Menstrual care products are personal, practically by definition. Various methods are passed down by family and trusted friends, carefully explained or hastily taught in bathroom stalls. Once people find a product that works for them, they tend to stick with it.
Anyone who has traveled to a new place, been caught off-guard or seen their preferred brand sell out knows how hard it can be to make the switch to an unfamiliar product.
But ever since Time magazine declared a “great tampon shortage” earlier in June after months of online speculation about bare shelves, some women have begun to wonder whether they may soon have to try a new approach to their periods. The tampon shortage is the latest supply chain issue to affect daily life for women, just weeks after a shortage of baby formula left many families scrambling.
Andre Schulten, the chief financial officer of Procter & Gamble, which manufactures Tampax, has said that it had been “costly and highly volatile” to acquire the raw materials necessary for production, like cotton and plastic. A representative for the company told The New York Times that the shortage is a “temporary situation.”
For some women, this may offer a moment to rethink long-held approaches to their periods. And for brands that sell reusable menstrual products, the shortage may be an opportunity. Will more people be open to trying alternatives to disposables, like period underwear and menstrual cups, or will people stick with what they know?
Some women swear by period underwear, a type of undergarment engineered to absorb menstrual blood.
Becca Sands, 34, a consultant in Pittsburgh, started using period underwear after she had a miscarriage in January. “One thing that some of the women in my support group had warned me about was that seeing blood in your underwear when your period returns can be triggering, especially if that’s how you learned you were miscarrying,” Ms. Sands said.
She decided to try period underwear because the appearance of blood can be less prominent on a black absorbent gusset than on regular underwear, or on the white surface of a pad. When wearing the underwear, Ms. Sands said, “you don’t see red blood like you do on a pad.”
Understand the Supply Chain Crisis
Encouraged (and given a coupon) by her sister, Ms. Sands ordered a few pairs from Thinx. When she next menstruated, she found it to be an easy experience. “I could just bleed and be comfortable, and not think about it,” Ms. Sands said. “And with where my head was at the time, it was really important to be able to do that.”
Ms. Sands noted, however, that period underwear is not for everyone, because of cost ($12 to $38 per pair, depending on the brand) and the realities of everyday life, as well as concerns about leaking. She felt more willing to try it because she works from home, but said that if she worked in an office, she might be more hesitant.
Dr. Nichole Tyson, the chief of pediatric and adolescent gynecology at Stanford Children’s Health, said that most of the young patients she sees use pads when they get their first period.
But some teenagers are shifting to methods that require less maintenance and are better for the environment, and they are talking more and more to each other about how to use them. Dr. Tyson said that one of her patients said a friend recently taught her how to insert a menstrual cup in the school bathroom.
Dr. Tyson noted, too, that there are more brands of period underwear available now. “I think that’s a great space that a lot of people are exploring too,” she said.
Karla Welch, a celebrity stylist and the founder and chief executive of the Period Company, a period underwear company, said that the tampon shortage has spurred increased interest (in website visits and sales) in her brand’s underwear. Ms. Welch, 47, said that her brand is trying to lower prices and offer discounts.
“No one should not have access to a sustainable product,” Ms. Welch said. “So often, sustainable products are priced out for a lot of people.”
She also noted that some people need to use tampons or aren’t able to use sustainable products. But for those who are open to it, Ms. Welch said, “this is our opportunity to really convert people.”
Kate Barker Swindell, the service and operations manager of Period, a nonprofit in Portland, Ore., said that donations of disposable menstrual products to the organization have dropped significantly since 2020. The organization has a request form for products, and Ms. Swindell, 55, said that the high number of requests is a sign to her that “all is not right in period land.”
“Over half the requests on our wait lists involve reusables,” Ms. Swindell said. “The beauty of the reusables is once you catch up, you’ve caught up for a while. But you have to meet people where they are.”
How the Supply Chain Crisis Unfolded
The pandemic sparked the problem. The highly intricate and interconnected global supply chain is in upheaval. Much of the crisis can be traced to the outbreak of Covid-19, which triggered an economic slowdown, mass layoffs and a halt to production. Here’s what happened next:
Vili Petrova, 42, the founder and president of Lena Cup, a company that produces menstrual cups known for ease for first-time users, said, “with that shortage, people are once again exploring all alternatives and not wanting to be dependent” in case there is another shortage.
Sustainability was a priority when she designed the Lena Cup, and environmental concerns have been fueling more interest in the product in recent years. A menstrual cup can be a one-time purchase that can last years with proper care, “so it eliminates the use of thousands of pads and tampons in one lifetime,” Ms. Petrova said.
But she acknowledged that many people have questions about menstrual cups. “Why is it $25? Is it sanitary? How am I going to keep it clean? Is it healthy? Is it safe? All understandable questions that I myself have had before,” she said.
Asia Brown, 21, helped found 601 for Period Equity in January 2021 in Vicksburg, Miss. “We’re a small team of young Black women who really are just passionate about our community,” she said. Their mission is to “bring awareness to the issue of period poverty, which refers to people not having access to menstrual care products, menstrual health education, clean running water.”
The organization provides donated menstrual care products to community partners, including local shelters, health clinics, women’s prisons and schools.
“At my local Walgreens, I have noticed that a couple of normal brands that I see in there, like the Tampax specifically, which is the kind that I like, are out of stock,” said Maisie Brown (no relation to Asia Brown), 20, who leads 601’s efforts in the Jackson, Miss., area. She has seen alternatives to her preferred brand on the shelves, but options are limited.
Asia Brown said the current tampon shortage is exacerbating cost issues that already exist, particularly in Mississippi, where tampons and other menstrual products are taxed. (According to Bloomberg Law, 26 states have a tampon tax.)
“Folks in Mississippi will be impacted by this shortage pretty hard,” Ms. Brown said.
Maisie Brown pointed out that “menstrual cups are $30.” That same $30, Asia said, can help multiple people instead of providing one menstrual cup for just one person. With the tampon shortage, Maisie said she is considering going to Costco or Sam’s Club and buying in bulk.
“People should be able to wear what they feel most comfortable wearing for a decent price point. You shouldn’t be bargaining for what you’re using for your vagina,” she said. “You shouldn’t be choosing between getting groceries and getting your feminine hygiene products for the month.”