Wrapped in Secrecy: Toxic Chemicals in Menstrual Products


Wrapped in Secrecy: Toxic Chemicals in Menstrual Products was released on November 21, 2022, by Toxics Link, New Delhi – a non-governmental organisation working to bring information related to toxic substances into the public domain. The study examines the presence of chemicals such as phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in sanitary pads sold in India. The report has been written by programme coordinators at Toxics Link – Priti Banthia Mahesh and Dr Amit, with inputs from Dr Aakanksha Mehrotra.

The study tested 10 brands of sanitary pads – four organic and six inorganic – sourced from either online websites or from markets in New Delhi. It found that although the amount of chemicals present varied across brands, all sanitary pads surveyed tested positive for both VOCs and phthalates. Even organic products contained high levels of VOCs, challenging the notion that organic pads are safer. The study also highlights the harmful effects of such chemicals on human health. It argues that the current regulatory checks in India are inadequate and lack the strict enforcement necessary to ensure safety.

This 56-page document is divided into five sections: Introduction (Section 1); Toxic chemicals in sanitary pads (Section 2); Regulation on sanitary pads composition (Section 3); Objective And Methodology (Section 4); and Result And Discussion (Section 5).


  1. A majority of sanitary napkins available in the market consist mostly (90 per cent) of plastic, the study notes. It states that the plastic in the pads can lead to health problems such as rashes or infections of the urinary or genital tracts. Extended contact with chemicals contained in the absorbent cores of the pads has also been linked to toxic shock syndrome.

  2. The study cites a research paper published in Sexual & reproductive healthcare: official journal of the Swedish Association of Midwives from 2015 to state that a person uses menstrual products for an estimated average of 1,800 days in their lifetime. “In India, there are nearly 300 million women in the reproductive age group, and around 85 per cent of ever married women do not use hygienic methods [during menstruation],” the research paper adds.

  3. Recently, sanitary pads have been infused with synthetic plastic materials that act as liquid absorbents, the report states. Another development is the addition of fragrance to the pads. The study highlights the growing concern about the effect of these chemicals on the user's health.

  4. Citing data published on the website Statista, the study notes that sales of sanitary napkins in India were expected to grow to 10.31 billion pieces per year by 2021. This is double the pieces estimated sold in 2016 – 5.12 billion.

  5. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – such as acetone, chloroform and benzene among others – are used in sanitary pad as fragrances, absorbents, adhesives or moisture barriers. These, the report notes, have been linked to adverse health effects like endocrine disruption, infertility, birth defects and even cancer.

  6. The study notes that certain chemicals like dioxins and furans get unintentionally added to pads through the bleached cotton. Cotton sanitary pads also often carry pesticide residue.

  7. The tissue of the vulvar and vaginal region of the body is highly permeable and allows easy transfer of any chemicals present in the pads into the user’s circulatory system. Phthalates – one such category of chemicals found in sanitary pads – have been connected to endocrine disruption, effects on the reproductive and developmental health, diabetes, cancers and birth defects.

  8. As many as 12 different phthalates were found in the inorganic pads tested. Whisper Ultra Clean – manufactured by Procter & Gamble – one of the most popular brands in India, registered presence of six types of phthalates. Stayfree Dry Max, a Johnson & Johnson product and another widely used brand, showed presence of seven phthalates during testing.

  9. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were also found in all the inorganic pads tested. Two of the most used products in the country Whisper Ultra Clean and Stayfree Dry Max tested positive for 14 VOCs each. Acetone was present in high concentrations in both.

  10. India does not have any clear regulations for manufacturers that outline the acceptable amount of chemical content in sanitary pads. The Bureau of Indian Standards, Government of India, laid out rudimentary requirements in 1980 for the absorbent fillers, the surface of the pad and the texture. However, it outlines no test for gauging the toxicity of the components.

  11. The study notes that sanitary napkins are listed as ‘medical products’ in India. This exempts the companies which manufacture the napkins from listing the ingredients on the packet.

  12. The study advocates for governments to frame standards regulating the use of chemicals in sanitary products. It also states that packaging for sanitary products must carry a list of all ingredients the products contain. The study also calls for research into the development of safer substitutes for chemicals currently in use.

    Focus and Factoids by Priyanka Gulati.


    PARI Library’s health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India.


Priti Banthia Mahesh, Dr. Amit and Dr. Aakanksha Mehrotra


Toxics Link, New Delhi


21 Nov, 2022