The Unequal Price of Periods: Why are Tampons Expensive?

Updated on May 3, 2023

The Unequal Price of Periods: Why are Tampons Expensive?

A study of Period Poverty in the Journal of Global Health Reports shows that two-thirds of the 16.9 million low-income menstruators in the US could not afford feminine hygiene products in the past year – half of them having to choose between menstrual products and food.

But how did we get to this point? 

>> Where people have to choose between eating a meal or having the feminine hygiene products they need to be clean, comfortable, and safe. 

It has been a looming problem in the US for a long time. Unfortunately, the price of menstrual products such as tampons is high in most states, and they are also taxed. This has led to the most vulnerable in our society, having to make choices between the necessities they need to live. And that problem is currently being further exacerbated by inflation which is causing a rising price of tampons. 

So, why are tampons expensive? And is there any hope for change? 

Well, the taboos around menstruation aren’t dead yet, but they are definitely on their way to the grave. And this change in the stigma around periods is helping bring issues such as period poverty, menstrual equity, and free period products to light. 

It’s also highlighting a key important factor when it comes to menstrual equity: not all menstruators are women. 

In this article, we explore:

  • why tampons and other period products are so expensive, 
  • the history of the tampon tax, 
  • inflation’s impact on period products, 
  • why the language around menstruation needs to change, and
  • what businesses and public facilities can do to be one step ahead of changing social expectations 

Why are tampons (and other period products) so expensive? 

There’s no way around it, periods are expensive. 

The cost of tampons and sanitary napkins alone is bad for anyone’s bank account. But when you add items like painkillers and consequences such as missed workdays into the mix, having a uterus is downright extortionate. 

With so many unseen costs involved in periods, why can’t we at least make the obvious and seen ones – i.e, tampons and other feminine hygiene products – cheaper, or even free? 

A major reason that period products are expensive is that historically there has been very little competition in the market. For example, the feminine care brands Always and Tampax are both owned by Procter & Gamble. 

The limited number of brands that manufacture period products combined with the fact that there is only one company – a Swiss manufacturing firm called Ruggli – that produces almost all of the world’s tampon-making machines means menstruators pay a high price for their products. 

The tampon and period product industry can extract large profit margins from its products. This leads us to the other issue – taxes. 

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Tampon tax in the US

You are probably aware of the ‘tampon tax’ or ‘pink tax’ as it is sometimes called. This is the high tax that many US states put on period products. But this is not a sexist scheme by the government to gouge menstruators out of their hard-earned dollars. 

In the US, tampons are taxed as a luxury good. You are probably wondering, how this could be? Tampons aren’t a luxury. 

Well, in the US, the government puts a luxury sales tax on items based on their profit margins. Period products such as tampons cost very little to produce and are sold with a very high-profit margin. Because of this, governments see tampons as they would view a Louis Vuitton hoodie, but you’d never dream of using a Louis Vuitton hoodie to absorb your menstrual blood.

The average sales tax in the US is 5%. If you take a $6 box of 18 tampons, you will pay $0.15 in taxes. A menstruator will average between 192 and 240 tampons a year. They are then spending $66 – $84 a year on tampons with tax.

A $6 box of tampons can seem like a small expense for those in middle and higher-income households. But for those in the low-income bracket, this can be a stress-inducing expense. And as the data from the Journal of Global Health Reports shows, for a shockingly large number of menstruators, the cost can be so high that they need to forgo it altogether. 

Another issue is that government assistance programs for those with low income do not help to pay for period products when they are in need. 

For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) don’t pay for feminine care products, even though they are a necessity for anyone who menstruates.

Inflation and the impact on the cost of period products

The problem of period products coming at a high cost has been further exacerbated in the past year. Decades-high inflation is making it even harder for many with a low income to afford essential supplies such as period products.

Recently, 1 in 4 women reported that they are struggling to afford pads and tampons due to inflation in North America. 

According to data from analytics firm NielsenIQ, the price of tampons was over 10% higher year-over-year in each full month of 2022. 

This adds an additional burden onto menstruators who are already struggling to purchase period products.

Feminine hygiene products: Why the language also needs to change

In addition to the cost, businesses need to change the language they use when speaking about menstrual hygiene and period products.

“Feminine hygiene” is still one of the most popular terms used when talking about periods, period products, and menstrual health. 

In fact, “feminine hygiene products” is one of the most popular search terms used when searching for pads and tampons. 

