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Shortages, price hikes for period products could create more challenges for vulnerable populations

Tampax Pearl tampons boxes are seen on a shelf at a pharmacy store in Wheeling, Ill., Thursday, June 30, 2022.
Nam Y. Huh
Tampax Pearl tampons boxes are seen on a shelf at a pharmacy store in Wheeling, Ill., Thursday, June 30, 2022.

For those with menstrual periods, they’ve likely noticed empty shelves where tampons are usually sold. According to market research firm NielsenIQ, that was especially true for Mountain West states like Montana and Utah this spring.

Utah had the lowest access nationwide at the time.

Where there are still pads and tampons, the prices have also likely increased.

NielsenIQ’s analysis cites international supply chain issues, hiring challenges and inflation as a few of the major causes for the price hikes and shortages.

However, there’s hardly any research on how many people in the U.S. have struggled to access these products over the years.

“We don’t even know the scope of the problem,” said Marni Sommer, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

Sommer recently wrote about the tampon shortage, and how it's exacerbating "period poverty," in The Conversation.

Sommer’s team found earlier in the pandemic that those who did struggle to access period products had lower incomes or less formal schooling. Those with pandemic-related income loss also struggled.

She added that product quality is another important consideration, especially when it comes to affordability.

“If you don’t have good quality products, you inherently need more, and depending on the way you experience your period, that can lead to all sorts of other challenges,” she said.

That would include worrying about blood staining clothes.

Thicker, more quality products can be more expensive and harder to find at shelters or pantries.

Sommer said her team has also collected stories from people who have struggled to access products. She said they found there was still a lot of secrecy associated with periods, and some felt ashamed that they didn’t have access to what they needed to manage them.

“Eventually, though, during some of these interviews it would come up that some of these women were really struggling. They would stay home, or use old clothes or they would find other ways to try and manage their period,” she said.

Sommer said one woman’s story stuck with her. That woman would wait in long lines to access a food bank, and she was allowed three non-food items per visit — like individual tampons. Those might last someone a few hours if they’re having a heavy period.

“The striking part to me was that she was only getting one tampon at a time, but then what really struck me was she said, ‘Well, I should only take one because there’s this long line of people behind me and they need some too,’” Sommer said.

Sommer said the new challenges over tampons and pads aren't political. With such a large percentage of the population now facing increased costs and less access, she said it deserves further attention.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.