First was toilet paper, then baby formula, and now tampons. Women across the country are struggling to get their hands on some feminine hygiene products. 

Add this tampon shortage to the list of headaches women contend with as they deal with average gas prices over $5 per gallon and 40-year-high inflation. Not only are some tampons harder to find but they are costlier.

The media is beginning to take notice, but this latest shortage has been percolating for months. As with the baby formula crisis, the fingerprints of big government policy may be on this issue too.

Tampons are out of stock

Just as moms and dads took to social media to vent about baby formula shortages, they are now sounding off about the low stock of tampons.

Organizations that distribute sanitary products for free have sounded the alarm for months. Unfortunately, shortened supplies will affect poor women and girls harder than others.

Laurie Rovin, the interim CEO of The Period Project, noted to the Daily Mail:

I can share that our organization has distributed over 2m period care products during 2021 and access to products has increasingly worsened over the past year. We are having challenges ordering in bulk, and when we attempt to order retail, the limit is five boxes per order.

Lysne Tait, executive director of the non-profit Helping Women Period, explained:

We have definitely seen a decline in the number of tampon donations over the last few months. I have heard from people we distribute to that they are having difficulty finding specific brands that they are used to using. Especially non-applicator tampons like o.b.

Dana Marlowe, the founder of the group Support the Girls, told NPR, “Our shelves are bare.” The group received half as many tampons this year compared to the same time last year and over 60% less than in 2020.

Tampon costs are spiking

Women are spending significantly more on hygiene products. According to NielsenIQ, tampon prices are up 9.8% and sanitary pads are up 8.3% in the year through May 28. This is not surprising given that inflation rose 8.6% over the past year, the highest year-over-year price increase in four decades. 

Suppliers point to rising costs and scarcity of materials that make up tampons, such as cotton, rayon, fluff pulp, and plastic. Because of their use in masks and other medical products during the pandemic, these inputs have been in high demand. The U.S. relies on other countries for many raw materials such as rayon and cotton and that compounds production challenges. 

Procter & Gamble, which makes the popular Tampax brand, is reportedly struggling to source raw materials for its Tampax tampons. They also have transportation challenges getting raw materials to production facilities and final products to retail locations. Rising energy prices for transportation are likely making production costlier. 

Personal hygiene producer Edgewell also pointed to Covid-related staffing challenges in late 2021 and early 2022 as contributing to their supply issues.

Government’s role in the shortage

Tampons are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Class II medical devices. That means they fall into a category of devices that have a moderate to high risk to the patient and/or user along with powered wheelchairs and some pregnancy test kits.

As with the baby formula shortage, tight regulations make it difficult for new competitors to enter the market or import alternatives. 

It’s difficult to untangle all of the issues occurring simultaneously with this tampon shortage to isolate which one is the primary cause. It appears that limited supply is the biggest driver of this issue though. When looking at the factors limiting production and supply, we do see fingerprints of centralized government.

At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, medical supplies quickly dwindled. Images of medical staff donning trash bags as gowns because they did not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) were heart-breaking. A run on masks following the announcement that Americans needed to mask up, placed the medical community in a vulnerable position.

In response, the federal government enacted a war-time measure to direct private companies to ramp up the production of medical equipment. The Defense Production Act (DPA) has been invoked by both Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden to ramp up U.S. production of in-demand medical supplies in short supply. These decisions were not without rippling impacts.

The American Association of Engineers released a paper recently entitled Government Action Creates a Rippling Impact on Supply Chain that explains how some of the shortages we are experiencing now are the result of the use of the DPA and what that means for medical supplies going forward:

The impact of DPA mandates can be felt long after the immediate supply crisis is over. Earlier invocations of the act were designed to command production to help create a long-term domestic supply of critical materials. There is a growing concern, however, that the way these mandates have been implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic could have a negative domino effect on the biomedical engineering sector here in the U.S.

When Presidents Trump and Biden mandated key manufacturers to pivot and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, not only manufacturers but also key suppliers had to pivot and prioritize the DPA-mandated pandemic response. This left medical device companies and research labs scrambling for replacement suppliers to continue production and research of non-COVID diseases. The fear is that this disruption could constrain supply of non-COVID biomedical devices or increase their cost.

The implementation of the DPA also raises a business continuity issue. With COVID-19 mitigation measures currently serving as the principal priority for those government-mandated companies, it is tough for companies not directly fighting COVID to build up supplies. Since the start of the pandemic, materials such as stainless steel, silicon microfluidics, pipettes, and small-to-medium sized gloves have at times been challenging to track down, along with the highly discussed lack of general PPE that had long been used in lab and hospital settings prior to COVID-19.

We don’t know for sure whether the tampon shortage is due to the use of the DPA, but it’s an explanation worth investigating.

There are other brands and alternatives to tampons such as sanitary pads, menstrual cups, and period panties that may be more readily available. However, increased demand for those brands or alternatives could lead to shortages in the future if their production capacity is limited. 

Bottom Line

The tampon shortage will not be resolved overnight or anytime soon. Women have to be prepared for these types of shortages to pop up on other random items. The poor and most vulnerable in our society bear the brunt of the hardship from shortages and inflation. Washington doesn’t have good solutions other than greater regulations and that may be part of the problem.