Photos of bare shelves and frustrated social media reactions have painted a stark picture of what it’s been like if you are a person with a period over the last few months.
The tampon shortage has been attributed to similar "supply chain issues" that have created a baby formula scarcity and even taken away a favorite hot sauce.
But what are the issues plaguing tampon manufacturers? The answers range from the availability of cotton to weather to staffing to shipping. It all depends on who you ask.
Cotton prices are going up
The No. 1 key ingredient in tampons is cotton. Overall cotton demand and prices are up due to several reasons.
Aunt Flow CEO Claire Coder explained that 100% organic cotton is purchased about three years in advance, well before the crop is even planted.
"There's a lot (that) can change from year to year, from day to day, from season to season. But the purchasing three years in the future typically locks in that supply for companies that are trying to access 100% organic cotton," Coder said.
Organic cotton only makes up about 1% of cotton produced in the U.S., according to Cotton Inc., but the demand for organic cotton is growing.
"There's obviously been an increased demand for that style, whether it be clothing — 100% organic cotton underwear companies are on the rise. It's not just tampon and pad companies trying to get access to this crop, but a wide variety of products as well."
Because cotton is purchased in the future, how this year's crop fares could mean higher prices in years to come.
The U.S. is the largest exporter of cotton in the world, and China is the No. 2 producer. The crop is heavily dependent on fertilizer and the war in Ukraine has caused fertilizer prices to surge. Ukraine and Russia are the top fertilizer producers in the world.
Meanwhile, Gro Intelligence predicts cotton prices are expected to continue to rise as soaring fertilizer costs and the drought in Texas could impact U.S. crops.
Texas is the largest producer of cotton in the U.S. growing about 40% of the country’s crop. This year's crop has been impacted by drought conditions in the state. West and central Texas are in various stages of drought from severe to exceptional, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor.
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According to the Tampax website, its products are made in two facilities, one in the U.S. and one in Europe. The Tampax PURE tampons use cotton from a Texas cotton farm, according to the website.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks crops, including cotton, through the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
According to the USDA cotton crop summary for 2021, production was up 21% in 2021 with 17.6 million bales last year. That was up from 14.6 million bales in 2020.
The cotton and wool outlook released in June indicates a slight global decline in cotton stocks over the next two years compared with the 2021-2022 stock. The price of U.S. cotton is forecast to increase from $0.92 per pound to a record $0.95.
All of these factors, from the drought to the overall increasing demand for cotton, could add up to more supply chain issues for tampons in the years to come.
Tampon shortage? Not if you know where to look.
FOX Weather spoke to organizations continuing to provide menstrual products who said tampon shortages are not equal across all companies or distributors.
LOLA is a subscription-based company that ships period products directly to its customers’ homes and can also be found at Walmart and other big box stores. A message on Lola.com reads, "Tampon shortage? Not for LOLA subscribers!"
Aunt Flow provides 100% organic tampons and pads through its dispensers installed at schools and businesses. Unlike the coin-based dispensers, Aunt Flow products are free for anyone who might need one during a sometimes unexpected moment. Their dispensers are stocked in 23,000 bathrooms across the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.
Coder said despite the empty shelves at stores across the country, Aunt Flow has not faced similar issues providing products.
"We support everything from the state of Utah K-12 school system to Penn State and Princeton, all the way to Google and Netflix," Coder said. "That is why when we sign contracts with these customers, we are really dedicated to making sure we deliver. And so that, obviously from a chain perspective, we are really committed to making sure that we can deliver for these customers that rely on us. "
Coder explained that while Aunt Flow is not currently experiencing shortages, they have still been impacted by global supply chain issues. A young company founded in 2016, Aunt Flow has adapted to business uncertainty throughout the pandemic.
In 2020, when fewer people were in schools and offices, the demand for period products outside the home dropped. Aunt Flow pivoted to making FDA-approved masks during the mask shortage and now, during the tampon shortage, Aunt Flow is able to deliver tampons to people at home.
"As a response to the tampon shortage, we have made an allocated amount of inventory available for at-home purchases. While that is not our primary purpose and primary mission for Aunt Flow, we're focused on outside of the home," Coder said. "We have made products available for consumers to be able to purchase."
As far as supply chain issues for creating and distributing tampons, Coder said over the past few years there has been nothing specific to tampons creating issues for Aunt Flow.
"Generally price increases are happening across the board with labor shortages, water prices increasing, production costs increasing," Coder said, listing off a few challenges. "So, outside of like the general prices are increasing, nothing specific."
Period product donations have been dropping for months
Tampon supply issues are also not new. Data collected by the nonprofit I Support the Girls, shows donations in tampons have dropped by half compared to the same period in 2019.
"We've been noticing this since January of this year," said I Support the Girls founder Dana Marlowe. "Just because we're talking about it now does not mean we have not been talking about this for five months."
I Support the Girls and its affiliates around the country provide bras, underwear, menstrual products and other personal health items to anyone who needs them. Since the coronavirus pandemic, the nonprofit has seen a 35% increase in requests for its products, including its ASH (Aid, Safety, Hygiene) kits.
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The nonprofit relies on donations from companies that distribute these products, including Proctor & Gamble, the maker of Tampax. It also gets products from donation events and from individuals who donate. Marlowe said most of the nonprofit’s supply this year came from smaller organizations and individual donations.
"It’s easy for us to be like, ‘Well, you know what? Maybe it's just a fluke,' if it were like one company," Marlowe said. "Every single company is not donating tampons across the board."
From January to June 2019, the nonprofit received 412,053 tampons compared to the first half of this year when the organization received 218,075. Meanwhile, the donations of sanitary pads remain strong.
"We're just trying to provide a little bit of dignity and this tampon shortage is really cutting into that."
FOX Weather reached out to the major manufacturers of period products in the U.S. – Proctor & Gamble, Edgewell Personal Care and Kimberly-Clark, to find out what was holding up the supply.
A statement provided to FOX Business from P&G said the Tampax shortage was a "temporary situation" but did not provide a reason for the delays.
The statement continued: "The Tampax team is producing tampons 24/7 to meet the increased demand for our products. We are working with our retail partners to maximize availability, which has significantly increased over the last several months."
Edgewell is behind name brands including Playtex, o.b. tampons, and Carefree liners and pads. A spokesperson said two waves of coronavirus variants have impacted the workforce, causing the shortages people are seeing now.
"First, in our U.S. manufacturing facility in late 2021 and then in early 2022 with a supplier in Canada," an Edgewell spokesperson told FOX Weather. "We have been operating our manufacturing facilities around the clock to build back inventory and anticipate returning to normal levels in the coming weeks."
The impacts in production trickle down to available inventory.
"At Edgewell, we understand feminine care is a necessity, and production of feminine care products is a responsibility we take seriously," an Edgewell spokesperson said.
Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kotex products, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Making tough choices
As a result of the drop in major donations and the surge they saw during the first two years of the pandemic for individual care kits, I Support the Girls has shifted the way it distributes period products. Marlowe said in May they made the decision to no longer donate its tampons to larger nonprofits, social service organizations and others because of the supply shortage.
I Support the Girls is now saving its supply when it gets requests for help from individuals, like the one it received last week from a 12-year-old girl living in a shelter who just started her period and didn’t know where to turn for help.
"It's hard because we're not, you know, and we're not solving homelessness. We're not creating a solution for food insecurity. There are some other major issues going on here," Marlowe said. "We're just trying to provide a little bit of dignity and this tampon shortage is really cutting into that."