As if a never-ending pandemic, supply-chain disruptions, and the highest inflation in four years weren’t miserable enough, now we have to deal with a tampon shortage. Tampons are just the latest personal care product to experience both scarcity and price hikes. However, unlike some other personal care products like shampoo or razors, people with monthly periods can’t just wait for prices to fall or skimp on tampon use to save money. Are you agonizing over how to stretch your monthly period product budget? Are you tired of driving store to store only to find empty shelves? Are you looking for a reason to try a new menstrual product? Of course, we are biased, but here at Ruby Cup, we think there is no better time than the great tampon shortage of 2022 to give a period cup a trial run.
This article is written by clinician Amy Harris. Read more about Amy Harris at the end of the article.
Why is there a tampon shortage?
Great question. An estimated 800 million people are menstruating on any given day. It’s not like this number suddenly changed overnight. So don’t blame people who menstruate for the 2022 tampon shortage. Instead, blame the pandemic, the consumer products industry, inflation, and supply chain disruptions.
One main cause is rising material and fuel costs. A second problem is labor shortages – both in tampon factories where tampons are produced and of people working to transport, distribute, and stock store shelves with those tampons.
The last but certainly not least cause of this tampon shortage is the ubiquitous supply chain disruption – the cause of all consumer woes these days. As economic waves rippled out from the initial shock of the COVID-19 shut down back in March of 2020, the global shipping industry ground to a halt. At the same time, global demand for protective gear like masks, gloves, and surgical gowns spiked. Tampons are made with many of the same raw materials as personal protective gear, such as plastics, cotton, rayon, and chemical bleaching agents used to make cotton and rayon. So, fewer tampons were manufactured. Next, a shipping container shortage complicated the global distribution of period products. Shipping containers piled up in many parts of the world after they were emptied and were not returned to the countries where consumer goods (like tampons) are made (such as China). Thus the cost of transporting a shipping container from China to the US skyrocketed tenfold. Economists agree that supply chain disruptions will be an ongoing problem, likely to last through 2022 — if not longer. This is why we saw a tampon shortage in both 2021 and now again in 2022.
So, tampon shortages aren’t ending any time soon, and neither will your monthly flow. On average, a person bleeds from five to seven days and menstruates from age 13 until age 51. That equates to a total of 456 periods over those 38 years! Therefore, we think it is time to expand your options for stemming your flow. Comprehensive research shows that menstrual cups are safe and don’t leak more than tampons or pads. Plus, they’ll save you money, are better for the Earth, and are reusable. That means you can always keep a menstrual cup in your medicine cabinet for possible tampon shortages!
What is period poverty, and why do tampons cost so much?
According to the American Medical Women’s Association, period poverty is the lack of access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, including sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management.
A 2021 survey by Kotex reported that the rate of period poverty in the US increased by 35 percent between 2018 and 2021. The same study found that African-American and Hispanic respondents were more likely to experience period poverty than the general US population. Even before the current tampon shortage, one out of every three low-income women had to miss work, school, or similar commitments because they could not afford period supplies. The COVID pandemic didn’t leave households any extra pennies to spend on period products. The pandemic also forced women (and in many cases particularly minority women) to leave their jobs at a rate three times higher than men. Without a salary, expensive period products became impossible to afford.
According to Nielson IQ, tampon prices are at all-time highs because of inflation. Since last May 2021, average tampon prices have risen 9.8 percent. This is on top of the simultaneous explosion in gas, food, and housing costs. Shelters, non-profits, and community agencies report surging demand for free period products.
Because they are hard to find (hello, empty Target shelves), third-party retailers now are marking them up and selling tampons online to desperate people with periods like yourself. This price gouging only hurts consumers and further drives prices up. Next, our scarcity mindset kicks in when we see only three lonely tampon boxes left on the shelf, i.e., “I should probably buy all three boxes, so I don’t run out next month, right?” Wrong. Hello, tampon shortage.
Unfortunately, policymakers don’t consider menstrual supplies to be necessities like food or housing. Period products are not luxury items, yet 30 of the 50 United States force consumers to pay a tax on tampons and pads just like they have on other “luxury items” considered “non-essential.”
