Tampons contain lead, arsenic and other toxic metals, study finds. What we know — and don't know — about the findings.

Five tampons on a blue background.
Tampons were found to contain toxic metals in a new study. (Getty)

A new study found that more than a dozen brands of tampons contain heavy metals, including lead and arsenic. The revelation, published in the journal Environment International, has many women saying they're going to swear off the products — used by more than half of all menstruating people — over fears that the tampons could be harming their health. While exposure to heavy metals from other sources, such as drinking water, old paint and contaminated foods, can cause a wide array of health problems, ranging from infertility to cognitive issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many questions remain. Can metals from tampons damage the vaginal canal? Can they get into the bloodstream? How did they get there? And the most important question: Should you trash your tampons and switch to something else?

Researchers tested a variety of tampons from 14 brands (though the study doesn’t reveal which ones) for the presence of 16 heavy metals that are potentially toxic to people. Lead, which can cause high blood pressure and brain, kidney and reproductive health issues; nickel, which may irritate the skin and, in high concentrations, may even lead to cancer; and highly carcinogenic arsenic were among those tested for.

Not a single tampon was free of toxic heavy metals. In fact, one tampon contained all 16 of the metals the researchers tested for. Several had “elevated” concentrations of lead, arsenic and cadmium, which can damage the lungs, kidney and bones over time. These are among the most toxic heavy metals in existence. And every tampon tested positive for lead, for which the Department of Health and Human Services says there is “no safe level,” as even low exposures can lead to neurological and other issues.

The researchers also compared differences between nonorganic tampons, made of rayon or a blend of cotton, rayon and viscose, and organic tampons, made of 100% cotton. Generally speaking, the nonorganic tampons contained more lead than the organic ones, but the organic products contained more arsenic.

“The biggest conclusion I would draw from our study is that we need to require more testing and better labeling for what consumers put in their body,” Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, study co-author and Columbia University professor of environmental health sciences, tells Yahoo Life.

The average menstruator will use about 17,000 tampons in their lifetime, according to the American Medical Association, so it’s no surprise that these findings are freaking people out. In comments on TikTok videos, many are speculating about whether the toxic metals found in tampons could explain conditions without clear and well-understood causes, including endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). But that’s simply not addressed in the study. “The study only measured metals in the tampons; they did not measure the blood levels in patients who used tampons ... [or] whether tampon users had an increased incidence of any toxic effects,” Jamie Alan, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life. “The real question is whether blood levels are significantly affected and whether tampon users experience an increase in adverse effects compared to users who prefer other products.”

We do know that exposure to lead and other heavy metals increases your risks of having a miscarriage, stillbirth or a child with a birth or developmental defect, and may disrupt hormones, according to the CDC. Kioumourtzoglou says it’s far too soon to tell if people’s bodies are absorbing these metals at all, let alone whether these exposures could cause other gynecological conditions.

The findings demonstrate that “we have products on our shelves that we put inside our bodies, and we’re assuming that someone has tested them and [proven] they are safe, but that does not seem to be the case at all,” says Kioumourtzoglou. “But we do not know yet if these metals leach out of the tampons into the vaginal canal, or if they can reach the circulatory system.” Figuring that out is the next step the research needs to take.

Kioumourtzoglou says she can’t recommend whether or not to use tampons based on the findings of her research, instead advising people to “proceed with caution.” She adds: “It’s extremely important to try to not create a panic until we know that these metals leach out of tampons.”

While neither Kioumourtzoglou’s research nor any other studies thus far have shown that materials in tampons can lead to serious health issues (aside from the extremely rare toxic shock syndrome), she says it’s clear that the products haven’t been thoroughly tested for safety. As a result, Kioumourtzoglou uses a menstrual cup. Menstrual cups “have not been tested [for toxic metals or other contaminants] either, but, in theory, they should be safer because they are made of medical-grade silicon,” she says. And, she adds, silicone cups and discs are better for the environment and your wallet since they’re reusable.

Pads are typically made from the same materials as tampons, so they could carry the same contamination risks, though they haven’t been tested. However, Kioumourtzoglou notes that because pads and panty liners are not inserted into the vagina, that “reduces exposure potential.”

Cups, discs and pads are all viable alternatives, but if you prefer tampons, the study’s findings don’t mean you need to toss them. The best thing to do for now, Kioumourtzoglou says, is for you to simply be aware and ask regulators to hold menstrual products to a higher standard. “We as consumers, menstruating people and people underrepresented in medical research need to request that these products are tested before we need them,” she says. “It’s about prevention: It’s better for us, the medical system and the economy because if these cause any health issues down the line, it impacts the entire society.”