Sometimes when I am grocery shopping, even if I am there just for broccoli, I’ll swing by the aisle where they stock feminine products. Even though many of the items that were lost during the pandemic, such as flour, toilet paper and yeast, are back on the shelves, there is still a shortage of tampons. It’s become a strange fascination of mine, to see the large gap on the shelf, like a missing front tooth, where tampons are supposed to be.
In the last few months, I’ve visited stores in New York, Massachusetts, and California—no tampons. And it’s not just me. Dana Marlowe (founder of I Support the Girls), which supplies bras and menstrual hygiene to homeless women, said that she has noticed a drop in the number of tampon donations. “What’s been going on for a couple months is that organizations call us up and say, ‘we need tampons,’ and we go to our warehouse and there’s nothing there.”
[Quick side note: We learned during the formula shortage that some men are a little rusty on how women’s bodies work, so allow me to briefly explain. Women get their periods when the lining of their uterus breaks down every month. Tampons are manufactured pieces of fabric that about 40% of women in the U.S. use to absorb the blood.]
For the first six months of this year, Marlowe’s group received just 213,075 tampons, half as many as during the same time last year and 61% fewer than 2020. Marlowe sent me pictures of Indianapolis, Silver Spring and Maryland aisles that had menstrual pads in them but no tampons.
On a DC moms forum, I discovered dozens of mothers complaining about their inability to locate tampons. Reddit had a similar thread where one person said that she visited 8 stores to search for the brand she preferred. Amazon sellers were taking advantage of the shortage; in January, one box of 18 Tampax listed for $114, about six dollars more—per tampon—than women usually pay.
“To put it bluntly, tampons are next to impossible to find,” says Michelle Wolfe, a radio host in Bozeman, Montana, who wrote a piece on her radio station’s website in March about not being able to find tampons in Montana. “I would say it’s been like this for a solid six months.”
An unusual shortage of food and fuel like this would not surprise us. We’ve all heard the complaints about the supply chain issues. Diesel is expensive! It is clogged up! Nobody wants to go to work. But then there was that massive shortage of baby formula that left children hospitalized and mothers raging, and the (male) head of the FDA admitted that the agency’s reaction was “too slow.” Many women speculated that if men had to breastfeed, there would be no formula shortage.
I was puzzled by the supply chain problems that were affecting products women use. After all, there’s the shortage of tampons, and formula, and, in the UK, a shortage of HRT, a drug that’s used to treat the symptoms of menopause. Bad decisions made by male managers could be influencing the supply of women’s products.
Supply and Demand Laws
Ask Procter & Gamble why it is so hard to find tampons right now, and the company will blame Amy Schumer. P&G, which makes Tampax, America’s most popular tampon brand, launched a new ad campaign with the comedian in July of 2020. Since then, “retail sales growth has exploded,” spokeswoman Cheri McMaster says. The company’s demand has increased 7.7% in the last two years. To meet this demand, it runs its Auburn, Maine Tampax plant 24/7. (All of P&G’s tampons are made in one factory in Maine; all of the tampons of Edgewell Personal Care, which makes the brands Playtex and o.b., are made in a factory in Dover, Delaware.)
However, it is difficult to attribute the Tampon Deficit on Amy Schumer. Is anyone still watching commercials? And even if the Tampax ads were a hit, that explanation doesn’t account for why other brands of tampons, including Playtex and o.b., were also out of stock. The other thing that changed in 2020, of course, is that there was a global pandemic and people stocked up on supplies because they were worried they’d run out. The increase in demand occurred at the same time as the disruption to the supply chain of tampons.
P&G said in its most recent earnings call that it was still having trouble sourcing raw materials for feminine care products, getting them to the places that need them, and getting products on trucks to retailers. TOP The Organic Project, a startup that makes tampons for Europe, has Thyme Sullivan as its CEO and cofounder. The cost to ship its tampons from Europe to the United States is now 300% higher than last year. Due to shipping becoming more difficult and costly, the company began flying its biodegradable wrappers from Italy for its feminine products.
According to Edgewell Personal Care, there was a significant staff shortage in its Dover location. This affected both vendors and employees. Tampons are Class II medical devices, which means that because of quality control regulations, companies can’t put just anybody on the assembly line, so production lagged demand. And the raw materials that go into tampons—cotton, rayon, and sometimes pulp and plastic for applicators—have been some of the most in-demand raw materials throughout the pandemic as they’ve gone into medical products like personal protection equipment. The demand for tampons rose, and the supply fell.
Rayon is a byproduct of the cotton crop. It is finicky and the demand for it is exceeding production. Sheng Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, at the University of Delaware, said that Rayon was a result of the finicky cotton crop. The raw cotton price was 71% more than in April of last year.
Thyme, co-founder and CEO of TOP, an organic company that sells period products sold in bulk, participated in the Reebok 10k, dressed as a tampon.
