As quickly as the news of the coronavirus hit the United States came the images of empty toilet paper shelves. At first it seemed almost comical — Nobody needs this much toilet paper, calm down! — but then, stores began limiting customers to one roll per trip, among other rationing measures. For period-havers, an obvious follow-up question emerged: Would the hoarders come for our pads and tampons next?
“Your period is going to come every month,” Marni Sommer, MPH, PhD, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, tells Bustle. “How can you go about your daily life without the basic products needed to manage it?”
How Menstrual Hygiene Brands Are Dealing With Supply Chain Concerns
Tampons quickly sold out on Amazon and other online retailers as school closures and shelter-in-place orders hit the United States in mid-March, according to Business Insider; products are available as of April 8, though many without the one-day shipping Amazon Prime users expect.
“We are seeing some consumers stocking their pantries, and that includes with some of our products,” P&G, the parent company of Tampax and Always, told Bustle in a statement the week of March 16. “We are monitoring closely to identify any product availability issues and working with suppliers to make any adjustments as necessary. We remain focused on making sure our products are available when and where people shop during this dynamic situation.”
Tampax and Always are made in factories in the United States and in Europe, both under widespread shelter-in-place orders to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Right now, many P&G factories in the United States making essentials like toilet paper are remaining open, even in areas with shelter-in-place orders.
Suzanne Siemens, the CEO of Aisle, the company formerly known as Lunapads, says its supply chain is secure. “We have inventory for six months, if not more,” she says. The company sells its products — reusable pads, absorbent underwear, and a menstrual cup — through independent retailers across the U.S. and direct-to-consumer, and sources some of the textiles for its reusables in Asia. Many factories in China, the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, are now up to two months into restarting production, the Wall Street Journal reported, even as factories in the United States and Europe close. “Because of our rebranding, we are fully stocked up right now,” Siemens says. “The textile mills we work with are all back at work, and we’re gearing up for the next season of production.”
How Online Sales Are Helping Brands Get Period Products To Consumers
The last few years have seen a boom time for direct-to-consumer period products; Lola is one of many companies that offers a subscription service for disposable pads and tampons (still available, per their site), and companies are racing to get into the menstrual cup market — all necessary innovations during a period (ahem) when it’s best not to leave your house for a late-night pharmacy run.
While the majority of period-havers still use disposable products, the interest around reusables is growing, particularly now. “Millennials, Gen Z, even Gen X — they’re all much more informed about what goes into disposable products and whether those products will meet their needs from the angle of being truly sustainable,” says Siemens. She also says many people begin to first explore reusable products after experiencing chemical sensitivities to disposables, and seeking an alternative way to manage their periods.
Molly Hayward, the founder and chief brand officer at Cora, which makes organic tampons, pads, liners, and a reusable menstrual cup, says sales in second half of March were up 145% compared to the first half of the month, with sales on Amazon finishing about 100% above projections. Though Cora is also available in IRL shops like Target, Hayward says the brand’s acquiring new customers who are buying menstrual products online for the first time. Cora products are still fully stocked on Amazon as of April 8.
To ease stress on the supply chain, Thinx CEO Maria Molland says the reusable period underwear company moved a large quantity of inventory to a warehouse in a state that isn’t as impacted by COVID-19 as New York so it can keep shipping out new orders. Molland says that while Thinx is “seeing a softness in our numbers relative to our budget,” the company is also feeling very “lucky” to be a direct-to-consumer and online retailer right now. “If people are shopping, they are doing it online,” she says.
Siemens echoes the benefits of being a direct-to-consumer brand selling an essential product. “We’re not planning on having any major downturn because our products do make sense for this time," she says. “People aren’t going to the grocery store and drug stores because the lines are huge and people don’t want to be out in them. Our product delivers to you, you can shop for it online, and it lasts for years.”
People With Periods May Not Have The Same Access They Used To
As retailers brace for shortages and supply chain hiccups, experts are concerned for people in need of menstrual products right now — especially those who may not be able to afford them.
“As we enter this period of economic shock ...how will [people] be able to access something even more fundamental than toilet paper?” Sommer, the Columbia professor, asks.
Anne Sebert Kuhlmann, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at St. Louis University who studies low-income people’s access to sanitary supplies, says many food pantries also provide period management supplies — but now, this support is strained by increasing unemployment rates. She also says many school-age children rely on school nurses’ offices for these products. With schools closed possibly into the summer, Sebert Kuhlmann anticipates increased demand and nowhere to go.
Low-income communities often rely on small, local businesses for food and household goods, if their neighborhoods don’t have big chain stores close by. If these kinds of shops close due to economic hardship, Sebert Kuhlmann says that will further limit people’s access, even if they have the economic resources: “The physical supply may just diminish in those communities.”
Aisle is a corporate donor to United Way’s Period Promise campaign, among other social good projects the company works on. Cora makes donations through partnerships with United Way and local shelters; they have donated over 100,000 products since the company’s launch in 2015. Thinx donated 1,200 pairs of their reusable period underwear to doctors and nurses treating coronavirus patients in Wuhan, China in early March; the company is working on a donation plan for doctors and nurses across the United States. For each pack of Tampax Pure and Always Pure products purchased, the brands donate one pad or tampon to Feeding America, who have ramped up their efforts to support and stock food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Sommer says, while providing people with money to buy their own supplies is well-intentioned, it isn’t until “menstrual products themselves are distributed, [that] it is established that these products and this need is important.”