sure you follow their instructions for use. It’s as simple as boiling, anyone who tells you any other cleaning instructions for cups should be treated with caution (I’ve heard some crazy advice about bathing your cup in green tea!).
While more studies need to be done into volatile compounds and we should continue to push for government regulations, it’s important to contextualise this study on menstrual cups alongside the numerous studies demonstrating the harmful contents of the most widely available and used menstrual products: disposable pads and tampons. For example, a report by the Women’s Environmental Network outlines how chlorine and dioxin (an extremely toxic substance) is found in pads and tampons and traces of pesticides and insecticides have been found in tampons (including glyphosate, a probable carcinogen which is used as an active ingredient in certain weed killers). Materials used in tampons also include substances such as rayon which can cause microlacerations (tiny scratches). It has been known since 1918 that toxins can be absorbed into the body through your vagina, but many pads and tampons still include these harmful substances.
As well as issues with ingredients, there are issues with the basic safety of mainstream products. As recently as 2018 Kotex recalled one of its tampons after it was found that their product was “unravelling and/or coming apart upon removal, and in some cases causing users to seek medical attention to remove tampon pieces left in the body”. While we wait for more regulation the reality is that women* will have to make a choice about what menstrual product to use and it’s important that this an informed choice. The article’s focus on questions about menstrual cups, without mentioning any of the issues with pads and tampons, risks turning women away from menstrual cups to something which could potentially be much more harmful.
For women who want to completely avoid chemicals it is also important to note that there are other options such as sea sponges, making your own reusable pads (that way you know exactly what’s in it!) and even free bleeding.
We are moving into a time in Ireland where women’s health needs are beginning to be taken seriously and exciting initiatives such as supplying menstrual products to people who can’t afford them are being proposed. Governmental testing and regulation of menstrual products would be another important development. In the meantime, I think it’s essential to contextualise the questions about menstrual cups within the array of available menstrual products. Women bleed for an average of six and a half years over their life time if you put all their periods together, so let’s make sure they have all the information so they can find the right product for themselves.
Please share this blog with anyone who might be concerned about using menstrual cups for this reason! Let's share the knowledge. And if you've any questions please get in touch with me.
*Not all women have a period, and not all people who have a period identify as a woman.