The feminine hygiene and sexual health aisles at the drugstore are filled with tampon, pad, and condom brands that seem as standard as Campbell’s soup. For decades, these products have been unregulated, despite the fact that they come in contact with some of the most vulnerable parts of your body. With the company she co-founded with her father, Sustain Natural, Meika Hollender set out to change that. Read on to learn why non-toxic, natural condoms are so important for your health, the issues with conventional tampons, what sets Sustain condoms and other personal products apart from conventional brands, and much more.
Hollender’s family has been in the natural products business for a long time (her dad founded Seventh Generation), so it makes sense that she spotted a major gap in the market: products related to sexual and reproductive health.
There was a growing movement around natural, non-toxic products in realms like skincare, food, and household cleaning products, with more and more people stepping back and considering the ingredients in things they’d used for years. Consumers were demanding better and becoming more cautious about conventional products, especially when it came to those that touched the skin, but nobody seemed to be thinking that way about things like condoms, tampons, pads, or personal lubricant.
“When you looked at categories like condoms and tampons, things that are actually going in the most intimate part of your body, there was really not a lot of product innovation and awareness around the ingredients in most of these products,” Hollender says. “We thought that was kind of crazy. Because when you think about it, you should start with one of the most absorbent parts of your body in terms of changing your routine and going green.”
There was a clear need for natural condoms and other items in the personal and sexual health space — and this need seemed even greater to Hollender when she considered the fact that the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers of condoms or tampons to make their ingredients public. “So as a consumer, there’s no way you would be able to find out the ingredients in a conventional condom or tampon. You would need to look for brands that are actively transparent about their ingredients,” Hollender says.
So she and her father started Sustain Natural with the goal of becoming one of those brands. With Sustain’s line of products, including natural condoms, tampons, personal lubricant, and more, they aim to create better, safer, healthier products in the sexual and reproductive wellness space, and to arm consumers with all the information they need to buy products that support their health.
The Startling Truth About Condom Use
The number one thing that all health and sex ed teachers drive home is “use protection!” From high school onward, we’re told about the importance of using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs) and unwanted pregnancy. And, despite that one-note approach to sexual education, the truth is that using condoms is incredibly important — and that not enough people do it.
Hollender believes that many people are lackadaisical about using condoms because they believe that the repercussions of STDs or STIs are fairly small. “A lot of people feel like, ‘It’s just like getting the flu. I’m going to take a Z-Pak and it’s all going to be all good,” she says, explaining that this is far from the truth. First of all, the symptoms of STDs and STIs are quite unpleasant to deal with. And second of all, certain common STDs are now becoming resistant to antibiotics and are no longer responding to the traditional course of treatment. “They’ve gotten so strong that we don’t know what’s going to be happening,” she says. “It’s scary.”
So if you’re sexually active and nonmonogamous, using a condom in every sexual encounter is essential. But, as Hollender points out, you also need to be concerned about the type of condom you use, as many conventional condoms not only contribute to unfair labor practices around the world, but also have the potential to cause cancer.
Two issues stem from the fact that condoms are made of latex, which comes from the sap of the rubber tree. The first is that many rubber plantations around the world have some major issues, including child labor and the use of harsh chemicals and pesticides. “A lot of rubber plantations around the world are pretty dark places,” says Hollender. Rubber is reportedly produced with forced labor or child labor in many countries, including Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
The second issue with latex has to do with something you’ve probably never heard of: nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are potent carcinogens that are formed by a chemical reaction that occurs when you heat and mold latex — which is, of course, an inevitable part of the condom manufacturing process. So nitrosamines aren’t something that manufacturers add to the latex, they’re an intrinsic byproduct of using latex in general. If a manufacturer of latex condoms wanted to get rid of nitrosamines, they would need to actively put in a chemical blocker to prevent them.
To make matters worse, nitrosamines are released when they come in contact with bodily fluid. This makes them especially worrisome with a product like condoms, for which bodily fluids are…sort of the point?
Nitrosamines have been associated with various types of cancer including esophageal cancer and throat cancer. In fact, they pose enough of a health risk that the FDA does regulate them in other products that come in contact with bodily fluid, like pacifiers — but condoms? Nope.
