Today's average woman uses an estimated 12,000 tampons in her lifetime, a convenience that allows an unprecedented freedom to be active and confident in avoiding embarrassing leaks. We've come a long way since rags pinned into undergarments or belted-on bulky pads were the norm, but with our freedom comes risk.

There are potential problems attached to tampon use that every consumer should know about: Chlorine-bleached products, as some tampons are, contain traces of carcinogenic dioxins. Highly absorbent tampons may still cause toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal bacterial infection that occurs when tampons are worn for too long. There are even environmental ramifications, including pesticides sprayed on cotton crops and pollution created when tampon ingredients are bleached.

But there are safe and ecological tampon alternatives that enable women to still benefit from their use. Here, natural is the rule of thumb. "Plainer is just better when it comes to tampons," says Pam Chandler, a family nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwife who practices at the holistic clinic Wellspring for Women in Boulder, Colo. Chandler encourages patients to use nonchlorine-bleached, 100 percent-organic cotton tampons and pads. "We're lucky to have healthier choices," she says.