There’s still a huge misconception that period poverty only affects low income families and those living on the breadline. But that is simply not the case.
Too many people who menstruate have found themselves either unable to afford or unable to access sanitary products, resorting to rolling tissue paper around hands to make makeshift pads, or even using socks to absorb the flow. Talking about periods and personal hygiene continues to be a taboo – but it’s when people share their emotionally charged stories of times when they’ve felt embarrassed by their periods that we realise it needs talking about more.
When I was in high school, around the age of 14, I unexpectedly came on my period during class. Too embarrassed to say anything, I leaked so heavily that I bled straight through onto the chair. I had to walk home with my blazer tied around my waist.
I’m sure your initial reaction was to recoil at that story, but I’m no longer ashamed of it. I now know that even a decade ago, pads and tampons simply weren’t readily available in schools. And in fact, having to ask for those products is one of the many barriers young people face in schools, too.
Of course, you could probably ask a friend, but tampons are a precious commodity, and people often don’t want to find themselves short of one because they gave one away. And while the so-called ‘tampon tax’ may have been abolished in January last year, they’re still an expense that many cannot afford to pay.
I went to seven different major supermarkets to compare the prices of own brand pads and tampons to branded alternatives, and one store didn’t have a single product priced at less than £1.50 on the shelf. Due to sanitary products being an essential and regular purchase, they’re typically bought with the weekly shop, and their expense goes pretty unnoticed.
Having not bought sanitary products for the last six years, I was stunned at the prices, the lack of choice, and sneaky techniques which see prices stay the same for different flows – but pack sizes reduced. With the average menstruating person having 480 periods in their lifetime, according to the NHS, those costs soon tot up. Not forgetting other essentials associated with periods, like painkillers.
Now, before I reveal my supermarket findings, I spoke with Dawn Lythgoe, trustee of Bolton based charity Fresh as a Daisy. The charity have been running for five years, providing sanitary and hygiene products to people who need them.
Dawn found that despite the tampon tax being scrapped, prices have begun to creep back up. She said: “ Many supermarkets reduced their prices when it was announced the tampon tax would be abolished. There was a big social media movement around it, and many chains did reduce their prices, with cheaper and own brand products coming out and offering more choice, which is needed.
“I’ve seen prices creeping back up again recently and I don’t know if that’s to do with supplier costs or if supermarkets are just increasing their prices.”
Here’s what I found when I visited the stores:
Aldi have three types of towels for 49p each, and three types of tampons for 69p a pack, while their regular, super and ultra super tampons all come in packs of 20. But the Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association suggests people use 22 products per cycle, meaning you’d have to buy two packs.
Aldi’s own Lunex brand only seems to offer pads with wings, with 14 in a regular pack, 12 in a super pack and 10 in a night pack – all of which are the same price. This I find frustrating because those with a heavier flow looking for products to suit their needs are seemingly penalised as a result – denied those two extra towels.
In store, there are also panty liners for 47p, and people who menstruate are likely to pick up a selection based on the length, flow and at what stage of their cycle they’re at. While Aldi’s regular pads work out at 3p each, Always Ultra normal sanitary towels with wings come in at £2.38 for 22, an average of 9p each.
Sainsbury’s own brand towels are 70p for the ultra towel super wings, night wings and regular towels, as well as the normal with wings. But again, pack sizes vary, offering 10 night pads, 12 super wings, 14 normal wings and 16 for the average towels.
The store’s maxi towel normal cost 96p for a pack of 24, with 12 night towels costing the same price. But some shoppers might want to opt for a more organic option – but the Yoni organic cotton sanitary towels for heavy flows will set customers back £3.50 for 10.
Looking at tampons, Sainsbury’s non-applicator tampons cost £1 for 24 in the regular, super and super plus varieties, with 20 super plus applicator tampons also coming in at £1, but for four less tampons for the comfort of an applicator.
I spoke to one shopper who, four years ago, relied on a voucher to feed her and her dad for a month, and that voucher also included the expense of sanitary products.
“It left us with around £40 a month to buy food with”
She said: “I’m on the implant at the moment and I tend to have irregular periods, I really only use pads that are specified ‘long’ – and shop at Tesco and Lidl to get the most suited product – however I find that due to my irregular cycle I’m required to purchase two or three packs at a time. Unfortunately over these past few months my regular shops have had a low or no stock of the unbranded ones at all, leaving me to resort to buying the branded and more expensive products, spending anywhere between £5-£10 per cycle.
“My dad and I once relied on vouchers to feed us for a whole month and those also had to include sanitary products. It left us with around £40 a month to buy food with. I think that there’s definitely some work that needs to be done in terms of the price points and available brands.”
In Marks and Spencer I was extremely disappointed by the lack of choice and affordability. There wasn’t a single pack of hygiene products under £1.50 in the store I visited, and all of the products were big name brands.
Packs of Tampax tampons started at £2, with the pearl versions 75p more expensive. Always panty liners were the cheapest product to buy at £1.50, with their pads costing £2.50 to £2.75.
But much of their shelf space was given to the brand TOTM with their organic pads and tampons, with prices ranging from £2.80 to £3.60.
Last year, M&S revealed a range of reusable period pants – an eco friendly alternative to single use products. Prices for these start at £12, and let’s say a period lasts, on average, five days. While you’re certainly saving in the long run, a £60 investment is a price tag many can’t justify when energy, fuel and other expenses are all on the rise.
These days, there are also the options of menstrual cups in some stores, and again, they’re an investment, with some people preferring to have more than one. But even using these, many menstruators rely on disposable pads and pantyliners as a second line of defence against leaks.