Yet, this term is what’s called a gendered euphemism. Let’s break down why this matters:

  1. The term “feminine hygiene” conceals the topic at hand: menstruation. Speaking plainly about the topic at hand – menstrual hygiene – is important to end menstrual stigma. Using the correct terminology sends a powerful message that periods are normal, not something to be concealed behind euphemistic terms, that in reality could mean anything to do with women’s hygiene. 
  2. “Feminine hygiene” is exclusionary. The fact of the matter is not all menstruators are women, and not all those who have their period identify as feminine. Language matters not only in terms of how people feel, but it also has real implications when it comes to the infrastructure, support systems, and facilities provided in public spaces. Many companies have begun phasing out gender-specific product categories like Target – and as you design your washroom facilities, it’s important to think about providing solutions like sanitary disposal units in bathrooms for any gender.
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But wait, doesn’t Citron Hygiene use the term feminine hygiene on its website? Yes – we do. We recognize that these words are still some of the most common words used to search for menstrual-related topics. 

Our intent is to meet people where they are, educate them, and advocate for a more inclusive future where both the language and economics around menstrual hygiene are fair, equitable and even empowering. 

Learn more about our mission, vision and work we do to advocate for period equity

What other countries are doing about the cost of period products

With the shocking state of things right now, it’s clear there needs to be some change. 

But how can we move forward and help menstruators who struggle to afford their necessary period products? 

Some countries are ahead of the curve and are already starting to make changes to remove some of the barriers to purchasing period products. After years of lobbying, the legislation in some countries is slowly beginning to change.

For example, in 2020, Scotland passed legislation that makes tampons and pads free for all menstruators. Yes, you read that correctly, and it’s being enforced. Local councils across the country provide free period products in a range of locations. 

So far, Scotland is the Queen of championing the rights of menstruators and the only country worldwide to enact such a law. But other countries have taken note. And while none are quite on the level of Scotland, some are starting to reduce taxes on period products – we still have to celebrate the small victories. 

Why feminine hygiene products should be free 

But should every country be following Scotland’s lead? We think so. 

In fact, we have a whole list of reasons why period products should be free

It’s stressful and distracting to get caught without period products in public, plus it’s a struggle for many low-income menstruators to afford them. 

So why not dispense tampons for free? There are a host of benefits that come with putting tampon and sanitary napkin dispensers in public bathrooms. 

Period products are a necessity for all menstruators. Like access to toilet paper, soap, food, clean water, and shelter, access to period products has a huge impact on a menstruator’s health and well-being.

And it’s not only the most vulnerable that we have focused on in this article who should have access to free products. 

Menstruators across the nation have all been in a situation where they are in a bathroom stall with no pad, no tampon, and no one around to ask for one. Panic sets in and often these people go on to miss a day of work or school to avoid the embarrassment of stained pants and the anxiety of having to search for the closest tampon. 

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For students, especially young ones in middle and high school, it can be even more stressful. In fact, one of Disney’s latest movies, Turning Red is a metaphor for periods – showing the overwhelming changes and challenges that come with getting your period.

Adolescents are often even more uncomfortable talking about their periods than adults. And some get their periods before topics like sex education are brought up in class or at home (if they are brought up at all). These adolescents may then not have the freedom (or the cash) to go and purchase the feminine hygiene products they need, they can then end up going home from school missing the day or end up distracted from class.

So how would menstruators use free period products if offered to them? 

  • 66% would only take menstrual products they needed at that moment, 
  • 16% would stock up on what they needed for the rest of the day, and 
  • 6% would take what they needed for their entire period. 
  • Only 2% would also take enough products for future periods.

Aunt flow Tampon dispenser and sanitary napkin dispenser units

Install a tampon dispenser in your facility’s bathrooms today

Citron Hygiene is supporting period dignity by providing menstrual products with Aunt Flow tampon and sanitary napkin dispensers that businesses can provide to menstruators for free.

66% of women report that they would prefer to spend money at a business that provided free period products over one that didn’t. 

 A wall-mounted period product dispenser from Aunt Flow dispenses free products for restroom users. The modern and intuitive design along with free products can help people who menstruate put the tampon dispenser dilemma to rest once and for all and sprinkle a bit of period positivity on its grave. 

Here are Aunt Flows machine’s key features:

  • Doesn’t require batteries – dispensers operate manually
  • Can hold five times the number of products versus other dispensers on the market, and will take half the time to reload
    • Capacity of 50 Aunt Flow 100% organic cotton tampons and 50 Aunt Flow 100% organic cotton pads.
  • ADA Compliant when placed at an appropriate height and place.

In addition to keeping students in school, vending machines that dispense free period products are also good for business. Learn why creating a period positive washroom will bring you more business. 

The outrage at the price of period products and their unnecessary taxes is not an ovary-action and needs to be addressed. 

Let Citron Hygiene and Aunt Flow help you take action to combat it in your facility, and be one step ahead of the social and government changes that are fast approaching when it comes to menstrual equity. 

Find out how we can elevate your washroom experience today.

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