The latest product to be hit by supply chain woes is tampons. Women across the country have been tweeting about the empty shelves greeting them in the feminine hygiene aisles of their local stores.
And even when women can locate the products, they are finding prices have shot up.
The shortages are the result of a complex combination of factors, ranging from a scarcity of raw materials like cotton and rayon to a lack of workers to the small number of facilities that manufacture the products.
While the shortage has only recently been noticed by news organizations, it’s been going on since the summer of 2020, said Kate Barker Swindell, a manager at PERIOD, a non-profit that distributes donated “period products” to providers who distribute them directly to the public and advocates against menstrual stigma.
Since 2020, “very large scale donations from large corporate donors have dried up and we have had no goods to give,” Swindell said. “There’s now a trickle, but it’s not fully come back.”
It’s not known exactly how many women prefer tampons to pads, but it’s estimated that some 70% of menstruating women use tampons. The numbers may have had a bit of a bump as a result of a Proctor & Gamble ad campaign Tampax that featured Amy Schumer and which the company credits for a nearly 8% rise in demand between 2020 and 2022.
While several companies produce period products, Proctor and Gamble controls nearly 50 percent of the market. The company makes a number of brands, including Tampax tampons and Always pads.
Proctor and Gamble predicted that the shortage would resolve in the near future. “We understand it is frustrating for consumers when they can’t find what they need. We expect this is a temporary situation, and the Tampax team is producing tampons 24/7 to meet the increased demand for our products,” the company said in an emailed statement.
The small number of tampon manufacturers leaves the products with similar vulnerabilities to baby formula, said Anna Nagurney, a professor of supply chains and logistics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Supply chain challenges, and a global cotton shortage
As with baby formula, only a small number of facilities manufacture period products, Nagurney said. “The major manufacturers each have one plant,” she said, adding that one is in Maine and the other in Delaware.
Surges in Covid may have left companies short staffed, Nagurney said. And because tampons are medical products “workers at assembly plants need special training,” she said. “There are special quality controls since tampons go inside women’s bodies. And just like infant formula, they are regulated by the FDA.”
But the current situation is likely driven by issues such as the supply chain, climate change and the war in Ukraine, Nagurney said. “Obviously there are supply chain issues, but those are exacerbated by the impact of climate change on the raw materials needed for tampons and pads,” she added. “These products are made from cotton, rayon and plastics. We’ve had droughts in Texas, China and India, which are all major suppliers of cotton.”
Making matters worse, cotton has also been in high demand for the manufacture of medical supplies, including personal protective equipment , Nagurney said.
The shortage has been bubbling beneath the surface for a while without any news coverage, Nagurney said. “People were quiet about it until recently,” she added. “This is a critical product that women need every month.”