“A Crisis”: The U.S. Tampon Shortage Explained

People who need menstrual products in the United States have sounded the alarm in recent months after noticing fewer packs of tampons on store shelves or being told that their favorite brand of tampons has suddenly become unavailable.

The issue caught public attention when TIME Magazine ran an article earlier this month titled The Great Tampon Shortage of 2022: The Supply Chain Problem No One is Talking About.

“In the last few months I’ve been to stores in New York, Massachusetts and California – no tampons. And it’s not just me,” author Alana Semuels wrote on June 7.

Manufacturers and retailers have recognized the problem, saying they are working to restock stocks and restock stores, but rights advocates say meanwhile people who need tampons but can’t get them are suffering — particularly Americans with low income.

“Not having access to menstrual products when you need them is indeed a crisis,” Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a women and democracy fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, told Al Jazeera.

“It might sound like I’m exaggerating, but I would ask anyone … What would you do if you didn’t have a tampon or pad when you needed one?” she said.

Here’s Al Jazeera taking a look at exactly what’s going on:

What is causing the shortage?

The shortage was caused by at least a half-dozen factors combined, said Pricie Hanna, a managing partner at Price Hanna Consultants, a consulting firm specializing in nonwovens markets and technologies.

First up are the supply chain disruptions related to COVID-19.

a price tag for Ob tampons on a shelf in New York
A price tag for Ob tampons is seen under a shelf in New York January 19, 2011 [File: Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

Even before the pandemic hit, U.S. manufacturers were importing many of the key raw materials needed to make tampons — namely cotton and rayon (also known as viscose) — from Asia and Europe because domestic production was insufficient, Hanna told Al Jazeera.

“Since the pandemic, the operation and timing of global supply chains for both shipping to and within the United States have been highly volatile and unpredictable,” she said.

Meanwhile, the US is experiencing a labor and truck shortage that has disrupted normal tampon restocking at US stores. Tampon manufacturers have also been forced to raise their prices to consumers as the cost of cotton and rayon has risen significantly over the past year, Hanna said.

Citing NielsenIQ, Bloomberg reported last week that the average price of a pack of tampons rose 9.8 percent in the year ended May 28; The average price of sanitary napkins increased by 8.3 percent.

News of the shortage also likely prompted consumers to hoard tampons, Hanna continued, while the final factor, she said, is with the warmer summer months in the US: “We’re at the beginning of the seasonal spike in tampon use in the US to swim.”

How big is the shortage?

That’s a bit unclear. US manufacturers contacted by Al Jazeera did not quantify the problem when asked to provide numbers or dates.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week, citing data analysis firm IRI, that “an average of 7 percent of tampons were out of stock in US stores for the week ended Sunday.” Arkansas and West Virginia were among the hardest-hit US states, the newspaper said.

“Other parts of Indiana and the Jackson, Mississippi and Wheeling, West Virginia regions are experiencing supply shortages, according to the IRI.”

What do tampon manufacturers say?

Procter & Gamble, which makes Tampax tampons, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that this was “a temporary situation.”

“The Tampax team is producing tampons around the clock to meet the increased demand for our products,” the company said. “We are working with our US retail partners to maximize availability, which has increased significantly in recent months.”

A spokesman for Edgewell, which makes Playtex and Ob tampons as well as Carefree and Stayfree pads and sanitary napkins, told Al Jazeera that “significant labor shortages due to two separate Omicron surges” are reducing production — and therefore inventory — of its products at its US manufacturing facility in late 2021 and with a supplier in Canada in early 2022.

“We have been running our manufacturing facilities around the clock to rebuild inventories and return to normal levels in the coming weeks,” the spokesman said in an email.

What are US retailers saying?

A spokesman for Walgreens, a major US pharmacy chain, told Al Jazeera in an email statement that the company is “working diligently with our suppliers to ensure we have the supply.”

“However, similar to other retailers, we are experiencing some temporary shortages of branded tampons in certain regions. While we will continue to have product on shelves and online, it may only be from certain brands while we manage the supply disruption.”

A spokesman for CVS, another popular pharmacy chain, told Al Jazeera that the company is also working with its suppliers to ensure a “large supply” of tampons in its stores.

“In recent weeks there have been instances where suppliers have been unable to fulfill the full volume of orders placed. If a local store is temporarily out of certain products, we work to restock those items as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said.

Again and again you see sanitary pads on a pharmacy shelf
Feminine hygiene products are seen at a pharmacy in London, Britain, March 18, 2016 [File: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters]

This isn’t the first US supply chain crisis during the pandemic, is it?

Toilet paper was in short supply in the early days of the pandemic as many consumers panic-buy large supplies. An ongoing baby food shortage has recently sparked panic across the US, with children being hospitalized and desperate families scrambling for supplies.

President Joe Biden directed the Department of Defense to hire airliners to fly in baby food from abroad, among other efforts to alleviate this latter crisis, but shortages persist in many parts of the country.

Is the US government doing anything about the tampon shortage?

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked Thursday if the tampon shortage was on the Biden administration’s radar and if she was tracking other potential shortages in other products. “I would have to check with the team what they are tracking. I don’t have a list for you right now,” she replied, without bringing up the subject of tampons.

US Senator Margaret Wood Hassan wrote a letter to Procter & Gamble CEO Jon Moeller this week, urging the company to “take swift action” to fix the shortage. She also condemned “price gouging” and called on Moeller to “provide rationale for the price increases we’ve seen over the past year.”

“Access to menstrual products should be treated like any other essential asset. At the start of the pandemic, price gouging on essentials like toilet paper, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer was rightly criticized as exploiting an emergency for financial gain. Menstrual products should receive the same attention,” Hassan wrote.

It is up to our elected officials to ensure that the cost of this shortage does not fall on the backs of those who need these products most

through Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Brennan Center for Justice

What is left for the people in the meantime?

Hanna said that for now, people are likely looking for alternatives to their favorite products.

“They may be recalibrating exactly how to provide that protection based on what they were able to buy this week,” she told Al Jazeera. “I think we might be seeing some improvement in on-shelf availability in retail stores this week, but to be honest it really depends a lot on what store you’re looking at and what time of day you’re checking it out.”

However, many in the US were already struggling to afford tampons before the recent price hikes or shortages.

A 2019 survey of low-income women in St. Louis, Missouri found that 64 percent said they couldn’t afford menstrual products in the previous year, while 21 percent said they faced the problem every month. “Almost half of women (46%) could not afford to buy both groceries and menstrual hygiene products in the past year,” it said.

For years, attorneys, health professionals, and other experts have lobbied for lawmakers to provide free menstrual products to those who need them and to stock free tampons, pads, and other products in public schools, prisons, and other institutions.

“One of the slogans that a lot of people who’ve run this organization over the last few years…is that ‘periods don’t stop because of pandemics.’ And even with supply shortages, times don’t stop,” said Weiss-Wolf of the Brennan Center for Justice.

“So if we have a problem in the supply chain and it’s harder to source product, it’s up to our elected officials to make sure the cost of that shortage doesn’t fall on the backs of the people who need those products the most, and who finds it hardest not to have them.”

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