“A Lot Of Opportunity”: How Upstart Menstrual Product Brands Are Benefiting From The Tampon Shortage

As large tampon makers struggle to fill retail shelves, consumers are flocking to alternative brands with available menstrual essentials. 

Last week, The Flex Company, which sells menstrual cups and discs at Target, CVS, Walgreens and Amazon, registered its “best sales week ever,” according to CEO Lauren Wang, who reports its Amazon sales jumped 40% and its Target sales grew over 20% for the week. She says, “We’re definitely seeing customers use this moment to make the switch from tampons.” 

Saalt experienced a similar sales uptick across its assortment of menstrual cups, discs and period underwear. Co-founder and CEO Cherie Hoeger shares that Saalt’s e-commerce and Amazon sales have doubled week-over-week, and it’s notched a 40% sales lift at retailers like Target, with its Period Cup and Disc sales getting the largest weekly bump. She says, “We saw the same thing happen in the spring of 2020 with sales and customer inquiries rising by 60% when COVID caused massive shortages of everyday consumer staples like toilet paper and personal hygiene products like pads and tampons.” 

Hoeger continues that the tampon shortage has attracted “fence-sitter” customers to Saalt who previously contemplated reusable menstrual products like cups, discs and period underwear, but didn’t give them a chance until now. She says, “It’s been intriguing to see just how fast external factors like supply chain shortages can convert so many people to reusables so quickly, and once they convert, studies show that 90% never go back to traditional pads and tampons because of the comfort, convenience and cost savings of reusables.” 

A convergence of factors is driving the tampon scarcity. Chris Tang, a global supply chain management expert and professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, explains it’s due to staffing insufficiencies along the supply chain, raw material shortages in China affecting cotton and plastic packaging materials, and manufacturing crimps. 

“Manufacturers cannot increase capacity. Tampons and toilet paper are staple products with fairly stable demand, not seasonal, and companies don’t plan for excessive just in case capacity,” says Tang. “Case in point, P&G and Kimberley-Clark are producing 24/7, and they cannot produce more in a short period of time.”

As with toilet paper early in the pandemic, news of the tampon shortage has led to consumers nervously loading up on tampons, exacerbating the problem and spiking prices. “Consumers are stocking up, retailers are stocking up, demand went up,” says Tang. “Toilet paper went up [in price] 10 times during the beginning of COVID.” 

Often sidestepping the supply chain complications roiling massive menstrual product makers, the shortage has provided upstart brands a major competitive advantage by dint of them merely being in stock. Many of them sell products that differ from the products from leading brands like Tampax, Playtex and Kotex. They specialize in items designed to be reused or constructed from materials chosen for sustainability reasons such as hemp and corn starch.

Gen Z-focused sustainable period care line Viv offers tampons, pads and menstrual cups on its website and Amazon, as well as independent physical retailers.

Flex controls its manufacturing and makes all its products in the United States and Canada. As a result, it’s avoided the supply chain issues plaguing multinationals and emerging tampon brands that rely on white-label products. “Most of the newer brands are white-labeled products from the same manufacturer. The manufacturer Albaad, for example, has about 75% market share for white-labeled tampons,” says Wang. “Their factories are based in Israel and Poland, so the war in Ukraine and supply chain issues really have an impact on those brands.”

Period care brand Viv has had sales climb on its website and Amazon, where menstrual cups are its biggest seller, though sales of its tampons have been rising, too. The brand hasn’t had out-of-stocks because of the materials it uses. “Our tampons are 100% organic cotton and have a plant-derived applicator,” says Viv founder Katie Diasti. ‘Our applicator still feels and acts like plastic, but is derived from a sugarcane plant rather than from petroleum. That’s been great, especially for our direct-to-consumer site and our subscriptions.” 

Another unforeseen upside of the shortage for Viv is a sudden increase in retail interest. Buyers from national chains Diasti had been unsuccessfully pursuing are reaching out to her now. “They would always tell us, ‘We’ll let you know when we need a restock,’” she says. “Now, we’re finally getting those responses saying, ‘Can you talk tomorrow? Can you talk next week?’ They’re realizing they desperately need to restock in tampons and that we are readily available. It’s been critical that our core materials and our manufacturing process are so different from the P&G large brands that are struggling. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here for new brands to really come into the picture.”

Not all indie brands, however, have steered completely clear of supply chain difficulties. Val Emanuel, founder of Rif Care, has been facing soaring prices for the hemp fiber her new brand uses in its biodegradable pads. Initially, she was quoted $8,000 per ton for the hemp fiber, but the price surged to $10,000 two months later. “We also prototyped with silk and hemp, bamboo and hemp and even tencel. So, even if cotton gets hit super hard, we have options,” says Emanuel. “I think everyone learned from supply chain issues in the past years that you cannot put all your eggs in one basket with a consumer company.”

Indie period care brands with merchandise on hand have taken to social media to let consumers know as well as educate them on their products and the dynamics of the tampon shortage. The brands Sunny Period and Femly have posted about it on TikTok. The latter’s post on the subject was one of its best-performing ever, garnering over 186,000 views. Direct-to-consumer organic pad and tampon maker August has posted on various social media networks that its products are in stock.

Best Periodt founder and CEO Gayneté Jones posted on her brand’s TikTok account about the benefits of its menstrual cup and how it can assist during the tampon shortage. “We will continue to do so. We have some posts drafted for Instagram that will be touching on these issues as well,” she says. “We have been getting tagged by customers and have received so many DMs on the articles covering the tampon shortage. Many of our loyal customers are pushing their friends and family our way to grab a cup, so we have seen a slight uptick in our online sales over the last week. The tampon shortage coupled with the fear of an impending recession is putting panic in the air amongst menstruators and understandably so.” 

Saalt’s organic and paid posts on platforms including LinkedIn and TikTok addressing the tampon shortage have drawn positive engagement from new users ready to switch to cups and existing users encouraging them to make the leap. The brand has been employing discounts as further incentives. This week, it’s been running a 10%-off promotion on its period underwear on Target’s site. Next week, it’s launching three-, five- and seven-packs of its cotton period underwear with up to 20% off on them. 

Rif Care launched in May with its leak-proof Hemp Pads made from organically grown hemp fiber and cotton.

Tang predicts the tampon shortage will last two to three months more. The shortage is turning up the pressure on the menstrual product industry and government to enhance period care product accessibility. Prior to this crisis, millions of Americans were already living in “period poverty,” which is defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management and education.

The lack of access predated the current tampon shortage. According to the Journal of Global Health Reports, two-thirds of the 16.9 million low-income women in the United States couldn’t afford menstrual products in the past year, with a half of them forced to choose between menstrual products and food.

“This shortage has impacted everyone who menstruates, whether they use tampons or not,” says Wang. “It shows that even essential industries are subject to supply chain disruptions. It’s also a reminder of how important menstrual hygiene is and that it’s something we can’t take for granted. There are real costs and logistical challenges in producing these products.”