New campaign demands transparency in feminine hygiene industry

First seen in: New campaign demands transparency in feminine hygiene industry

The Missoula-based health advocacy group Women’s Voices for the Earth launched a new campaign in March targeting a feminine product brand for lack of transparency and safety in its products’ ingredients.

WVE is an environmental group focused on women’s health. Bryony Schwan, a University of Montana environmental studies alumna, started the organization in 1995, and it has since grown to national recognition.

For its latest campaign, called Summer’s Deceive, the group released three spoof ads on March 28 seeking to raise awareness about the chemicals in Summer’s Eve feminine hygiene wipes.

The Summer’s Deceive spoof videos have had over 42,000 views combined, and an action call to Summer’s Eve has been signed by almost 1,700 people.

Summer’s Eve, which has declined to meet with WVE, has asserted the safety of its products, as well as stated it is following the law. The problem, according to Erin Switalski, executive director of WVE, is there aren’t really any laws companies have to follow when it comes to feminine hygiene products.

“It is not unusual for companies to ignore us,” Switalski said. “The question is how much pressure it will take before they stop ignoring us.”

There is very little regulation or safety studies for chemicals found in hygiene, cosmetic and cleaning products used mostly by women, Switalski said. WVE seeks to hold companies accountable and encourage more research on the effects of the chemicals used in these products.

Marit Olson, a recent UM graduate who wrote her thesis paper on WVE, said that the program is “a really good meeting point of different issues” because it combines environmental problems with social problems, like the stigma of vaginal health and the environmental danger of chemicals used in products.

Switalski said many companies like Summer’s Eve have a term called “acceptable risk” for their products. This term has no legal basis or industry standard, according to WVE.

The FDA lists two laws that it follows to regulate the cosmetic industry, one passed in 1938 and the other in 1966. According to the FDA website, they use the first act to regulate testing and the second to regulate labeling. The FDA website said, “under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives.”

Two U.S. senators introduced a bill in 2015 that “seeks to reform a $71 billion industry that is currently regulated by approximately two pages of federal law that has only been updated once in the past 76 years.” The bill, the Personal Care Products Safety Act of 2015, never made it out of committee.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000 new chemicals enter the consumer market each year. The toxicity of vaginal wipes is unclear because companies are not required to list all ingredients, but one known spermicide, octoxynol-9, is listed on some packaging.

The second possible cause of toxicity comes from the fragrance in the wipes, Switalski said. One fragrance can be made up of 50 to 200 chemicals, which are not required to be disclosed.

The average fragrance contains 14 chemicals not listed on its label, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Switalski compares hygiene labels to food products in the sense that few people would go to the grocery store and buy something without a label including an ingredients list.

In addition to advocating for fragrance labels, WVE’s campaign is targeting Summer’s Eve’s marketing efforts, which have received criticism for being sexist and constituting “vagina shaming.”

Advertising for Summer’s Eve products “suggests there is something shameful and dirty about the vagina, and they have the solution,” Switalski said.

In partnership with Rep. Grace Meng of New York, WVE is holding a rally in Washington D.C. on May 23 to advocate for greater regulation of the feminine hygiene product industry. In a 2016 letter, Meng asked the FDA to acknowledge that feminine washes and hygiene products do not fall under externally applied products and to issue guidance for manufacturers to re-label ingredients accordingly.

“This is important because this is talking about the use of products in one of the most sensitive and absorbent tissues on a woman’s body,” Switalski said.