One-hundred-percent cotton tampons are the safest.
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  • One-hundred-percent cotton tampons are the safest.

Have you read this Vice story about a young woman who was nearly killed by toxic shock syndrome (TSS)? The horrifying details: After suffering from flu-like symptoms, 24-year-old Lauren Wasser collapsed with a 107-degree fever, was rushed to the hospital where she was placed in a medically induced coma, got gangrene, and ultimately lost a leg and some toes. Wasser is now suing Kimberly-Clark Corporation—the manufacturer and distributor of Kotex Natural Balance tampons.

Every woman who has ever used a tampon knows about TSS, but most of us believe that it only happens to those who leave a tampon in for too long. We aren't taught, for example, that TSS frequently involves the presence of staph bacteria, or that about 20 percent of the general population carries that bacteria. Nor are we taught that the composition of tampons—especially among the big tampon manufacturers (Playtex, Tampax, Kotex)—has changed over the years to be composed of more synthetic ingredients, and that, reports Vice, "these synthetic fibers, along with a tampon's absorbency, can form an ideal environment for staph bacteria to flourish."

Also: that 100 percent cotton tampons would almost completely eliminate the risk of TSS. According to Dr. Philip M. Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU School of Medicine who has done research on the link between tampons and TSS, "toxic shock syndrome may result if a woman has no antibody to the [TSST-1] toxin or low antibody. Therefore the synthetic ingredients of a tampon are a problem, whereas 100 percent cotton tampons provide the lowest risk, if any risk at all."

While TSS is generally considered to be rare, it's also believed to be underreported, as doctors aren't required to report cases of TSS. (According to the tampon industry's own warnings, the incidence of TSS is estimated to be between 1 and 17 cases per 100,000 menstruating women and girls per year, and risks are higher to women under 30 years of age and teenage girls.) In addition, TSS is not solely related to cases of tampon use, and can occur with skin infections, with burns, and after surgery.

As a result of the Vice article, New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney is reintroducing a bill to study the safety and health effects of feminine hygiene products—specifically to determine how much synthetic fibers, chemicals, colorants, and fragrance are used. Maloney first introduced the bill in 1997.