Need To Know

If The Tampon Shortage Has You Stressed, Here Are Some Safe Tampon Alternatives

Did you know tampons expire, too? So, the one you’ve kept in your car “for emergencies” for the last five years probably isn’t an option.

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As if soaring costs and limited stock on everyday essentials (including baby formula and certain foods) haven't caused you enough stress yet, there's now a nationwide tampon shortage that has been bubbling over for months now, hitting a fever pitch in recent days and weeks.

Supply chain issues have now impacted menstrual products, making it difficult for some to find their preferred tampons on store shelves — in turn, sellers are price-gouging boxes that are available, notes the New York Times. Among the companies impacted by the shortages are Procter & Gamble, which manufactures Tampax, Always, and L., as well as Edgewell Personal Care, which makes o.b. and Playtex products. It seems manufacturers are struggling to source materials needed to produce tampons, such as cotton and plastic, along with staffing and transportation issues causing production and stocking delays.

A rep for P&G told the New York Times that the situation is "temporary." In contrast, a spokesperson for Edgewell told Bloomberg they've been "operating manufacturing facilities around the clock to build back inventory and anticipate returning to normal levels in the coming weeks." Still, that's of little comfort if you do run out of tampons and you're unable to find the ones you need. So, what should you do in the interim?

For starters, it's worth pointing out that there's absolutely no shame or judgment in whatever period products you prefer or don't prefer (free bleeding, FTW) — if tampons work for you, great! If they don't, that's cool too. And despite being an essential item for period-havers, all menstrual products are unnecessarily cost-prohibitive. Bloomberg notes that federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) don't cover period products, and 26 states still have the dreaded tampon tax in place, making the cost even higher before accounting for the current economic inflation.

Is that old emergency tampon safe to use?

If you find yourself fishing around old purses or the trunk of your car for old tampons, you'll probably want to be sure they're not expired, notes Jessica Barra (FNP), a family nurse practitioner and Favor's Director of Informatics and Quality. P&G, for example, cites a five-year shelf-life for many Tampax tampons when kept in their original packaging in a cool, dry place. "If you can't remember when you purchased your tampons and think it could be longer than five years ago, I recommend that you don't use an old one, just to be safe," says Barra. Expired tampons might have bacteria or mold growth, making them not safe for use, adds Monte Swarup, MD, MPH, FACOG, board-certified in OB/GYN and founder of HPD Rx.

"To prevent contamination or mold ahead of time, I also recommend that you always keep tampons in the original box and packaging," says Barra. For the future, you can always note with a marker the date you bought a tampon on its packaging, whether on the box or for those you keep stashed away in a purse or desk drawer.

And while that's all well and good for future you, if current you is in need of tampons and don't have any, you're not out of options, note both experts. Whatever you do, don't try to get more use out of your current supply by keeping a tampon in too long or reusing one. Both options pose serious health risks, including toxic shock syndrome (TSS) and/or the risk of developing yeast, fungal, and bacterial infections.

What are some safe tampon alternatives?

Of course, there are always menstrual pads (either disposable or reusable), which absorb your flow and serve as a solid option for those who can't or prefer not to use internal period products. But given that you can't swim in them and plenty of people find them downright uncomfortable, it's understandable if you're looking for other alternatives.

There are also reusable menstrual cups or disposable discs, typically made of flexible medical-grade silicone or rubber. Both work similarly in that you insert them into the vagina to collect blood, making for a mess-free, long-lasting solution that plenty of people love as an alternative to tampons. Unfortunately, they're often prohibitively expensive, and people with certain health conditions find them difficult or impossible to insert comfortably.

Period underwear — which include built-in layers to absorb and wick away period blood — are a popular option due to comfort and ease of use, but they can also be very pricey. Plus, those who don't have access to private laundry machines and/or have space to line-dry might find them inconvenient to use.

Period leggings — Ditch your underwear and tampons and strap on these leak-free leggings. However, leakage depends on the heaviness of your flow, so for some, these pants may not be the best option. Overall, these are a good choice for yoga, workouts, or to wear during the winter for extra warmth underneath your clothes.

Another underrated and safe alternative is sterile gauze. If you find yourself in a situation where there is nary a tampon or pad in sight, break out the first aid kit. Gauze is designed to absorb blood, making it a way better choice than rolling up toilet paper. It's hygienic and the perfect option when running low on menstrual products.

How can hormonal birth control help?

If you're on the birth control pill, both experts note that it's perfectly safe to skip the placebo week and delay your period, provided you have enough pills on hand to get you through. "You should have enough birth control to do so if your prescription was written to skip your period," says Barra. "If it wasn't, you'll run out of pills before your next refill is available. Delaying your period by using birth control continuously and skipping the placebo pills is safe and reliable, but you need to ask your doctor to prescribe enough hormonal pills in order to do so. I recommend speaking to your doctor or a licensed health practitioner through a digital health platform like Favor if you have any questions."

Barra notes that hormonal IUDs can have the same effect, and hormonal contraception simply doesn't work for everyone. "That being said, getting a hormonal IUD inserted is a more laborious process and is more long-lasting than the decision to skip your placebo pills," she says. Swarup agrees that this is a "much less reliable method" for skipping your period for a cycle or two, so chat with your doctor if you have access to one.

What else can I do?

Unfortunately, as with all things related to women's health care and menstrual care for all period-having people, access to providers and period products that work for you is a privilege not afforded to so many Americans. A tampon shortage only makes things more challenging for those who rely on them each month. The Alliance for Period Supplies (sponsored by U by Kotex) collects and distributes free period supplies to those who need them nationwide. You can also text 211 or visit 211.org to find a location near you with free tampons and pads.

Expert Sources:

Jessica Barra (FNP), a family nurse practitioner and Favor's Director of Informatics and Quality

Monte Swarup, MD, MPH, FACOG, board-certified in OB/GYN and founder of HPD Rx

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