Organic tampons just got a potentially dangerous upgrade

By Rachael Schultz
January 21, 2016

There are about 60 million unnecessary antibiotic RXs written each year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So if a cocktail of Mother Nature's finest medicine can help you heal sans prescriptions, we're all for it.

Except when it comes for sticking balls of herbs-otherwise known as herbal tampons-up your vagina.

Herbal tampons-small mesh satchels filled with medicinal herbs-are touted by followers to help "detox your vagina," and stories have been surfacing about the practice online. It seems pretty simple: You insert a ball packed with a combination of rhizoma, motherwort, borneol, and other herbs, and then three days later, voilà-your feminine health woes like bacterial vaginosis, foul odors, yeast infections, and even chronic conditions like endometrosis, are on their way to being cured. Unlike regular tampons, you'd use these when you're not on your period.

The problem? Well, there are a few.

"The vagina is rich in blood supply, so some of these herbs would likely get absorbed into your system. But the vagina is not a toxic environment; it doesn't need extra-strength Clorox or the organic equivalent," says Alyssa Dweck M.D., assistant clinical professor of gynecology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "It naturally has mechanisms to clean and cleanse itself."

The thinking isn't completely unfounded, though: "Some herbs most certainly have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties," says Eden Fromberg, doctor of osteopathic medicine, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics & gynecology at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. "I even use some of these herbs in naturopathic vaginal preparations in my medical practice (both in tampons and during things like vaginal steaming)." But what you're buying off the internet isn't the same recipe or quality as what an herbal medicine practitioner would give you, she says.

Another downside: "There's a natural balance of bacteria and yeast in the vagina, and having something in for a long period of time-herbal infusion or not-will likely affect this balance," says Dweck. Infections are actually caused by an imbalance of the environment of the vagina, so who knows, medicinal herbs could theoretically help to set you straight. But they could also further aggravate the problem. Herbal tampons just haven't been studied well enough yet (or really at all, for that matter) for either doc to deem them safe or not.

And there's one very real danger that concerns both experts. "Your risk for toxic shock syndrome goes up after leaving a tampon in for eight hours, so leaving anything in your vagina for three whole days seems horribly unsafe," says Dweck.

If you are particularly prone to infections down there or just aren't crazy about filling prescriptions, talk to a holistic gynecologist, says Fromberg. An herbal tampon could potentially help-but only the kind an experienced herbalist is whipping up, not one you bought off Amazon.