Another driver of tampon cost is that no federal assistance programs in the United States cover the cost of period products. Even though an inability to afford period products is not just a practical problem but also a social justice problem, legislators or policy-makers don’t think people with periods deserve easy and affordable access to period products.
So, until the government or social justice movements catch up with the reality that menstruation is a biological process and access to menstrual hygiene is a human right, we at Ruby Cup want to point out the magnitude of financial savings using a menstrual cup delivers. Before inflation and the current shortage, tampons and pads cost between $50-$500 per year, depending on how long your period lasts and how often you have to change your tampon or pad. This estimate was made before the COVID-19 pandemic, so you may want to try calculating your own Menstrual Cost Health Index if numbers are your thing.
It doesn’t take major calculus to see that if you switch to a Ruby Cup, you can save hundreds of dollars a year. Even better, Ruby Cup can last you up to 10 years when cleaned and stored correctly. So, not only does switching to a period cup save you money, but it also saves you from the monthly worry of whether you will be able to find tampons on the shelf.
How bad is the tampon shortage of 2022?
According to news reports, social media photos of empty shelves, and tales of price-gouging in online marketplaces, it is pretty dire. Rising prices and shortages have made it impossible for many non-profits, food pantries, and other social service agencies to provide free period products to those who can’t afford them. Unfortunately, these agencies are also getting fewer donations of period products, so they run out faster and can’t meet rising demand.
What are my options if I can’t find tampons?
At Ruby Cup, we think a tampon shortage is a great reason to take a menstrual cup for a test run. But, we also understand that period cups aren’t for everyone. We love supporting you to make an informed decision about what period products will work best for your lifestyle, wallet, and planet. So keep reading to learn more about your other options.
Right next to the gaping holes where tampons should be on the shelves, you will see a myriad of menstrual pad options. Big Pharma giant Johnson & Johnson introduced its first disposable pad in the US in 1926, and the environment has suffered ever since. While they work for some people with periods, pads can be irritating. This is especially true for people with conditions such as psoriasis of the vulva or vulvodynia.
Bulky pads make summer beach plans or nights out in skin-tight lycra a challenge. Other people detest the sensation of wetness against their vulva or dislike feeling like they’re wearing a diaper (who does?). And pads, even those with fancy wings or plastic- and petroleum-based absorptive materials, still leak when overfilled.
Finally, pads don’t save you much more money than tampons – the average price for menstrual pads rose by 8.3 percent since May 2021. The plastic and super-absorbent materials in pads come from petroleum, now priced about 70% higher than a year ago, due partly to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It also stands to reason that if people cannot find tampons on the shelves, the demand for pads will grow, and we may next be hearing about a sanitary pad shortage in 2022 before you can say “OB.”
Period panties are more friendly to the planet than single-use pads but can carry a pretty hefty price tag – as high as $30-$40 per pair. Not a financially-feasible option for those already in the throes of period poverty. Plus, they can’t be put in the dryer and often are made from petroleum-based microfiber polyester – a contributor to microplastic pollution of the Earth’s oceans and rivers.
Other options include reusable pads, which can also have a higher initial price tag (somewhere around $10-20 per pad). Another con is that their absorbency only lasts for a year or two of washings with typical use. Most have wings with snaps or Velcro to secure the pad to your underwear, but users complain that reusable pads shift out of position and cause leaks more often than single-use pads. They also require resource-intensive washing in hot water washing machines with laundry detergents, whereas menstrual cups can just be sterilized in boiling water at the end of your cycle each month.
You may have heard of menstrual discs as well, but most menstrual discs are single-use only, making them an enemy of both the Earth and your wallet. Our helpful blog post lays out all the pros and cons of menstrual cups vs. menstrual discs for your reading pleasure.
We don’t like to bash our competition, but we do like to point out some of the reasons why we think period cups are a much better option than pads, period panties, or even free bleeding.
- Menstrual cups are the most cost-effective period product available. Period cups like Ruby Cup are reusable and can last up to ten years. Most menstrual cups range in cost from $25-$30.
