Period underwear and toxins: What to know about the Thinx lawsuit

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Thinx Unveils Interactive Billboard Experience In Brooklyn, NY To Launch "Thinx Absorbs Worries," A Campaign Destigmatizing Good, Bad, Ugly And Funny Period Moments on September 12, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Thinx) (Eugene Gologursky via Getty Images)

For years, period-absorbing underwear brand Thinx sold itself as an unfussy, nontoxic, organic alternative to traditional menstrual products through playful ads on subways and social media.

Now, the New York company is offering compensation after a class-action lawsuit, which accused Thinx of misleading customers by marketing its products as free of harmful chemicals when they were not. Thinx "denies all of the allegations in the lawsuit and denies that Thinx did anything improper or unlawful," the settlement says.

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As part of the $5 million settlement reached late last year, a website to help facilitate compensation for consumers was recently launched, prompting renewed interest in the lawsuit and questions about the safety of Thinx's reusable period products and the nature of the PFAS chemicals that the plaintiffs say were found in them.

Whether you think you're eligible for compensation or are just worried about "forever" chemicals, here's what you need to know.

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Why is there concern about the safety of Thinx period underwear?

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Thinx, which launched in 2013, has faced scrutiny since at least three years ago, when reporter Jessian Choy of Sierra magazine sent pairs of the underwear to University of Notre Dame physicist Graham Peaslee to have them tested for harmful chemicals. Peaslee found high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, certain types of which have been linked to reproductive problems and cancer, Choy reported.

In a class-action complaint, filed in May last year, plaintiffs alleged that Thinx "led consumers to believe that Thinx Underwear is a safe, healthy and sustainable choice for women, and that it is free of harmful chemicals" while "knowingly and willfully" concealing and misrepresenting the nature of the products. The court filing cites lab testing by the plaintiff that found the PFAS "above trace amount" and argues that the underwear is not organic, despite packaging saying it is.

The complaint alleges that the underwear also contains metal nanoparticles, which are used to deodorize clothing and can easily enter the body. Studies cited in the complaint suggest that such particles could disrupt the balance of good bacteria, which is associated with increased risk of STDs and pregnancy complications, and that they can migrate from clothing into waterways, raising environmental concerns.

Thinx agreed in the settlement to take measures to help ensure that PFAS "are not intentionally added to Thinx period underwear at any stage of production," a promise that Erin J. Ruben, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said provides "significant relief for consumers beyond just reimbursement" as well as transparency that will benefit all consumers.

In a statement provided to The Washington Post that has language similar to the settlement, Thinx said that PFAS have "never been part of our product design. We will continue to take measures to ensure that PFAS are not added to our products."

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What are PFAS and what harm can they do to your body?

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PFAS is a sweeping term that describes thousands of synthetic substances that are so persistent in the body and environment that they've earned the nickname "forever chemicals." Such substances have been used since the 1940s and are most often in products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water as well as nonstick coatings. They have been used in firefighting products and some cosmetics. More than 9,000 such chemicals have been identified.

"They are not instantly toxic like arsenic, lead or cadmium, but they attach to various proteins in our blood and are transported to every organ in our bodies," Peaslee, the Notre Dame professor, said by email. He noted that they are bioaccumulative, "which means if they are in the fish we eat, they will pile up in our blood, too." PFAS have been correlated with a litany of health problems including cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, hypertension, reduced immune response and reproductive issues, Peaslee said.

Although PFAS are relatively common in textile products - particularly those labeled "waterproof" or "stain resistant" - research into the risks of dermal exposure is pretty limited because it is difficult to measure. Still, Lokesh Padhye, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Auckland, cautioned, "It is advisable to avoid such products containing screamingly high levels of PFAS."

Peaslee noted the risk from PFAS could be higher in vulnerable areas such as the groin, neck and underarms. "I would not be urging my daughters to wear PFAS-treated textiles," he said. "Even if it only increases the risk of cancer or suppressed immune system a little, why add risk to an already chemical-filled society?"

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What should I do if I bought Thinx underwear?

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There are a few options outlined on the Thinx settlement website for those who bought products between Nov. 12, 2016 and Nov. 28, 2022. One option is to submit a claim by April 12 and receive a partial reimbursement of $7 per pair for up to three pairs with proof of purchase or $3.50 per pair without.

It is also possible to submit a request to formally opt out of the settlement and retain the right to sue Thinx in the future. Alternatively, you can object to the settlement and write to the court. The deadline for the latter two options is also April 12.

As for what to do with the used underwear itself, there's a decent chance that the chemicals have worn off and entered the environment, Peaslee said, citing studies that looked at how PFAS in firefighting gear decreased over time.

"The good news for wearers of these products that did use PFAS is that most of the waterproofing that was used in them has probably washed away after a dozen or two washes, which means the well-used garments pose less risk to the wearer," he wrote. "It probably isn't as important to throw out current stock as it is to stop buying new materials that have PFAS treatment."

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Is it possible to avoid PFAS?

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PFAS are "everywhere in the environment due to the many products they have been used in," Martyn Kirk, a professor at the Australian National University who has studied the substances, said by email. He pointed to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that says most people in the United States have PFAS in their blood.

But there are ways to mediate risk. Kirk wrote that the absorption of PFAS from clothing "is likely to be very small compared to what people might ingest from a contaminated water supply," and that "the main way to limit exposure to PFAS is to avoid drinking water (particularly groundwater) that is contaminated by PFAS." It is also smart to avoid products that you know have PFAS in them.

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