Is Cervical Cancer Caused by Tampons?

Can Tampons be One of the Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer?

Tampon
Can tampons lead to cervical cancer?. Getty Images/Sven Olof Jonn/Johner Images Royalty-Free

A frequently asked question is whether tampons or other feminine hygiene products can cause or predispose a woman to cervical cancer. Are there substances present in tampons which could be risk factors for cancer or other conditions?

Do Tampons Cause Cervical Cancer?

Tampons, though they may be in contact with the cervix, are not a cause of cervical cancer, and the regular use of tampons to catch menstrual flow is not a risk factor for the disease.

Rather than simply let you know that these products are not a risk factor, however, it's important to address the specific concerns that have been circulating on the internet for years, and the science behind these concerns.

What Have Been the Concerns About Tampons and Cervical Cancer

The question about tampons and cervical cancer isn't naive, as there are several reasons why a person may want to ask the question.

One argument is that tampons may be in contact with the cervix, and people have heard that prolonged contact of a substance against bodily tissue may, on occasion, be a risk factor for cancer. For example, chronic exposure to acidic gastric contents in the esophagus related to acid reflux can be a risk factor for esophageal cancer. The case with tampons, however, is similar to the clothing you wear. It is in prolonged contact with your skin but does not lead to cancer.

A greater concern has been with regard to substances thought to be present in tampons which are thought to cause cancer.

Rumor has had it that tampons may contain:

  • Asbestos
  • Dioxins
  • Fibers which could cause cancer

Let's look at these issues separately.

Asbestos in Tampons?

Certainly asbestos exposure is related to cancer, and is well known for its association with mesothelioma, a cancer which begins in the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity.

Yet the idea that tampons contain asbestos is a myth. The FDA maintains that there is no asbestos in tampons, nor is asbestos used as part of the manufacturing process for tampons. In addition, the FDA inspects factories manufacturing tampons to make sure that manufacturing processes follow regulations. In other words, any asbestos found in tampons would be due to tampering, and there have been no reports of such tampering having occurred.

Along with the email hype was the claim that the reason asbestos was placed in tampons was to increase bleeding. That asbestos or any other potential ingredient is added to tampons to increase bleeding is also a myth.

Dioxin in Tampons?

Dioxin is another compound thought to possibly lead to cancer, and there has been significant hype over tampons possibly containing dioxins for good reasons. A manufacturing process used in the past (but no longer used) did generate small amounts of dioxins. Exposure to dioxins can lead to skin conditions, liver dysfunction, abnormal immune and endocrine function, and fertility issues.

Where does this concern come from?

Tampons are manufactured from cotton and rayon. Older production methods of bleaching rayon had produced small amounts of dioxin, however these bleaching methods are no longer used. In other words, dioxins are no longer present in tampons as a byproduct of the manufacturing process. The rayon in tampons is now bleached in a chlorine free process which is considered to be dioxin free.

There still may be small amounts of dioxins in tampons. Rather than being produced in the manufacturing process, however, these dioxins are thought to be an environmental contaminant related to the disposal of dioxin in the past which has contaminated soil and water. Trace amounts of dioxin may be present in the raw cotton and rayon products used to make tampons.

Current dioxin levels in tampons are considered to be at or below the detectable limit of dioxin which is 0.1 to one part per trillion. According to the FDA, this amount of dioxin is below that which is expected to be present in the human body due to other environmental sources and of negligible significance with regard to any health effects. The example used by the FDA is that one part per trillion is is equivalent to one teaspoon of dioxin being added to a lake which is a square mile in size and 15 feet deep.

Other Concerns About Tampons - Glyphosate in Cotton

Beyond asbestos and dioxins, concerns have recently been raised about cotton in tampons, specifically about glyphosate, a chemical present in herbicides applied during the growth of cotton which is considered an endocrine disrupting chemical. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are substances which may interfere or act as hormones produced by our bodies and are increasingly being implicated in conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, premature ovarian failure, fertility problems, and breast cancer.

Thankfully there are "green alternatives" available for people who wish to avoid this potential risk of tampons. These include tampons and pads made with organically grown cotton.

What Problems are Caused by Tampons

While it's unlikely that tampons play a role in cervical cancer, there are clear complications that may result in very rare instances. Toxic shock syndrome related to tampon use is an uncommon but very serious disorder caused by the toxins released by bacteria.

Toxic shock syndrome occurs most commonly when tampons have been left in place for a significant period of time. At one time it appears that toxic shock syndrome was more likely to occur when super absorbancy tampons were used, but this type of tampon is no longer available for use.

Precautions against toxic shock syndrome include trying to change your tampon every four hours (and at most eight) and to use a pad instead a tampon when your bleeding is light.

Bottom Line on Tampons and Cancer

It's highly unlikely that tampons cause cancer or raise the risk of cervical cancer, yet there are many risk factors which are preventable. Take a moment to learn about the risk factors for cervical cancer, uterine cancer, and ovarian cancer, and see if you have any preventable risk factors that you can do something about.

Even people who have excellent lifestyle habits sometimes develop cervical cancer. Yet even when cells become abnormal in the cervix, they are usually detected through regular screening Pap smears, and further testing for those who have abnormalities found on a Pap smear. At one time, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of cancer death in women. While the risk is much lower due to widespread screening than in the past, 10,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States each year, and around 4,000 die from the disease.

It's important to be your own advocate in your health and follow cancer screening guidelines. In addition, talk to your doctor about any risk factors or symptoms you should have.

Sources:

Perego, M., Schutz, L., Caloni, F. et al. Evidence for Direct Effects of Glyphosate on Ovarian Function: Glyphosate Influences Steroidogenesis and Proliferation of Bovine Granulosa but not Theca Cells In Vitro. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 2016 Dec 5. (Epub ahead of print).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Tampons and Asbestos, Dioxin, & Toxic Shock Syndrome. 05/13/15. http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/PatientAlerts/ucm070003.htm

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