There's a National Tampon Shortage Going On—Here's What You Can Use Instead

Alternative options to try if your go-to tampons are currently out of stock.

silhouette of tampon surrounded by transparent tampon shapes
Photo: Alex Sandoval

Period products are the latest items that have been hit by supply chain issues seen across the U.S.—much like the recent baby formula shortage, tampons are now in short supply, as well.

People who menstruate have been talking about the shortage—dubbed "The Great Tampon Shortage of 2022" by Time—for months. In April, a group of Redditors commiserated about their struggles finding tampons on store shelves. "I haven't seen any products in stores for months," one user wrote; another shared that they checked "[eight] different stores'' for their preferred tampons.

A representative from Procter & Gamble—the makers of Tampax and Always products—told Health that, while frustrating, the shortage is a "temporary" situation. Popular retailers like Walgreens and CVS have also recognized the lacking supply and are working to restock shelves as soon as possible, according to CNN.

But what should you do in the meantime? Here's what to know about why this tampon shortage is happening, what you can use for alternatives, and what you should absolutely not do with period products to prolong your current supply.

What's Causing the Tampon Shortage?

The shortages seem to come from supply chain and manufacturing issues, including around materials like cotton and plastic, which have been in high demand for their use in personal protective equipment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Monte Swarup, MD, MPH, FACOG, board-certified in OB-GYN and founder of HPD Rx, told Health.

"Inventory issues stem from rising material costs and demand to produce medical essentials in the pandemic," said Dr. Swarup. "Also, the costs of transportation for consumer goods have gone up considerably."

CNN also reported that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has strained the supply of fertilizers that are used and needed to grow cotton.

The average price of tampons and other period products is rising, too: The cost of tampons has gone up nearly 10% from a year ago, and the cost of menstrual pads has risen more than 8% during the same time period, according to Bloomberg.

"Not only is the consumer having to pay more for the tampons because of inflation, but it's also costing so much to manufacture and transport, as well, and unfortunately, that's leading to the shortage," Monica Grover, DO, MS, a double board-certified gynecologist and chief medical officer at VSPOT, told Health.

"It's devastating because menstruation is a physiological response that women can't control," said Dr. Grover. "Tampons and other period products are one of those things that women just need to even go about their day."

According to Dr. Grover, while manufacturers like P&G have acknowledged the scarcity of tampons, the shortage appears to be across the industry. "It's something that's affecting all the companies that are manufacturing tampons," including brands like Kotex and smaller companies as well.

Safety Issues of Extending Tampon Use

The limited supply of tampons might lead to menstruating people using the products for longer periods of time, according to Dr. Grover—and that may lead to health risks.

Tampons are meant to be worn for stretches of time between four to eight hours long. Keeping a tampon in for a longer time period than that could result in toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but life-threatening medical condition caused by a bacterial infection.

"The danger of prolonged tampon use is that the vaginal secretions and the vaginal flora are not allowed to escape and they build up to unusually high levels and they can kill you," G. Thomas Ruiz, MD, OB-GYN Lead at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, told Health. "In today's modern age, we don't see much toxic shock syndrome anymore but if you're a physician, gynecologist, or woman using a tampon, it's something to keep in the back of your mind."

Wearing tampons for extended periods of time can lead to other issues too, like yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis, said Dr. Grover. Wearing other feminine hygiene products like pads for hours without changing them can also cause external problems like rashes.

You should also pay attention to expiration dates on tampon packaging. According to Tampax, tampons generally expire after five years. Although older tampons may not look noticeably different, there is a chance that they gathered bacteria or mold during storage—two things that you don't necessarily want to put into your body.

Tampon Alternatives

Luckily, tampons are just one method of absorbing menstrual flow during a period. There are other alternatives that you can consider if tampons are not available to you—and now might be the time to explore alternatives, Lisa Masterson, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN in Santa Monica, California, told Health.

Pads

Pads—sometimes known as sanitary pads or sanitary napkins—are rectangular pieces of material that you stick to your underwear while menstruating. According to Dr. Grover, pads can come in different sizes, like tampons, depending on a person's period flow, and are available in disposable or reusable options. Some also include flaps or "wings" that fold over the sides of your underwear to keep them in place and prevent further leaks and stains.

According to the most recent data, pads are the preferred method of protection for the majority of Americans, but may be uncomfortable for some and are difficult to swim or exercise in.

Period Underwear

In recent years, more period underwear options have popped up on the market. These products have extra layers of absorbent material and moisture-wicking fabric to soak up menstrual blood and keep it away from the skin.

Period underwear can be worn on their own or with other hygiene products including tampons or menstrual cups. It's important to change and clean them at least every 12 hours or more frequently depending on your period flow. Period underwear can be cleaned in the washing machine with gentle laundry detergents.

Menstrual Cups

Menstrual cups are bell-shaped devices made of medical-grade silicone, rubber, latex, or elastomer (an elastic-type material). They're placed high in the vagina and sit against the cervix in order to collect menstrual blood flow. They should be emptied every four to 12 hours depending on the heaviness of flow.

The cups can last up to 10 years, but single-use disposable menstrual cups also exist. Menstrual cups have also been found to be similarly or less prone to leakage than tampons or pads.

Menstrual Discs

Like menstrual cups, menstrual discs are insertable period products that can provide up to 12 hours of protection. According to Dr. Grover, discs are usually set higher up in the vagina, closer to the cervix.

Both menstrual cups and discs are typically folded in half and inserted into the vagina and pushed toward the cervix as far as it will go. Unlike menstrual cups, discs are typically not reusable, but some may be washed and used throughout a single period.

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