The Korea Herald


Women seek toxin-free sanitary pad alternatives

By Won Ho-jung

Published : Aug. 27, 2017 - 16:48

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Women are seeking out toxin-free alternatives to disposable sanitary pads and tampons, as the government continues to struggle in providing clear answers about potential health risks associated with compounds found in existing products.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said Sunday that it had started conducting a study as of Friday on “all sanitary pads produced or imported in the past three years,” focusing on determining levels of volatile organic compounds.

“Volatile organic compounds” is an umbrella term for a group of chemicals that are released as gases and which can cause health effects.

The study was put together by the ministry following public outcry about the lack of information regarding toxicity levels of menstrual care products, which some consumers have claimed may be linked to symptoms such as fluctuations in their menstrual cycle and menstrual volume.

In particular, a leading brand of sanitary pads called Lilian has been called out by consumers suffering similar symptoms. It was belatedly revealed that the brand had shown the highest levels of toxicity in a survey commissioned by a local women‘s rights group called Ecofem last year. 

Sanitary pads at a discount retailer in Seoul (Yonhap) Sanitary pads at a discount retailer in Seoul (Yonhap)

The results of the study in March this year were not released to the public, but delivered to manufacturers and the ministry.

Consumers are now gathering to prepare for a collective suit against Kleannara, the company that makes Lilian pads.

However, the problem is not limited to Lilian pads. In Korea, sanitary pads are categorized as medical devices and are thus not required by law to disclose all ingredients used in the products. Consumers and consumer rights groups are urging the government to pursue a more comprehensive study on the toxins that could be present in women’s hygiene products and how they may affect women‘s bodies.

“The test commissioned by Ecofem was not a study on the cause-and-effect relationship between disposable sanitary pads and health risks. It was a pre-emptive study to urge safety checks on all menstrual care products,” the group said in a statement. “It is difficult to say that all sanitary pads, not just Lilian pads, are ‘safe.’”

The government’s focus on testing for VOCs is also a point of concern.

“If the analysis is restricted to these compounds, it is highly likely that the limited results will not provide answers about the relationship between these products and the symptoms suffered by many women. If that leads to the conclusion that these products are safe, this situation may become another humidifier sanitizer crisis,” Ecofem said, referring to a humidifier sanitizer whose dangers were insufficiently managed by the government and was eventually linked to more than a hundred deaths.

Consumers have echoed these concerns.

“I think it‘s good that the government is testing these products, although it does seem to be taking action far too late,” said a 32-year-old office worker. 
“But at the same time, I feel like the tests are only focusing on the compounds that have become controversial. What if there are no VOCs but other dangerous compounds that are missed? I want a product that I can use immediately during my next period, and feel safe using.”

Women feeling anxious about the safety of sanitary pads on the market are turning to alternatives such as reusable cotton pads, all-natural disposable pads and menstrual cups -- especially products from overseas that have passed safety checks in other countries.

According to Malltail, which provides delivery services for Korean consumers shopping directly from overseas sellers, sales of menstrual care products on its affiliate site Vitatra jumped 6.6 times during the week of Aug. 18-24 compared to the previous week.

In particular, sales of menstrual cups, which have not yet been approved for sale in Korea, jumped 470 percent in just one week. 

Orders of sanitary pads from organic manufacturer Natracare spiked from about 12 orders a day to more than 1,000 orders between Aug. 18 and 24.

Meanwhile, there are some consumers who say they will probably continue to use existing products because all-natural alternatives are too expensive.

“I have two boxes of Lilian pads at home, which I bought because they were a lot cheaper than other pads,” said a 28-year-old graduate student. 

“I looked into all-natural Natracare pads, but they were so expensive. I may not continue to use Lilian pads, but I don’t think I‘ll switch over to organic pads unless it becomes proven that the existing products are harmful.”

By Won Ho-jung (