2022 tampon shortage: What to know about the feminine hygiene product

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5 things you may not know about tampons — the latest product facing a shortage

Tampons are having a moment — an “oh crap I can’t find any at the store” moment. Companies like Tampax say they are scrambling to produce more of the product but facing the same kinds of supply chain issues that have left shelves empty in other sections of stores as well.


Hear more from Suzette Lohmeyer about this story:




For people who depend on tampons to keep their cycle from interfering with their lives — at work, school or while playing sports, for example — this is serious. And go ahead, ask someone who opts to use tampons to try something else in a world that insists periods be invisible.

Here are a few quick facts about the personal care item that so many find essential — including the first aid history of tampon technology, who can get toxic shock syndrome (that surprised this writer) and what people do who can’t afford tampons or any menstrual supplies.

History: Tampons were originally designed for wound care

What tampons do best is absorb blood. So it may not be surprising that modern-day tampons started out in the late 19th century as a tool to stop wounds from bleeding. Physicians would “tamp down on a wound, put pressure on a wound,” said Sharra Vostral, a history of gender technology and medicine professor at Purdue University who has written two books on the history of tampons. Vostral said people still use them in a pinch for a bloody nose or a nasty gash when other first aid items aren’t available. They were a hygienic way to take care of a wound.

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That hygiene label stuck for years, even after they were used mainly for menstruation. Fueling that was not so much the inventor of the modern-day tampon — the “curmudgeonly Dr. Earle Haas,” said Vostral — but the woman who bought his patent: Gertrude Tendrich. She was a “master marketer” who developed the Tampax brand.

“She would dress people up as nurses (even if they weren’t) and have a pitch table at the American Medical Association — selling this cleanliness — this hygiene where you contained and concealed blood,” said Vostral.

But that hygienic frame also perpetuated the belief that menstruating was unhygienic or ugly, to be concealed, she said, and there have been people over the years who have actively tried to shift the tampon into the category of tools instead of hygienic wound care. It “assumes that menstrual fluid is dirty and disgusting and needs to be disposed of in a proper way. A better modern term is tampon technology,” Vostral said.

Science: Only some people can get toxic shock syndrome

You know the warning that comes with all tampon boxes about the possibility of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) that scares the bejeebees out of people when they first start using tampons? Actually, said Vostral, only 25 percent of those who use tampons can get TSS. Which 25 percent? Those with Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria (the same bacteria responsible for food poisoning at picnics) as part of their permanent vaginal microbiome.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how that works: The tampon is biocatalytic — meaning the tampon itself is not dangerous but can act as a trigger by bringing air to the vagina. Still, to get TSS, a person has to have the staph bacterium as part of their permanent vaginal microbiome, and that person’s body has to have never produced an antibody against it.

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“That’s why you want to use the least absorbent tampon possible,” said Vostral, “because they bring in less air.”

But before you assume you’re one of the 75 percent that can’t get TSS, Vostral said there is currently not really a standard way to check and see if you have the antibody that would prevent TSS. She said it would be great if that kind of testing became part of a well-child visit — something she said could possibly be done with a blood test.

Society: Tampons used to only be considered appropriate for married women

While there is currently marketing to attract all ages of potential tampon users — including commercials featuring images of teens and colorful packaging — originally tampons were marketed mainly to married women. It was seen as overly sexual for younger women to be touching themselves down there, said Vostral.

“There was a concern about advertising them to people who weren’t married because [the tampon] was seen as something a little sexual since you had to touch yourself down there.” But, she said, of course a lot of people, including unmarried people, used them. It was more about each person’s comfort level with touching their vagina.

“I think we often think people in the past are much more prudish or reserved. And that’s not always the case. I think there are always people who are conservative and always people who are more liberal — people that are uncomfortable with their bodies and people who are more comfortable with their bodies,” she said.

No matter how the marketing pitch was framed, when tampons became available, many people who menstruate went straight for them, said Vostral, because it meant they could do activities they couldn’t do easily before such as swimming and dancing. It was the lack of lines that really appealed to people who had previously worn pads, she said. “No one could see you were having a period like you could with a pad. And tampons are small so you could conceal them and dispose of them easily.”

It was a major step up from the pads of the 1930s that included an elastic girdle around your waist with a thick pad that would scrape against your thighs. “You had to do some gymnastics to get these things on,” said Vostral. “My mom, who is 85, talked about how they were very uncomfortable if you’re trying to do anything athletic.”

Economy: Tampons allowed the fly girls of World War II to never have a period

During World War II, companies short on workers really needed their employees on the floor — menstruating or not. They started making tampon use a part of the patriotic cry to help America win the war.

Poster ads meant to reduce absenteeism at factories and other businesses were often sponsored by Tampax. They wouldn’t show an actual tampon, but the message was clear: Female workers could show up to their shift and stay on the factory floor if they used tampons. “There’s an economic imperative to use the tampons ... you know, the rhetoric is about patriotism,” said Vostral.

For the female pilots in World War II, tampons helped them keep their jobs. The government would not allow female pilots to fly when they were menstruating. But if they had too many “sick” days, there was the risk the military would let them go. They used tampons to buck the system, said Vostral.


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“They’re supposed to report their periods to the physician. And he kind of joked — wink, wink — it was the most unusual group of women because they weren’t having their periods,” Vostral said. “They weren’t telling him of course. They were just using tampons because they could be hidden. They didn’t take up a lot of space in the planes. And women love to fly. They loved it. They felt not only that it was doing their duty, but they felt better doing something other than sitting around thinking about their periods.”

Inequality: A good chunk of the population in the U.S. can’t afford tampons — or any menstrual products

The first real quantitative study of period poverty among menstruating adults found that 64 percent said they were not able to buy the supplies they needed at least once in the last year, said Anne K. Sebert Kuhlmann, a behavioral science and health education professor at St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice. And of that 64 percent, 20 percent said they were unable to purchase supplies every month. The result? Coming up with other ways to manage a period, said Sebert Kuhlmann, but losing self-esteem and dignity.

“I think anyone who’s ever had a period knows what it’s like to be caught off guard. You make do with a homemade pad or tampon from toilet paper, paper towel, Kleenex — anything you can access. I think the difference is, most people do that as sort of a stopgap measure for a very short period of time until they can get home or can get a friend to get them one or get to the store. But for a lot of women, that’s how they manage their period on a regular basis.”

A separate study Sebert Kuhlmann led, specifically on how period poverty affects college students, found that 17 percent of female students reported missing school because they didn’t have products to manage their period. And around 70 percent reported missing school for any reason associated with their periods including managing pain and cramping, heavy flow, odor, hygiene, spare clothes, etc., said Sebert Kuhlmann.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.