Tampon fibre shedding is common, but is it safe?
Most women’s worst tampon fear is inserting one and then forgetting about it, only to discover it days or even weeks later. But a more likely problem with tampons is one you might not even be aware of — the fibres coming loose and shedding off inside your vagina.
Fibre loss in tampons is a common problem that can encourage vaginal infections and pH imbalances. There are production measures that can be taken to minimise the risk of fibre loss from tampons, though these aren’t enforced or required in the EU. While cotton tampons are less likely to shed inside the vagina than rayon tampons, a protective coating can prevent fibre loss for both types of tampon. Yet, some femcare brands are choosing not to include them. This may be because this coating normally isn’t made of organic materials.
For the “vast majority” of women, tampon fibre shedding will be so minimal that it doesn’t cause any problems. Though, Dr Diana Gall points out that for some women, fibre loss from tampons can result in irritation.
“Fibres can get stuck inside the vagina,” she says. “The risk of infection is extremely limited for the majority, but is more likely in women that already have issues such as endometriosis or pre-existing ulcers in the vagina.
“In these cases, there’s a potential for danger, as these kind of lesions can act as the perfect gateway for bacteria to enter the bloodstream. There’s a risk of infection and toxic shock syndrome in these cases because of this.”
Some women have experienced problems with infections caused by pH imbalances, like bacterial vaginosis (BV) after using tampons that have a high rate of fibre shedding. The team at Callaly — producers of tampons that come with a mini liner attached to prevent leaks — recall the story of a woman who experienced fibre shedding from a tampon so severely that it broke in half inside her, only discovering this once she pulled the other half out.
CBD-infused tampon company Daye’s founder, Valentina Milanova, and Kate Huang and Ewa Radziwon who assist in the development of Callaly’s tampliners, have developed protective veils for their tampons with the specific aim of preventing fibre loss.
“The friction of inserting and removing tampons from the vaginal canal, and generally the material composition of tampons alone (plastic fibres are more likely to shed), means the tampon sheds inside your vagina and leaves behind fibre residue.” says Valentina. “This becomes the perfect breeding ground for bacterial colonisation, causing infections like BV and thrush, and in the long run they can interfere with the health of your vaginal microbiome.”
Protective veils and EU regulation
Unlike in the US, where the FDA regulates the production of tampons and classes them as medical devices, tampons are largely unregulated within the EU. There are safety guidelines, but they don’t have to be followed. There also aren’t any testing methods in place to ensure safety on an industry-wide scale.
A protective coating — normally made of polyethylene — prevents fibre shedding by holding the rayon or cotton fibres of a tampon together, and preventing them from coming loose. This coating is also permeable, allowing for blood absorption, so not to compromise the function of the tampon. But because polyethylene, or similar materials aren’t typically ‘organic’, some organic brands steer clear of placing a protective veil over their tampons.
While some organic tampon brands claim their ‘toxin free’ tampons are better for the vaginal environment than tampons made of non-organic materials, like rayon — medical professionals are doubtful that organic is necessarily better for women
“In the industry, this special coating is known as a protective veil, its function is to prevent fibre loss,” says Ewa. “Some tampons don’t have a veil — most organic tampons with applicators don’t have a veil. The EU doesn’t regulate the production of tampons, so this is allowable.
“Generally, actual European tampon standards and guidelines are quite similar to those in the US, but the FDA actually enforces these standards in the US. I am wondering how long it’s going to take the EU to change this, because tampon products have been recalled because of issues with fibre shedding before.”
Kate says that an undisclosed brand recalled two years’ worth of tampons, by which point the issues experienced by some women would have already been widespread.
“We use linting in our lab to assess any fibre loss before we send a product to market,” she explains. “There is no regulation in place to say we have to do this testing, but we’ve made the choice to adhere to ISO [International Organisation for Standardisation] standards.”
Valentina points out that both cotton and rayon tampons are susceptible to shedding because of the way they’re woven, and also echoes Ewa’s comments about organic tampons typically being produced without a protective sleeve.
“About 90% of tampons on the market today are made of absorbent cellulose materials, and because of the way they’re woven, it’s normal for them to shed,” she says. “Most organic tampons on the market today don’t have a protective sleeve, leaving the user even more exposed to the risks of fibre loss.”
Daye are developing a protective sleeve for their tampons made out of “natural materials”. Valentina says the issue with current protective sleeves on the market is that they’re “made of petrol derived plastic — not the ideal material you want pressing against the most absorbent membrane in your body”.
