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Some tampon manufacturers are experiencing supply chain issues, so many products may be harder to find on store shelves.
Why it matters
Tampons are an essential product for millions of people.
Companies say they're working hard to increase availability. In the meantime, there are alternatives to tampons and pads that you should be aware of.
Have you had a hard time finding your go-to tampon brand recently? You're not alone. The newest essential care shortage that primarily affects women (the other being the baby formula shortage) impacts roughly 34 million people in the US who use tampons. Tampons are products that are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration and can't be easily made, leaving their supply vulnerable to manufacturing or material problems.
But the shortage may also be vulnerable to another element of product shortages: panic buying, or what Instacart, the delivery service that employs someone else to do your shopping for you, called "stock-up behavior." Tampon sales are up 29% compared with last week, Instacart said in a statement to CNET Tuesday.
And shoppers trying to fill those requests dipped down to a 67% found rate, which is the lowest rate for tampons since April 2020 at the very beginning of efforts to address the pandemic in the US.
Estimates on how popular tampons are compared with other menstrual products vary, but up to 70% of menstruating people in the US use tampons, by one count. If you get periods, you know better than anyone the products that work for you, and chances are you have a favorite brand. Here's what we know about what companies are saying about the tampon shortage, what different kinds of menstrual care products (like period underwear) exist and more.
How are tampons regulated?
Tampons are regulated as medical devices by the US Food and Drug Administration, and tampons that are cleared are typically made out of cotton, rayon or both. Simply put, there are high standards for manufacturing tampons and their materials because people use them internally every month for roughly a week.
Why can't people just use pads?
In addition to the possibility that some brands of pads may also be harder to find right now, many people need to use tampons when they're swimming or exercising, for example. Others may find the feel of a pad uncomfortable.
Some people choose to use pads and not tampons. Pads may be the preferred choice for people with very heavy periods (sometimes in addition to a tampon) and others have difficulty inserting a tampon. Whatever their reason, people choose and know the menstrual products that best suit their bodies and their lifestyles. (For alternatives to tampons and pads, read on.)
Why is there a shortage of tampons? Which brands are affected?
Procter & Gamble said in an April earnings call that sourcing and transportation of the materials needed for tampons have been "costly and highly volatile," according to many media reports. Tampon prices rose nearly 10% in one year, according to a Bloomberg report, and the price for pads went up by more than 8%.
"We can assure you this is a temporary situation, and the Tampax team is producing tampons 24/7 to meet the increased demand for our products," P&G told CNET. "We are working with our retail partners to maximize availability, which has significantly increased over the last several months."
A spokesperson for Kimberly-Clark, which produces the popular U by Kotex brand, said that the company isn't experiencing a product or supply shortage, however.
"We're working closely with our retail partners to keep shelves stocked," they said, adding that the company is on track to donate more than 6 million period products to the Alliance for Period Supplies, a nonprofit that distributes period products to those who can't afford them.
Edgewell produces Playtex and O.B. tampons as well as Stayfree and Carefree pads and liners. A spokesperson for the company said in a statement that workforce issues caused by omicron surges in two different countries -- the first in a US manufacturing facility in late 2021, and the second in early 2022 that impacted a Canadian supplier -- had an effect on inventory.
"We have been operating our manufacturing facilities around the clock to build back inventory and anticipate returning to normal levels in the coming weeks," the spokesperson said.
Smaller period-care companies may also be affected as customers start turning to newer tampon brands while their regular brand is out of stock. A spokesperson for Cora, which produces tampons in addition to menstrual cups, period underwear and other menstrual care products, said that while the company's products are still in stock, it has experienced a "significant increase in demand for tampons," and there may be stock issues in the coming months.
Which stores are low on stock?
Whether you're able to get your preferred tampon brand (or any tampon that'll do) may depend on where you live and which store you frequent.
A CVS spokesperson told CNET that in recent weeks there have been instances when tampon suppliers haven't been able to fill orders completely. "If a local store is temporarily out of specific products, we work to replenish those items as quickly as possible," the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson with Walgreens said that "similar to other retailers, we are experiencing some temporary brand-specific shortages in certain geographies." While they continue to have products, the spokesperson added, it may only be specific brands for the duration of the supply disruption.
