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Carcinogens in Menstrual Pads

Carcinogens in Menstrual Pads

Is there a perfect menstrual pad?

Carcinogens in Menstrual Pads


A woman can use around 40 menstrual pads in one cycle. This means 480 pads used in a year, and more than 10,000 pads used in a lifetime. We spend a lot of time using pads but don’t know much about how they are actually made. There is a widespread frightening myth that there are carcinogens in these products that come in contact with the most delicate and sensitive part of a woman’s body. Let’s take a look at some important, reliable facts and the ongoing controversy of hazardous substances in menstrual pads.

We Need to Know What’s Inside

✔️ Republic of Korea Shocked by Harmful Menstrual Pads in 2017

In March 2017, the Korean Women’s Environmental Network announced the results of an investigation that found hazardous substances in 10 brands of menstrual pads and pantyliners sold in Korea. This had a massive impact as the anxiety of consumers heightened, related products were recalled from the market, and a group class action was filed. As the controversy became bigger, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) conducted an exhaustive investigation into 666 menstrual products sold in Korea and announced the results.

The MFDS report on the investigation of menstrual pads in October 2017 indicated that benzene and trichloroethylene, which are group 1 carcinogens, were detected in 25% (165) of products and styrene, chloroform, toluene, and hexane, were detected in 95.9% (639) of products. These are all substances identified by the European Chemicals Agency to have reproductive toxicity.

Only 3% of Menstrual Pads are safe?

Yongho Lee, a member of the National Assembly reanalyzed the 2017 MFDS investigation results in October 2020 and reported that “97.2% of menstrual pads sold in Korea have carcinogens”. Many media outlets published articles about this report but not many criticized the fact that this was based on data from three years ago. Yongho Lee further announced that he would disclose the 3% of safe menstrual pads for “the people's right to know” but this was already shared by MFDS three years ago. Also, even amongst the 3% of “safe” sanitary pads substances like toluene and xylene “with high carcinogenic risks and reproductive toxicity” were still detected.

✔️ Hazardous Substances

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) refers to compounds that have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility. They are artificial chemicals used and produced in manufacturing paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants, and various VOCs are commonly found in menstrual pads.

Some VOCs are known to be dangerous to humans or harmful to the environment. The use of artificial VOCs is regulated by law especially indoors where concentration can be the highest.

Harmful VOCs are not acute toxic substances but can have a long-term effect on health. VOCs in products are generally in low concentrations and physical symptoms develop slowly, thus there are still many unknown risks.

Among VOCs, 10 are categorized as carcinogens with high risks to the body. The 10 substances, which were also included in the primary screening in the first exhaustive investigation of menstrual pads by the MFDS in 2017, are as follows.

10 Carcinogens Classified by WHO and IARC Dichloromethane, hexane, chloroform, benzene, trichloroethylene, toluene, tetrachloroethylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and xylene

✔️ Hazards and Risks

Menstrual pads in which hazardous substances were detected cannot all simply be deemed “harmful”.

Being hazardous does not mean there are risks. Hazards refer to the chemical properties that negatively affect the environment and the health of people such as the toxicity of chemicals, and risks refer to the extent to which exposure to hazardous chemicals can damage the health of the people or the environment.

Thus, the risks of menstrual pads can be accurately determined by assessing if the detected amount can affect the body.

✔️ Assessment of Risks of Menstrual Pads

After the MFDS’s announcement of the detected amounts of hazardous substances in 2017, a assessment depicting the “worst case scenario” was released. This is a calculation of the ‘risk possibility’ that could occur by maximizing the toxicity and skin absorption rates of hazardous substances in menstrual pads. You can check the detailed table of risk assessment on the MFDS website to find out whether the menstrual pads you’re using are “safe”.

  • Margin of Safety

    The “Margin of Safety (MOS)” is used as an indicator in the risk assessment of menstrual pads.

    Margin of Safety (MOS) = Reference Dose (RfD)/Systemic Exposure Dosage (SED)

    If the MOS calculated from the above formula is less than 1, it is determined that it “can affect the body”.

  • MFDS Risk Assessment of Menstrual Pads in 2017

    The 666 products passed the MOS criteria of 10 carcinogens.

    Hence, MFDS concluded that all products had “no possibility of inducing any risks”.

Looking at the 2017 risk assessment of menstrual pads as an example...

The MOS level of styrene in Sofy ‘The Perfume’ Long Pads was the lowest at 6. (Assessed under the presumption of using 7.5 pads * 7 days = 52.5 pads per month for a lifetime). In other words, in order to experience any ‘possibility of risk’ you would have to use 315 pads a month throughout your entire life.

Voices of Concern

MFDS concluded from the risk assessment of all menstrual pads that “there are no menstrual pads without hazardous substances, but none are at a level of inducing risk on the body”. However, there are still voices of concern about this conclusion. Professor Kyungho Choi at the SNU Graduate School of Public Health said, “If we deny the ‘voices’ of women who express health concerns from menstrual pads because hazardous substances have not been specifically identified in scientific research, it will encourage neglect of the personal experiences of women who have suffered harm”.

✔️ What About the Product You Use?

✔️ There is No “Zero”

Among the numerous studies of the properties of menstrual pads conducted so far, it is difficult to find a disposable menstrual pad without any hazardous substances. They were all declared as “safe” from the risk assessment but experts and environmental organizations in doubt are still raising questions.

The controversy about hazardous substances in menstrual pads is ongoing and requires the interest of the public. Neither blind fear or indefinite trust will help to solve the fundamental problem.

There needs to be actual efforts made by each agency in society for safe menstrual products. As consumers, women must have an interest in the contents of the menstrual pads they use and should demand the production of safer products from manufacturers.


  • The controversy about hazardous substances in menstrual pads is ongoing.
  • Menstruation is not a personal issue and it is a public health agenda that every member of society should take interest in.
  • Everyone must work together to create safe menstrual pads for every body.
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