10% of College-Aged Women Are Struggling With Lack of Access to Menstrual Products

pads on shelf at store

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Key Takeaways

  • Period poverty occurs when a person who menstruates does not have access to products used during periods, like pads and tampons.
  • A recent survey of college-aged women in the United States who menstruate found that 1 in 10 experience period poverty.
  • Lacking access to products used during menstruation is also linked to depression.

A new survey published in BMC Women's Health found that 1 in 10 college-age women in the United States who menstruate do not have access to menstrual hygiene products. Further, the lack of access—termed period poverty—is also linked to depression.

While the survey only asked people who identified as women about their access to menstrual hygiene products, not all people who menstruate—and experience period poverty—identify as women.

What Is Period Poverty?

Period poverty is when people who menstruate do not have access to the supplies they prefer to use to have a sanitary period. Common products are pads, tampons, and menstrual cups.

Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD, CDN

By talking about period poverty, it helps to decrease the stigma associated with periods and brings awareness to this all too common problem.

— Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD, CDN

“If you get your period and reach into your cupboard to grab a tampon or pad... consider yourself lucky,” Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and author of A Balanced Approach to PCOS, tells Verywell. “Many menstruating people do not have access to these items due to inequities related to income, imprisonment, or being transgender or non-binary, not to mention the additional costs of ‘women's products’ and taxes imposed by many states on them, make these items inaccessible for many.”

In addition to being able to access menstrual hygiene products, Azzaro says that “period poverty also refers to a lack of access to education about menstruation and/or a safe and private space in which to take care of hygiene needs.”

Period Poverty Is a Global Concern

The World Bank estimates that over 80% of menstruating people in Bangladesh do not use hygienic feminine-care products. Instead, they use rags, old cloth, and other similar items.

People in the U.S. also experience period poverty. The results of a study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that one-third of low-income people surveyed in Missouri reported alternatives to hygienic pads and tampons, including used diapers and toilet paper.

Why Is Period Poverty a Problem?

"When women don’t have access to adequate menstrual products, it increased the odds for unsafe and unsanitary practices to occur which can be extremely dangerous to their physical, mental and emotional health,” Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and author of The Better Period Food Solution, tells Verywell. “By talking about period poverty, it helps to decrease the stigma associated with periods and brings awareness to this all too common problem." 

Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD

If you get your period and reach into your cupboard to grab a tampon or pad...consider yourself lucky.

— Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD

If people do not have consistent access to period products, their menstrual hygiene can suffer. For example, a person who does not have enough product to last the duration of their period might go longer between changing them. This can put them at an increased risk for health problems like urinary tract infections (UTIs), bacterial vaginosis, and skin irritation. 

The Survey

To find out how people in the U.S. are affected by period poverty, researchers at George Mason University conducted a survey of undergraduate students in the United States who menstruate.

Of the 471 participants in the study, 14.2% reported experiencing period poverty at least once in the past year. Around 10% said that they experienced period poverty every single month over the past year—meaning that they never had access to menstrual hygiene products.

Black and Latinx study participants were most likely to report experiencing period poverty.

Most of the participants who reported experiencing period poverty in the study said that they coped by borrowing products and using other materials in lieu of products.

The American College of Gynecology (ACOG) recommends that pads and tampons get replaced every 4 to 8 hours. Almost 50% of the participants who experienced period poverty reported using tampons and pads for a longer period than ACOG recommends.

What This Means For You

Period poverty is a global health concern, but it also exists in the United States—largely because of luxury taxes on these products that create financial barriers. People who are not able to access these products are at risk for physical and mental health effects.

Period Poverty and Depression

Menstrual hygiene is considered a basic need, like food and shelter. Even though menstrual health and hygiene has been recognized as a public health issue, the impact of period poverty on mental health has not been studied extensively.

The survey from George Mason University also revealed that the people who reported experiencing monthly period poverty were also the most likely to report depression.

The link between period poverty and depression was linear: the groups who experienced more period poverty also had more depression cases. 

How To Combat Period Poverty

The results of the survey indicate that lack of access to products to manage hygiene during menstruation goes beyond the physical effects—it's also a factor for mental health and wellbeing.

One change that could make these products more accessible would need to come at the legislative level. If these items were not taxed as a luxury when purchased, it would reduce their cost to consumers.

As of February 2021, only 20 states in the U.S. do not charge sales tax on pads and tampons. The remaining 30 states implement an additional tax on these items, which creates a financial barrier.

Research has shown that when these taxes are repealed, low-income consumers benefit from being able to afford these products.

In March, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included provisions that would allow people to use money from health savings and flexible spending accounts to purchase hygiene products for periods. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, however, does not cover pads or tampons, which means that people in a certain income bracket are not guaranteed to receive them.

While some areas of the country provide free products in schools, prisons, and homeless shelters, these programs are the exception rather than the rule.

How You Can Help

There are several charities and organizations with the goal of helping people who do not have access to products to use on their period, including:

  • Happy Period provides a list of shelters that accept unused pads and tampons as well as monetary donations.
  • distributes products and has a virtual “wish list” where people can order tampons and pads to be sent directly to their HQ.
  • The Pad Project partners with local organizations to install pad machines, implement reusable cloth pad-making programs, and run menstrual hygiene management (MHM) workshops. They offer many ways to support the cause, including fundraising and directly purchasing period items. 
  • I Support The Girls provides products to people who are experiencing homelessness.
10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. International Centre for Diarrheal Diseases Research, Bangladesh. National Hygiene Baseline Survey.

  3. Shenassa J, Ahmadi A, Gallo D, Henderson CE. Unmet menstrual hygiene needs among low-income women. Obstet Gynecol. 2019 Jun;133(6):1284. doi:10.1097/AOG.0000000000003300

  4. Das P, Baker KK, Dutta A, Swain T, Sahoo S, Das BS, et al. Menstrual hygiene practices, WASH access and the risk of urogenital infection in women from Odisha, India. PLOS ONE. 2015;10(6):e0130777. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0130777

  5. Hennegan J, Dolan C, Wu M, Scott L, Montgomery P. Measuring the prevalence and impact of poor menstrual hygiene management: a quantitative survey of schoolgirls in rural Uganda. BMJ Open. 2016;6(12):e012596. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-012596

  6. American College of Gynecology. Your changing body: puberty in girls.

  7. Sommer M, Hirsch JS, Nathanson C, Parker RG. Comfortably, safely, and without shame: defining menstrual hygiene management as a public health issue. Am J Public Health. 2015 Jul;105(7):1302-11. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302525

  8. Tax Free Period. 30 states have until tax day to eliminate their tampon tax.

  9. Cotropia C. Who benefits from repealing tampon taxes? Empirical evidence from New Jersey. Law Facility Publications.

  10. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). IRS outlines changes to health care spending available under CARES Act.