Period poverty is lacking access to menstrual products, education, and hygiene resources needed when having a period. Let’s talk about it.
When Aunt Flo arrives each month, chances are you reach for a pad, tampon, or menstrual disc and go about your day as usual.
But for folks experiencing period poverty, the lack of access to these products can disrupt their health, education, and even ability to work.
Period poverty isn’t just an issue developing countries face. Globally, it’s estimated about 500 million folks who menstruate don’t have access to period products and related hygiene resources.
According to a small 2021 U by Kotex survey, more than 40 percent of surveyed American adults who menstruate struggled to access period products at some point. This number increased and affected more Black and Hispanic folks compared to a similar 2018 survey, likely due to the effects of the pandemic.
Period poverty is when an individual “lacks access to period products, as well as sanitation and other hygienic resources [related to menstruation], such as functioning toilets, laundry facilities, and access to clean water,” explains Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, board certified OB-GYN.
In the U.S. about 16.9 million peeps with periods live in poverty. And like poverty in general, period poverty stems from income disparities and lack of access to much-needed resources. Not to mention, periods have become expensive. 💰
An INTIMINA-backed survey found that, on average, a menstruating individual spends $13.25 each month on period products, equivalent to $6,360 over their lifetime. Many states also still tax menstrual products somewhere between 4.7 to 9.9 percent.
Another 2021 Statista survey found 16 percent of teens reported having to choose between buying period products and food or clothes.
Period poverty goes beyond financial concerns and can have a huge impact on physical and mental health.
Higher risk of infection
Without access to products like pads, cups, or tampons, people will often try alternate materials — think rags, folded-up tissues, or even newspaper.
“When products are used that are not meant to absorb menstrual blood, blood is not wicked away from the skin,” says Lincoln. “This can cause infections of the vulvar skin and skin irritation and breakdown.”
Folks who can afford some period products during their cycle may also use products longer than the recommended duration (something 51 percent of teens surveyed admit to doing). This can lead to infections as well, Lincoln notes.
A 2018 study of women in India also linked insufficient menstrual hygiene to higher prevalence of yeast infections, urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis. While rare, leaving a tampon in for too long can also lead to toxic shock syndrome.
Declining mental health
Folks facing period poverty often report feelings of shame, embarrassment, and even guilt. It’s also common for folks to feel upset and uncomfortable when they can’t manage their periods.
These feelings are also associated with existing stigmas around periods being “dirty,” even for people who do have access to menstrual care.
A 2021 study of women in college found 68.1 percent of those dealing with period poverty showed symptoms of moderate-to-severe depression. It’s also worth noting folks facing poverty in general also have higher rates of depression.
Limits social life, work, and education
“Imagine not being able to go to school on your period because you lack money to buy pads,” notes Lincoln.
An Always Confidence & Puberty Survey found 1 in 5 people reported leaving classes early — or skipping them entirely — because they lack period products.
Outside the classroom, 45 percent of menstruators polled in an INTIMINA survey said they’ve canceled a date or left work early because they didn’t have the correct supplies.
There’s no denying the problem is very real. So, what’s being done?
Brands are highly aware of the period poverty issue and have been taking steps to provide those in need with supplies. Here’s just a snapshot of what some of the more mainstream period product brands have done:
- Always has donated over 50 million pads worldwide since their #EndPeriodPoverty campaign launched in March 2018.
- Tampax has distributed over 6 million tampons through organizations such as Feeding America.
- U by Kotex has donated more than 50 million products as a founding partner of the Alliance for Period Supplies.
Nonprofit organization support
While donations from period product brands are great, they aren’t going to reach every person in need or sustain a lifetime’s requirements. Bottom line: donations aren’t enough and nonprofit orgs like PERIOD, The Pad Project, and Period Equity have stepped in to work with brands and move policy to address period poverty.
“If companies have become rich off the back of an essential need of half the world’s population, they have a huge role to play,” says Michaela Bedard, executive director of menstrual equality nonprofit organization PERIOD. “Products need to be more affordable and accessible. If we’re looking to solve this systemically, we need to do a lot more than that.”
Bedard believes period product brands are vital in driving change at a higher level to make menstrual products more universally accessible. “We know that major corporations have a big effect on policy, so I always invite them to the table.”
Ending “tampon taxes”
Campaigners have long pushed to abolish the “tampon tax” — an additional sales tax added to period products. While removing this tax won’t make menstrual products free, this cost-saving could make a difference.