Instacart Trends Expert Laurentia Romaniuk said in a statement that the company is beginning to see "tampon turbulence" in response to the shortage.
"To help locate in-stock tampons, women can utilize Instacart's universal search functionality and type 'tampons' into the search bar within the app to quickly search across all stores in their area," Romaniuk said. "When customers tap into a specific store, they'll see more detailed information about that store's tampon inventory status, so they can make their store choice based on the latest availability."
In a statement to CNET, a spokesperson for Walmart said that the retail giant is "not experiencing a shortage" and isn't out of stock of menstrual products, including tampons.
Can you use expired tampons?
Typically, tampons have a shelf life of around five years, and you're not supposed to use them once they're expired. While many people who menstruate probably would use one in a pinch, they're made to go into your body and stay there for a while, and going against their designed use can open you up to harmful infections like toxic shock syndrome.
As Tampax puts it on its website: "Obviously, tampons won't deteriorate immediately once five years is up, but bacteria and small particles of mold can find their way into your tampons after they've expired."
What about tampon alternatives?
One of your options is to switch temporarily to a disposable menstrual pad. There doesn't appear to be a big supply disruption in menstrual pads right now, but because of the tampon shortage, all sorts of period products are lower in stock and harder to find.
If you can't find tampons or pads, or are just interested in making a switch, here are a few alternatives to consider.
Period underwear is a sustainable and ultimately cost-effective alternative to tampons and pads. While getting started with period underwear may be a little pricier than buying a box of tampons if you buy a few pairs to get you through your period (a good pair of period underwear starts around $14), you'll save money in the long run.
Menstrual cups are growing in popularity as an alternative to disposable products. These cups (popular brands include Diva, Cora and Lunette) are reusable, usually rubber or silicone, and seal around the cervix, collecting the menstrual blood from your uterus before it leaves your body. There's a learning curve on how to insert it, but many people who try menstrual cups swear they'll never go back. You can shop around to find the best size of menstrual cup for your body and heavy, medium or light flow. (Note for IUD users: Menstrual cups with suction can sometimes lead to an IUD coming out -- yikes -- or being displaced. If you have an IUD but want to try a menstrual cup, talk to your doctor about the best cup to use, and how to use it safely.)
Menstrual discs are a similar concept to cups, and they come disposable or reusable. They're also advertised as being a period product you can leave in during sex, but they're not designed for contraception and won't prevent pregnancy.
While not suitable for everyone, some people may wish to try forgoing any period product, particularly at night or while you're lounging around the house with a lighter flow. Simply put, free bleeding is bleeding without the use of a tampon, pad, panty liner or other disposable product. People do it for different reasons, and many choose to do so on the last day or two of their period where they're losing so little blood that it would be hard to even fill up a tampon or pad. (While toxic shock syndrome is rare, using a higher-absorbency tampon than you need may be a risk factor for developing TSS.) If stains are a concern, you can lay a towel down or wear old and/or dark underwear.
Reusable tampons or pads
Cloth or reusable pads that attach to your underwear are another option if you want to get away from disposable products. Because they sit outside of your body rather than inside, there's not the big sterility issue tampons carry.
The FDA discourages against reusable tampons because they may carry an increased risk of fungal and bacterial infections, and no reusable tampons have been cleared by the agency for safety. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to sterilize (or purchase already sterile) any product you put in your vagina.
Keep an eye out for "less popular" tampon brands
There are a few names that dominate the drug store shelves, but you can also get tampons elsewhere from newer, smaller or organic period-care companies, sold mostly online. But keep in mind that the overall demand (and possible panic-buying) may start affecting the stock of these companies, too.
August sells sustainable period-care products online, including tampons. While the price for a box of tampons is likely higher than you'd find on a drugstore shelf, August says its tampons are 100% organic and fully biodegradable.
Cora tampons and period products are also organic and available online, though the company noted that a big increase in demand for them might affect supply in the coming months. (L, another maker of organic tampons, is out of stock, according to its website.)
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.