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Yes, there’s a tampon shortage. Here’s why.

Pharmacy aisles, group chats and social media are rife with conversations about frustrated searches for period products

A number of factors are contributing to the tampon shortage, experts say, including inflation. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
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A tampon shortage is putting a strain on consumers across the country, an outgrowth of the same forces vexing the global economy — from soaring raw material and fuel costs, to labor shortages and an embattled supply chain — and experts say little relief is in sight.

Pharmacy aisles, group chats and social media are rife with conversations about frustrated searches for period products, a necessity for much of the population that is nonetheless uncovered by federal assistance and not tax exempt in most states. Prices for tampons and pads have shot up amid the crunch, at a moment when historic inflation is causing households to pay more for gas, groceries and other essentials.

Karyn Boosin Leit, board president of the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, said the New Jersey-based group — which feeds 600 households a week — also distributes menstrual products twice a month. On those off-weeks, she has had “clients who come up to me in tears saying that they are menstruating as we speak and is there anything I could do to please help them.”

She wishes more people understood that menstruation “is a biological process” and that these products should be available everywhere. “When they’re not, it stops people from going about their day.”

Elise Joy, co-founder and executive director of Girls Helping Girls Period, said she saw the first hints of the shortage in early spring, when multiple agencies began asking whether her group could supply them with menstrual products. By April, she was being peppered with calls and emails from organizations that also donate tampons and pads to those who cannot afford them, asking her to fill supply gaps.

Joy hasn’t turned anyone away, but she’s not sure how long she’ll be able to keep up. Even her corporate partners are struggling to keep up with demand.

“I can see the supplies dwindling in the warehouse,” Joy told The Washington Post. “We’re okay for the moment, for the next couple months given the supplies I have, but I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen in the fall.”

Data on the shortage is patchy, but scarcity and inflation have been reflected in price increases: The average cost for a package of tampons is up nearly 10 percent in the past year, while a package of pads has risen 8.3 percent, according to data from NielsenIQ.

Meanwhile, product recalls have hit a 10-year high, according to a recent report from Sedgwick Claims Management Services, with more than 900 million units of inventory recalled in the first quarter of 2022.

A CVS Health spokesman acknowledged there have been times in recent weeks when suppliers have been unable to “fulfill the full quantities of orders placed” for feminine-care products in recent weeks. Walgreens told The Post it is experiencing “some temporary brand-specific shortages in certain geographies.”

Procter & Gamble, the maker of Tampax, said it is working with retail partners to maximize availability of feminine-care products, “which has significantly increased over the last several months.”

“We understand it is frustrating for consumers when they can’t find what they need,” Procter & Gamble told The Post. “We can assure you this is a temporary situation.”

Tampons are the latest product to experience inventory issues. Here's why the supply chain, the war in Ukraine and other issues are causing the shortage. (Video: Hope Davison/The Washington Post)

Not all brands have been affected equally. Kimberly-Clark, the Irving, Tex.-based consumer goods giant and maker of U by Kotex tampons, told The Post that it “has not experienced a product or supply shortage” in the United States, saying it is “working closely with our retail partners to keep shelves stocked.”

If manufacturers are struggling now to keep product on shelves, it’s only going to worsen as the year progresses and peak season approaches for shippers and retailers, according to Vaughn Moore, chief executive of AIT Worldwide Logistics.

“Capacity is only going to get tighter as we move toward the end of the year,” Moore said. “It’s a really challenging time.”

Consumers have had to contend with product shortages throughout the coronavirus pandemic, be it toilet paper and hand sanitizer or cleaning wipes and baby formula. It’s become “a new normal,” but one that consumers in the United States aren’t accustomed to.

“We’re not used to delayed gratification and not getting instant response for the things we need,” Moore said.

Some of the inventory issues stem from the rising cost of cotton, rayon and plastic, according to Nirav Patel, president and chief executive of Bristlecone, a supply chain logistics company. Demand for such raw materials had been squeezed in recent years by the rush to produce medical essentials in the pandemic, Patel noted, and now supply challenges are heaping problems on producers.

The cost of transportation for consumer goods, for example, has nearly tripled, he noted, whether it’s the fee for bringing a shipping container overseas or for last-mile delivery. China’s zero-tolerance covid policies have contributed to port congestion and shipping delays for many major retailers, as have widespread labor shortages.

The shortages could lead to hoarding as retailers slowly restock their shelves, but that will only worsen and prolong the shortage, Patel warned.

Tampons are meant to be used a single time and then thrown away, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Experts also caution against attempting to extend their use because it can leave the user vulnerable to infection. Health officials and manufacturers recommend changing them every four to eight hours.

The feminine hygiene industry is projected to be worth more than $54 billion by 2028, and the average user will pay roughly $1,800 over the course of their life if using tampons, or more than $4,750 if they use pads, according to research from 2021 by Pandia Health. Applicators and other waste from menstrual products contribute greatly to the plastic pollution choking the oceans.

For those struggling to find tampons in their area, menstrual cups are an affordable and environmentally friendly alternative, as are period underwear.

Dignity Period, a nonprofit based in St. Louis, distributes washable, reusable pads to schools, food pantries, libraries and other community partners across the country.

As tampon stocks have waned, executive director Angie Wiseman has seen an uptick in interest in Dignity Period’s organic, reusable cotton pads. One $12.50 pack contains four, which should last the user 12 to 18 months provided they are washed according to instructions. By comparison, a year’s supply of the most popular tampon brands, would run from $225 to $250.

correction

A previous version of this story understated the number of households served by the Interfaith Food Pantry of The Oranges. The Washington Post regrets this error.

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