Toxic metals detected in tampons: New study raises health concerns

A pioneering study from UC Berkeley has detected toxic metals, including arsenic and lead, in commercially available tampons. This unprecedented research raises urgent questions about potential health risks for millions of women who use these products and calls for increased scrutiny of feminine hygiene product safety.


The research, published in the journal Environment International [1], is the first of its kind to measure metal concentrations in tampons. The study’s findings are particularly alarming given the widespread use of tampons and because the skin of the vagina has a higher potential for chemical absorption than skin elsewhere on the body. Lead author Jenni A. Shearston, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley, emphasised the potential public health implications, saying: “Despite this large potential for public health concern, very little research has been done to measure chemicals in tampons.”


Researchers analysed 30 tampons from 14 different brands, testing for the presence of 16 metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. The study found detectable levels of all tested metals across various tampon types, regardless of brand, origin, or organic status.

Key findings include:

  • Metal concentrations varied based on purchase location (US vs EU/UK), organic status, and brand type (store vs name-brand).
  • No single category of tampons consistently showed lower concentrations across all metals.
  • Lead concentrations were higher in non-organic tampons.
  • Arsenic levels were elevated in organic tampons.

Health risks associated with metal exposure

The presence of toxic metals in tampons is concerning due to their potential health impacts. Co-author Kathrin Schilling, assistant professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, noted: “Although toxic metals are ubiquitous and we are exposed to low levels at any given time, our study clearly shows that metals are also present in menstrual products, and that women might be at higher risk for exposure using these products.”

Exposure to these metals has been linked to various health issues, including:

  • Increased risk of dementia, infertility, diabetes, and cancer
  • Damage to liver, kidneys, and brain
  • Adverse effects on cardiovascular, nervous, and endocrine systems
  • Potential harm to maternal health and foetal development

Sources of contamination

The study suggests several potential sources of metal contamination in tampons, including absorption from water, air, or soil during cotton cultivation; proximity to contaminants (e.g., cotton fields near lead smelters), and intentional addition during manufacturing processes (e.g., pigments, whiteners, or antibacterial agents).

Whilst the current study does not conclusively link the detected metal levels to specific health outcomes, it highlights the need for further investigation. Shearston called for increased manufacturer responsibility, saying: “I really hope that manufacturers are required to test their products for metals, especially for toxic metals. It would be exciting to see the public call for this, or to ask for better labelling on tampons and other menstrual products.”

The researchers plan to conduct additional studies to assess the potential for metal leaching from tampons and subsequent bodily absorption, as well as to investigate the presence of other chemicals in tampons.

  1. Shearston, J. A., Schilling, K., et al. (2024). Tampons as a source of exposure to metal(loid)s. Environment International.