Manchester Evening News approached M&S to comment on why they don’t stock their own brand of sanitary products, and asked if they would consider releasing any in the future.
A spokesperson for M&S said: “We offer customers a range of sanitary products from popular brands, as well as our own M&S range of re-usable period knickers.”
“If you can’t afford to get a taxi or a bus you’re stuck with the prices they charge.”
Dawn, from Fresh as a Daisy, added: “I think in some shops period products are too expensive. If you live on an estate where you can’t afford to travel to a large supermarket and have to rely on a corner shop, they are extortionate. If you can’t afford to get a taxi or a bus you’re stuck with the prices they charge. I’d say around 89p is the price they should be, whether they’re a branded product or not.”
Morrisons had a fairly wide range of products to choose from, including normal ultra towels with wings and without wings, costing 65p each for pack sizes of 16 and 14 respectively.
Super ultra with wings also come in at 65p for a 12 pack, following the supermarket trend of a decrease in the number of pads per product when the flow increases.
Maxi daytime towels cost 85p for a 24 pack, but I was really pleased to see a Morisons ‘savers’ pack of maxi towels, with 10 in a pack, for just 40p.
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Tampons from the supermarket’s own range range from 75p for non-applicator to 95p for applicator.
For those looking to be more sustainable – and can afford it – there are 20 organic tampons from the Morrisons range for £2.50.
The Lidl store I visited didn’t have a huge range of products, but did have the choice of its own brand and branded items.
They’re located on the bottom two shelves, which to me sends a message that these should be hidden, smuggled secretly into baskets.
Always products are £1.99 to £2.38, while Lidl’s Siempre own brand are 47p for panty liners, which is the same as Aldi, and 89p for normal and maxi pads.
At Tesco, the cheapest sanitary product to buy is the Tesco essentials maxi towels 10 pack for 42p, followed by items in their ‘Free Spirit’ range, costing 70p to 90p for a selection of regular, night time, ultra long, winged and night time winged products.
This was actually the first time I spotted ultra long as an option in own brand ranges. Some people often use two regular pads to make a makeshift ultra long, which quickly burns through a stash of pads.
Tesco’s regular and super applicator tampons come in packs of 20 for £1, while non-applicator ones are also £1, coming in packs of 24.
Dawn’s tampon trial – branded vs non-branded
Dawn from Fresh as a Daisy revealed that when she was perimenopausal she tested own brand tampons against her trusty Tampax.
“When I was perimenopausal I had a constant period for around eight months and I used it to try out all of the different products on the market,” she said. “I always used branded Tampax because I felt they were the most comfortable.
“I found that some of the cheaper products are really uncomfortable and really quite irritating to wear. You’re using them against the most sensitive part of your body and the materials used in the cheaper products made me sore. There’s an assumption that because they’re cheaper, they’re more affordable but there are other issues. It’s a false economy because you’ll often have to change them more frequently and therefore have to buy more of them.”
I found Asda to have the biggest in store range, with a large chunk of the aisle dedicated to period products.
Asda’s own brand tampons come in six different choices, each costing 70p, with brands like Tampax and Lil-lets also on the shelves.
There are also six options for pads, with prices from 50p, including night time pads.
Then there’s a huge range of Always products with prices from £1 to £4.50.
But more expense comes when people need different types of products for different stages of their flow, such as normal for lighter flow days, and super for heavier days, meaning that shoppers could be buying two lots of pads and tampons at a time. The costs soon add up.
The Bloody Good Period charity said: “Many refugees, people in the asylum system and those living in poverty simply cannot afford period products. People who menstruate suffer because of the culture of embarrassment and shame that exists around this natural, biological process.
“Period poverty is negatively impacting women’s physical and mental health, causing infections and stress. Women are resorting to using tissue and/or strips of clothing or bath towels in the place of appropriate period products.”
Dawn adds: “A mum might have three teenage daughters who are all having periods, which quadruples the costs. It can cost up to £40-50 a month. When people have the option of putting food on the table, shoes on their kids’ feet or buying sanitary products, it’s a really difficult scenario to find yourself in.
“If you can’t afford period products there’s a good chance you can’t afford the other hygiene products that you need to support you on your period, such as additional pairs of knickers, and shower gel for having to take more regular showers.”
“Affordability is a major issue but it’s also about accessibility,” Dawn continues. ” There are situations that women, girls and trans people find themselves in where there is a barrier to accessing products. There could be a lot of embarrassment for someone transitioning to a male still having periods and there’s a lot of stigma around that. It’s important for them to know they can still get that support if they need it.
“You might have women who have fled domestic abuse and have nothing, and for them they may have come from a controlling environment where they can afford products but their situation hasn’t allowed them to access them. Another example is young girls who live with their dads and it being ‘awkward’. Often dads will try their hardest but they often don’t have the right information to help them with their daughters at an age where they’re starting their periods.”
It’s safe to say that the price of period products is yet another expense and stress, adding to the burden of rising energy, fuel and grocery costs.
While it’s nice to see supermarkets are offering their own lines at lower prices, more needs to be done to offer variety and make menstrual products more accessible for people.
Personally, I feel that Aldi have done a really good job with their 49p sanitary towels, as well as Lidl and Tesco offering products below 50p. However, while I’ve not tried these products for quality, it’s important that lower prices shouldn’t mean lower quality. Morrison’s, Asda and Sainsbury’s do offer a variety of products for a not unreasonable cost, but M&S simply needs to do more to offer affordable products to those who need them.
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