“The Daye tampon has a natural fibre protective sleeve, which prevents fibre being left behind in your vaginal canal, but allows for menstrual fluid to be absorbed,” she explains. “The sleeve is made using hydroentanglement, a natural fibre bonding process which ensures the sleeve is not woven like the loose fibres comprising the absorbent body of the tampon. Hydroentanglement ensures the fibres are well entangled with each other and don’t shed.”
Cotton and rayon
While some organic tampon brands claim their ‘toxin free’ tampons are better for the vaginal environment than tampons made of non-organic materials, like rayon — medical professionals are doubtful that organic is necessarily better for women. Kate says that different women will have different tampon preferences, and that she too believes that organic cotton tampons aren’t necessarily the right choice for everyone.
“There isn’t one tampon that is better for everybody,” she says. “There are less pesticides and chemicals used in the production of organic cotton, but that doesn’t mean that all women will experience less irritation by switching to organic. Some materials just don’t work for some women and their pH. Organic tampon materials won’t work for everyone.”
“The risk of fibre loss is less about blood flow and more about the tampon’s suitability”
Valentina also stresses that cotton tampons aren’t necessarily better than rayon tampons, especially if they come without a protective veil.
“While it’s true that organic tampons are typically made of cotton and not plastic, they’re not necessarily better for your body if they still shed,” she says.
Kate points out that fibre shedding can be linked to a lighter menstrual flow, which means that some women are more prone to experiencing fibre shedding from their tampons than others.
“Heavier flows cause less fibre shedding,” she says “Fibre shedding is more likely to happen with a lighter flow because the fibres that haven’t absorbed any moisture are more likely to detach.”
Tampon suitability and absorbency are also key to minimising fibre loss from tampons. Dr Gall advises making sure to choose the right tampon absorbency for your flow, and maybe only using tampons on heavier days.
“The risk of fibre loss is less about blood flow and more about the tampon’s suitability. Only using them on heavy flow days, and choosing tampons with the right absorbency for your flow will lower your chances of both fibre loss and toxic shock syndrome,” she says. “If you choose a tampon that’s too absorbent for your flow, friction against the wall of the vagina is more likely which can encourage trapped fibres.
“You should change your tampons regularly, making sure that you don’t feel discomfort or soreness when you remove one. If you do, it’s a sign that you may need a lower-absorbency.”
Rayon fibres are straight, which makes them more likely to shed, while cotton fibres are naturally curly, making them better at staying together in a bind. Kate explains that rayon fibres tend to start unraveling ‘as soon as they hit water’.
“We test lots of different tampons in the office to compare different materials and how they shed fibre,” she says. “If you buy any supermarket brand of tampon, you can test how they shed fibre yourself at home by dropping them in glasses of water.”
“I feel like it’s the responsibility of brands to be as transparent as possible about their manufacturing process”
While Kate admits that cotton or organic cotton tampons aren’t the right choice for everyone, she suggests going for organic cotton tampons if you’re worried about fibre shedding.
“Even if they don’t have a veil, you are better off with a cotton tampon than one made of rayon,” she says.
Rayon tampons may also raise pH levels in the vagina. Dr Gall says this can leave you more susceptible to infections.
“Rayon can cause other issues, like increasing the pH of the vagina, meaning that you may be more at risk of infections like cystitis,” she says. “More research into fibre loss needs to be done to determine the long-term effects they can have, but in most cases, the vagina naturally gets rid of these fibres within a couple of days.”
Valentina is firm on her stance that “every tampon brand should put their product through rigorous testing,” and says that, “organic brands should take even more responsibility since most of the marketing around their products is that they’re body-safe”.
She stresses that just because a product is organic, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for your body.
“I feel like it’s the responsibility of brands to be as transparent as possible about their manufacturing process,” she says. “We lab-test each batch of fibres used and ensure there is no chemical residue or bacterial contamination. You’d think that was a given, but we conducted microbiological analysis on various tampons from both organic and mainstream brands, and found them significantly bacterially contaminated.”
Callaly also take steps to limit bacterial contamination, laser sterilising their tampons once they are sealed inside their wrappers.
These safety measures and procedures are welcome and commendable, but should be the norm rather than the exception. And for this, we can blame the lack of regulation and standards in the European femcare market.
Featured image of a tampon removed from its packaging, against a purple background