Hollender was familiar with both of these issues with latex (as well as the importance of using protection), which is why natural condoms are a primary focus of Sustain Natural. To make Sustain condoms, she sourced from the only Fair Trade Certified rubber plantation in the world, which guarantees good working conditions and no child labor involved in the process. The plantation also uses a chemical blocker during the latex manufacturing process, which prevents nitrosamines from forming in the first place. The result is a brand of natural condoms that are good for both the world and your health. “We think that consumers have the right to know what’s in these products and what they’re exposing themselves to,” says Hollender. “We’re the only Fair Trade, nitrosamine-free brand of condoms sold in the United States.”
The Health Risks of Conventional Tampons
Tampons are one of the only products that you actually put inside your body, so it seems obvious that we should all be fairly concerned about what’s in them. What’s more, tampons spend a lot of time inside your body — an average of 6 years for a menstruating woman who uses tampons — and everything that you put in your vagina gets absorbed and goes straight into your bloodstream. “It’s very important to know what’s in your tampons,” says Hollender.
Unfortunately, what’s in conventional tampons tends to be a whole lot of junk. In most brands, you’ll find substances like rayon (which can cause nausea, headaches, and chest pain), dyes, and even fragrances. “I’m sure you’ve seen deodorant tampons, which is just mind-boggling to me,” says Hollender, going on to note that “fragrance” is a code word used by manufacturers to hide a whole bunch of different chemicals (since regulations don’t require companies to disclose what’s in their fragrance).
Most tampons are also bleached in some way to make them pure white. Some brands use chlorine bleach, which results in the tampons containing trace amounts of the byproduct dichlorine. There hasn’t been a lot of research into the health risks of this compound, but it seems like a safer bet to avoid putting it inside your vagina until research proves it’s safe.
Even cotton, the primary ingredient of most tampons, isn’t risk-free. “Cotton is actually one of the dirty crops out there,” says Hollender. Most cotton crops are treated with the pesticide glyphosate, a known carcinogen, which can end up in trace amounts in tampons. The FDA says that these trace amounts are okay, but there’s no strong evidence to confirm this stance. “There literally hasn’t been one study looking at the long-term health effects of these chemicals on women’s bodies,” says Hollender. “So we operate under the precautionary principle of if you don’t know how it’s going to affect you, just don’t put it inside your vagina.”
(BTW — if you want recommendations for more WellBe-approved non-toxic tampon and condom brands as well as 1200+ vetted and researched non-toxic products in categories like food, makeup, home and more, check out the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists!)
The WellBe Takeaway: What to Remember About Natural Condoms and Reproductive Health Products
Reproductive and sexual health is a big part of overall health, so it needs to be part of the conversation when we talk about reducing your toxic burden. Here’s what to remember about sexual and reproductive health and the products associated with them:
Historically, products related to sexual/reproductive health haven’t been well-regulated. The FDA does not require that manufacturers of condoms or tampons disclose the ingredients in their products.
If using non-toxic skincare products is important, using non-toxic condoms and tampons is even more so, as these are some of the most absorbent and sensitive parts of the body.
Condom use is surprisingly low among single, sexually active adults. STDs and STIs are becoming stronger and some are not responding to medication because overprescribing of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance.
Conventional latex condoms have two major issues. First, most rubber plantations worldwide use forced or child labor to produce latex. And second, the production of latex results in a byproduct called nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer.
Conventional tampons contain various harmful substances, including rayon, dyes, fragrance, and bleach. Non-organic cotton in tampons is often treated with the pesticide glyphosate, which is a known carcinogen.
Regulation is essential for sexual and reproductive wellness products. To make a difference, vote with your dollar by only buying natural condoms, tampons, pads, and lubricants. Write to your representatives demanding transparency in ingredients and the regulation of harmful chemicals.
Have you switched to safe, non-toxic brands for your sexual and reproductive health products? Why or why not? Share your thoughts and favorite brands in the comments below.
Watch the full WellBe interview for more from Hollender, including why lubricants may increase your risk of STIs, why vaginal wipes aren’t healthy, how all these products interact with vaginal flora, whether coconut oil is safe to use as a lubricant, and more. And remember, you can find all the WellBe-approved condoms, tampons, lubricant, and other personal products in the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists database.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Meika Hollender is the Co-Founder and President of Sustain Natural, the leading brand of all-natural, vagina-friendly products. She is a graduate of NYU Stern School of Business. You can learn more about Meika and Sustain here.