Courtesy Thyme Sullivan
Increased demand, staffing shortages, raw material shortages—none of these factors are unique to tampons. The problem with the tampon supply shortage is not that it has become difficult to get tampons. Tampons, unlike other products that are hard to find, cannot be stopped by women until they return. You may be annoyed that your couch delivery is delayed or that you still can’t find your favorite running shoes, but you can wait—or buy something else. Women get their period every month, and if they’ve used tampons for their entire adult lives, they need tampons.
Companies have been able to raise the price of feminine care products because women are willing to search for tampons even when they are scarce and the cost is rising. Procter & Gamble said in April 2021 that it would increase prices on baby care, feminine care, and adult incontinence products. It then announced in April that it would increase prices for its feminine products. P&G posted its biggest sales gain in decades in the most recent quarter, and the amount of money it made from sales in its feminine care division was up 10%.
“Tampons are a staple product—a life necessity,” Lu says. “If you look at the pricing strategy for the big players, they will consider more price increases for these necessity products.”
The overall price of US feminine care products has increased by 10.8% compared to a year earlier, according the scanner data provided by Nielsen IQ. It tracks prices from point–of-sale system. Feminine care was one of only two categories in Nielsen’s health and beauty data where prices were up 10% or more from a year ago for the past six months. The other category is deodorant. Price increases for products for sexual and oral health were just 4.1%. Prices for hygiene products increased by 4.3%. Prices for cotton products haven’t experienced as much price growth. The Nielsen data show that cotton balls have increased 8.2% and gauze pads 7.8% over the past year.
Why are there still so few products available for women?
The UK is rationing hormone replacement therapy for women. That’s even though pharmacy staff began reporting supply shortages even before the pandemic. The FDA and nonprofit organizations began reporting shortages in infant formula as early as November 2021. But after shutting down Abbott’s formula plant in February 2022, the FDA did not announce it was taking steps to improve the supply of formula until May. This shortage should last until the end of summer.
And it’s still hard to find anyone doing anything about the tampon shortage, even though tampons have been hard to find for the past six months. Even stranger, aside from a few pockets of the Internet where frustrated women are venting about not being able to find tampons, nobody’s talking about the great tampon shortage of 2022. “I kept asking myself—am I going crazy? Because I went to so many stores and couldn’t find anything,” Eal Ganott, a mother or two in Queens who found validation in a Reddit thread.
Though many women have been affected by the low supplies, there’s such a lack of information about what is in stock at local stores that there’s no way to put a number on the severity of the national shortage. CVS stated in a statement that they were working with suppliers to make sure customers have access to the items. However, it could not provide data on out-of stock. Wolfe, the radio presenter, received numerous emails from women suffering from the same problem. It is her only article online about it. “It’s a little taboo,” she says. “Who the heck wants to talk about tampons?”
The taboo nature of talking about tampons and periods has made it hard for many people to get menstrual products—the U.S. military doesn’t provide tampons to women stationed overseas (though it does provide Viagra) and women cannot buy period products using food stamps. One in four women now experience period poverty, meaning they don’t have access to menstrual products, up from one in five before the pandemic. That’s what has motivated some cities and states to mandate that schools provide free menstrual products, which may also be driving some of the demand for tampons.
This shortage makes some women mad that such a simple product is difficult to find. Roe V. Wade In a manner that would allow the states to dictate what women can do with their bodies. “Why isn’t anyone speaking up about this?” Diamond Cotton, a 32-year-old mother of two girls, told me. “The government wants to put a strain on women having abortions, but they don’t know what a woman has to get through.”
Thyme Sullivan, TOP Organic Project CEO was a 27-year veteran of consumer packaged products companies like Nestle or PepsiCo. Before starting TOP Organic Project, she made organic period products. She says that the gender of the people running the country—and most of America’s companies—could help explain the tampon shortage. Despite the fact that there were shortfalls in toilet paper and cleaning products at the start of the pandemic, they didn’t last for long.
It could also be that the procurement and supply chain decision-makers needed to know the needs of the families using them. Many people who make decisions regarding feminine care products are not using them. The CEO of Procter & Gamble is a man, as are the CEOs of Edgewell and Unilever. (The CEO of Abbott Nutrition is a man, as is the UK’s Health Secretary, whose department is responsible for getting HRT to women using the National Health Service.
“I challenge you to go to a business that doesn’t have hand sanitizer,” she says. “That happened overnight.” But, she says, there has been no such push by businesses or the government to solve the tampon shortage. Even before the pandemic, she would go to meetings and ask male leaders whether they were carrying a tampon in their sleeve or if they had ever missed a meeting because they couldn’t find feminine products.
There isn’t a lot of discussion about a tampon shortage or a rush to solve it because the issue doesn’t directly affect the people in charge, Sullivan argues. “It is just a matter of who is asking for it. And who are the decision makers,” she says. “It’s why we need to bring men into the conversation, because in many places, they’re still the decision-makers, and this wasn’t on their radar.” (She and co-founder Denielle Finkelstein recently ran a 10K dressed as tampons to call attention to period poverty.)
TOP The Organic Project, and Lola are women-owned companies that make feminine products. They both stated there has been no shortage of their products ever since the outbreak. They have not raised prices, despite the fact that they are facing similar supply chain problems as all other companies.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME