Almost empty shelves at a CVS in Croton-on-Hudson, NY on May 6. Credit - Alana Semuels
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. Because, even though most of the things that disappeared during the pandemic like toilet paper, yeast, and flour have returned to the shelves, tampons are still in short supply. 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, the founder of I Support the Girls, which provides bras and menstrual hygiene for people experiencing homelessness, told me that her organization has seen a big drop off in 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 texted me photos of aisles in Indianapolis and Silver Spring, Maryland that were stocked with menstrual pads but empty of tampons.
Tucked away on a forum for DC-area moms, I found dozens of women complaining in April about not being able to find tampons. A similar discussion was happening on Reddit, where one poster said she checked eight stores looking for her preferred brand. 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.”
Normally, a shortage like this might not be that surprising. We’ve all heard the complaints about the supply chain issues. Diesel is expensive! The ports are clogged! No one wants 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.
Which made me wonder why products that women need were getting so hard hit by supply chain issues. 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. Are bad decisions being made at companies run by men that are affecting the supply of products for women?
Laws of supply and demand
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. Demand is up 7.7% over the past two years, and the company is running its Auburn, Maine Tampax factory 24/7 to meet demand. (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.)
But I find it a little hard to pin the tampon shortage on Amy Schumer. Who watches commercials anymore? 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. This increase in demand came at a time when the supply chain for tampons, like the supply chain for just about everything else, became disrupted by factory closures and port delays.
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. The startup TOP The Organic Project makes tampons in Europe, and co-founder and CEO Thyme Sullivan says the cost of getting its tampons to the U.S. is up 300% from last year. The company started flying, rather than shipping, the biodegradable wrappers for its feminine care products from Italy because shipping has become so difficult and expensive.
Edgewell Personal Care experienced a severe staff shortage at its Dover facility with both employees and vendors, the company says. 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. As demand soared, supply shrank.
Rayon is a by-product of cotton, a finicky crop, and this is the third straight year that demand for cotton has exceeded production, says Sheng Lu, a professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware. In April, the raw price of cotton was 71% higher than it was the previous year.
Increased demand, staffing shortages, raw material shortages—none of these factors are unique to tampons. Yet what makes the tampon shortage so persistent and problematic is that unlike most other items that the supply chain has made it hard to access, tampons are not something women can stop buying until supplies 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.
The fact that women will keep trying to find tampons, even if the shelves are empty and prices are rising, has allowed companies to increase the prices of feminine care products. Procter & Gamble said in April 2021 that it would increase prices on baby care, feminine care, and adult incontinence products. Then, in April of this year, it said it would again raise prices on its feminine care 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.”
Overall, the price of feminine care products in the U.S. has risen 10.8% from a year ago, according to scanner data from Nielsen IQ, which tracks the prices from point-of-sale systems. 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 was deodorant.) Prices for sexual health products were up just 4.1%, and prices for oral hygiene goods rose 4.3%. Products made of cotton have not experienced as steep a price growth. Cotton balls are up 8.2% over the year, and gauze pads are up 7.8%, the Nielsen data shows.
Why shortages of products for women persist
In the UK, hormone replacement therapy products for women are being rationed. That’s even though pharmacy staff began reporting supply shortages even before the pandemic. Nonprofits and local government agencies began warning of infant formula shortages in November of 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. The shortage is now expected to last through the 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 said, in a statement, that it was working with suppliers to ensure that customers had access to these items, but was not able to provide any data about out-of-stocks. Wolfe, the radio host, got dozens of emails from women who were also hit by the tampon shortage, since hers is the only piece online that mentions 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.
The shortage is making some women angry that this simple product is so hard to find, especially at a time when the Supreme Court appears poised to rule on Roe v. Wade in a way that could allow states to mandate what women 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, the TOP Organic Project CEO, worked for 27 years at consumer packaged goods companies including PepsiCo and Nestle before starting her company, which makes 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. After all, shortages of toilet paper, cleaning products, and even masks and gloves did not last very long at the beginning of the pandemic.
That could be because the people making procurement and supply chain decisions needed toilet paper and cleaning supplies, or could at least relate to the families who needed them. Many of the people making those decisions for feminine care products do not themselves use 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.)
Both TOP The Organic Project and Lola, which are both women-owned feminine products companies, said that there have been no shortages of their products since the pandemic began. Neither company has raised its prices, even though they face the same supply chain issues as everyone else.