The good news is that there are signs of action being taken. According to the nonprofit Period Equity, 24 states have scrapped taxes on menstrual products. But 26 states still have the tax — including some of the country’s poorest regions.
Some remaining states argue removing the tax would cause them to lose needed revenue, but Bedard says this doesn’t really hold up.
“There’s some revenue coming in, but it’s not so much that I don’t think the states can absorb. And we have seen that, when they have eradicated the tampon tax, they’ve been totally fine.”
Period poverty policy
“We are seeing a monumental shift in the amount of legislation addressing period poverty for the first time ever — and this is really exciting,” Bedard says.
In 2021 more than 30 states across the country saw legislators introduce “menstrual equity” policies. While not many of these passed, Bedard notes the fact they were introduced in the first place “is really a huge wave of a shift.”
Since national policies lag behind, some states have also taken matters into their own hands to help offer free period products.
“L.A. County just launched a 1-year pilot program to provide free menstrual products in the restrooms of libraries, parks, social service departments, county museums, and cultural venues,” says Melissa Berton, executive director of not-for-profit organization The Pad Project.
Elsewhere on the west coast, Berton shared that officials in California recently passed a law “that, among other things, requires public schools serving grades 6 to 12 to provide free menstrual products in all women’s restrooms, all gender-neutral restrooms, and at least one men’s restroom.”
“Some states have similar laws, and others are in the process of creating them, which would help reduce period poverty among students in the U.S,” Berton adds.
Even if period poverty isn’t something you face yourself, you can do plenty to support those experiencing it.
End the stigma
“The first step toward ending period poverty is to challenge the notion that periods are somehow dirty or shameful,” says Berton.
Discussing period poverty with your friends, fam, and community can also help ensure the topic isn’t “taboo.” Challenging stigma can help encourage those experiencing period poverty to open up and request products they need.
Contact your gov’t leaders
While you may not be able to speak your mind in the Senate, the more we converse and make the tackling of period poverty a priority, the greater chance the government will recognize action needs to be taken. You can also reach out to local and state lawmakers about addressing period poverty in your community.
Meanwhile, organizations such as PERIOD and The Pad Project are helping elevate discussions to the next level by working with officials and legislators to educate them on the issue of period poverty. As Bedard notes, “this is a bipartisan issue. This is an issue about getting essential goods for people in need.”
Join an organization
Take the time to work with an organization actively helping folks facing period poverty. PERIOD is just one of many organizations that provide menstrual supplies to those in need.
Started in 2014 by two high school students in Portland, Oregon, the org now has 400 PERIOD Chapters around the world. And these are “primarily youth-led groups, doing work in their communities,” shares Bedard.
With PERIOD specifically, you can join an existing local Chapter or establishing one yourself with tools and resources from the org.
Donate your time and period products
Food banks and local shelters also provide period products — and it’s highly likely they require supplies.
“Our waiting list of organizations that come to us for period products is hundreds long, because people don’t think to donate them,” Bedard reveals.
You can also make monetary donations to or hold fundraising events for organizations working to end period poverty.
“The Pad Project provides monetary grants to nonprofits, grassroots organizations, and school districts to help them purchase and distribute menstrual products to the people they serve,” Berton explains.
If you’re facing period poverty, Bedard says a key step is advocating for yourself.
“A lot of what we talk to young people about is self-advocacy: How can you explain your needs without being shy? If we went into a stall and there was no toilet paper, we’d go to the custodian or person on-site and say, ‘There’s no toilet paper in there’,” Bedard says. “Let’s have that same amount of bravery when we talk about our need for period products. It’s another reason period poverty keeps exacerbating itself … there’s so much shyness about it.”
But once you’re prepared to ask for help, where do you go to request period products? Head to the same places they’re typically donated: Food banks and shelters are good places to start and, if you’re at school, you could speak with the nurse or a teacher.
“If anyone has trouble finding [products], they can reach out to The Pad Project (firstname.lastname@example.org), and we will do our best to connect them with resources in their area,” offers Berton.
Period poverty — when someone cannot access period products and related hygiene resources — affects people all over the world, including in the U.S.
Organizations and initiatives are working to provide free products to those in need and encouraging governments to create legislation for free provisions in places such as schools. Some states have already passed their own laws to offer this or have ended taxes on menstrual products.
You can also help by starting conversations around period poverty, donating your time to a period-related organization, or giving supplies to the local food bank or shelter.
“This is a very solvable problem,” Bedard notes. “We know the solutions to it, so it really feels winnable.”