- Period cups don’t leak any more than tampons or pads do according to expert period product researchers. In fact, Ruby Cup’s medium-sized cup can hold as much menstrual flow as three regular absorbency tampons.
- Menstrual cups like Ruby Cup are made from safety-tested, medical-grade silicone that doesn’t contain any latex, BPA, phthalates, dioxins, bleach, or other unhealthy chemicals, unlike tampons or pads.
- Ruby Cups are easy to use because they are soft and flexible to fold easily for insertion, and the firm rim ensures a leak-free seal. Ruby Cups are even tricked out with a sturdy stem and extra grip for hassle-free removal.
- Period cups are the most planet-friendly period product out there. The average American person with periods will dump 250-300 pounds of single-use tampons and pads into landfills over the course of a lifetime.
No, You Don’t Have to Give Up on Tampons All Together
Even though there may be some health benefits to avoiding tampons, we at Ruby Cup understand that having a range of period products at your disposal can be a good thing.
If we have learned nothing else from this never-ending pandemic, we have learned to be flexible. That flexibility includes not losing your s#$% when you can’t find your favorite brand of tampons anywhere. Maybe it is time to try a different brand of tampons, mix it up with a menstrual cup, or seek out a birth control method like a hormonal IUD that will lighten your flow.
Economists and behavioral psychologists believe that without information and tools needed to make informed purchasing decisions, consumers fall prey to the scarcity mindset – that emotional panic-buying that robs us of our financial smarts. Here’s a newsflash: hoarding will only worsen the tampon shortage in the long run.
Instead, with this helpful information about all of your period product options, you can resist panic tampon buying. Why not be an informed and thoughtful consumer of period products, making the best choice for your body and your wallet from a range of workable options? We at Ruby Cup hope that we can do our part to help people with periods everywhere survive this latest tampon shortage by raising awareness about menstrual cups’ many benefits.
Can’t I Just Wear My Tampons A Little Bit Longer To Save Money?
No. This is a very unsafe idea. Wearing a tampon, especially a super-sized tampon on a lighter-flow day, for longer than the recommended eight hours can increase your risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Toxic shock syndrome is a rare but potentially fatal bacterial infection sometimes seen in tampon users. There is likely a lower risk of toxic shock syndrome when using menstrual cups instead of tampons, although this has not yet been proven in clinical trials. A safer way to reduce the number of tampons you need would be to switch to a comfortable, reliable menstrual cup to wear overnight while you sleep, for example.
Can I Try Making My Own Tampons?
This is also a very unsafe solution to the problem of the current tampon shortage. Rolling up cotton, paper towels, or other absorbent materials and inserting them into your vagina could harm your health. That material could get stuck inside your vagina, increase your risk for infection, and could create problems necessitating an expensive doctor’s office visit. So, DIY tampons are not a trend to try. Instead, consider other safer, less-leaky period protection options (like a Ruby Cup) or reach out to local shelters, or if you are in the US, text 211 or visit 211.org to find a local location giving out free tampons and pads through the Alliance for Period Supplies (sponsored by Kotex).
How Can I Help Other People Who Can’t Afford (or Find) Tampons or Pads?
Did you know Ruby Cup has a Buy a Cup, Give a Cup program? That means, that with your purchase of a Ruby Cup, you will already be donating a cup to someone without access to safe menstrual products. Ruby Cup and our locally-based partners have already been able to donate more than 139,000 cups worldwide. Even better are the educational workshops, mentorship programs, and hands-on training our partners provide to girls, women and the wider communities in 13 countries in Africa, and Nepal, and even more locations. These programs help break taboos around menstruation and ensure that people everywhere get fuss-free zero waste periods and learn how to love their Ruby Cups as much as we do.
Written by Amy Harris.
Amy Harris is a certified nurse-midwife with more than a decade of clinical experience in reproductive health clinics, hospitals, and private OB/GYN practices. Amy holds a Masters of Science in Maternal and Child Health from Harvard School of Public Health and completed her nursing and midwifery training at Yale School of Nursing and Boston University School of Public Health. Passionate about empowering women through health education, Amy puts her public health training to work as a dedicated women’s health writer.