The Pink Tax: How Inflation Impacts the Period Product Industry

Like many industries, period products have been hit hard by record-high inflation and supply chain issues this year. While basic household items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer have returned to stores since the pandemic left shelves bare, a tampon shortage continues. Price gouging and supply chain problems are disproportionately affecting women and people who menstruate.

But even before the pandemic and inflation began to hit period product consumers, essential feminine products like pads, tampons and even women’s razors tend to be an additional cost for women due to the pink tax, a price hike for products marketed toward women.

What Is the Pink Tax?

The pink tax refers to the gender-specific and discriminatory pricing of products and services that are marketed as “for women.” Retail companies use bright pink, purple or pastel colored packaging to indicate that certain products are made for women; these items, such as women’s razors, are more expensive than the same products that are marketed toward men.

Kara Stevens, founder of the The Frugal Feminista and author of “Heal Your Relationship with Money,” says that the pink tax harms women more than people think.

“Even though the differential in prices of soap, razors, dry cleaning, for example, may be only a few dollars in the individual purchase, it has a cumulative impact on women’s wallets,” Stevens wrote in an email.

A study from The Balance found that on average, women pay 13% more than men for similar products. With annual inflation rates exceeding 9% in June, rising prices are disproportionately affecting women and people who menstruate because these individuals were already paying higher prices for the same goods. Stevens says it costs more to be a woman in this world.

“Yes, it does, especially when we look at the amount of wealth lost over a woman’s lifetime solely because she is a woman,” she says. “Based on the wage gap today, women in the US lose, on average, $406,280 over a 40-year career compared to White men. These average losses are amplified when comparing across racial and ethnic groups.”

In 2020, women earned 83 cents for every dollar that a man made, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

[READ: 3 Ways to Overcome the Gender Pay Gap.]

What Is Period Poverty?

Period poverty refers to inadequate access to menstrual and feminine hygiene products and education. Though it is slowly becoming a more common term, period poverty is still a concept that many people are unaware of.

“This affects at least 500 million worldwide,” Stevens says. “On a more concrete level, people who experience period poverty are not able to purchase the menstrual products they need; in many cases, this means that they cannot go to school or work or otherwise participate in daily life or if they do, experience anxiety and fear of others becoming aware they are menstruating.”

Period products are a necessary cost in order to feel comfortable and hygienic during that time of the month. However, 26 states tax menstrual products as luxuries instead of medical necessities. The average woman spends $20 on feminine hygiene products per menstrual cycle, according to estimates from the National Organization of Women.

People who don’t have access to period products — such as people experiencing homelessness or lower-income individuals — are often forced to make their own out of unsanitary household items like toilet paper and rags, increasing their chances of contracting toxic shock syndrome, urinary tract infections and yeast infections.

According to research published in 2019 by the Obstetrics and Gynecology research journal, in St. Louis, Missouri, alone, two-thirds of low-income women could not afford menstrual products at some point in the previous year, 20% couldn’t afford them every month and about 50% said they had to choose between buying food or period products sometime within the previous year. Globally, 1 in 4 women experience period poverty, according to Days for Girls, an international nonprofit focusing on menstrual health equity.

Period poverty disproportionately affects women of color, specifically Latina and Black women. A BMC Women’s Health study that surveyed college-aged women, found that 24.5% of Latina women and 19% of Black women reported experiencing period poverty in the past year compared to 11.7% of white women. Similarly, first generation college students and students who were born outside of the U.S. were also more likely to experience period poverty.

[See: 16 Health Screenings All Women Need.]

Do Government Programs Pay for Menstrual Products?

Under the 2020 CARES Act, people can now use employer-funded accounts such as health savings accounts, flexible spending accounts and health reimbursement arrangements to buy feminine hygiene products. However, period products are not covered under other government-funded programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

There have been efforts by some lawmakers to address this issue. Congresswoman Grace Meng, for example, introduced the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021, proposing to use federal grants to provide free period products to schools, incarcerated people, homeless people and even to large companies and public federal buildings. Little else has been done on the federal level to make period products more accessible and paid for by government programs.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, independent organizations, citizens and activists have increasingly pushed to provide free period products at schools with some success. Since 2017, five states — California, New York, Illinois, New Hampshire and Virginia — have passed legislation requiring schools to provide free menstrual products, according to the Education Commission of the States. Many other states have enacted laws addressing the provision of free period products to disadvantaged students and people experiencing homelessness since 2021.

While most governmental programs have failed to cover the cost of period products for those in need, organizations and programs exist to help lower income people gain access to these products, like the Healthy Periods Program, a subset of Moms Helping Moms Foundation, a New Jersey based organization dedicated to providing essential items to underprivileged families. The Healthy Periods program was founded back in 2019 to help combat period poverty and has donated over 215,000 period products to low-income people, according to Jordan Langs, the program lead.

“Everyone deserves access to the essential products required to manage a natural bodily function that occurs uncontrollably in half of the population,” Langs wrote in an email. “Period poverty threatens healthy development and disproportionately restricts access to basic needs and necessities. By offering free access to period products, we can remove these barriers. This is a matter of dignity, health, gender equality, and human rights.”

[Read: Tampons, Pads or Menstrual Cups? A Woman’s Guide to Period Products.]

Sustainable Period Products as a Cost-Friendly Solution

Period products are a necessity, but they are expensive and their total price tag grows year after year of continued repurchasing. Sustainable period products, which can be reused month after month, can offer a cost-effective and safe alternative.

The average person who menstruates has about 450 periods in their lifetime; with an average of $20 spent on menstrual products per cycle, the cost builds over time to an estimated $9,000 over a lifetime. But according to The Penny Hoarder, switching from disposable to reusable pads can save you almost $100 per year.

Reusable period products on the market today include period underwear, menstrual cups and reusable pads. These products tend to last longer and are more cost-efficient. Menstrual cups can last up to 10 years, and reusable pads and period underwear last over 20 cycles. These reusable products may cost more initially, but they pay for themselves after just a few cycles, as you no longer need to continue purchasing disposable products.

If the concept of reusable period products makes you uncomfortable, or if you’ve tried them and they aren’t for you, there are also disposable period products that are made more sustainably.

“Sustainable period products offer a way to lower the cost of tending to your monthly cycle while supporting the environment,” Langs says.

One of the big names in the sustainable and disposable period product industry today is August, founded in 2021 by Harvard graduate and entrepreneur Nadya Okamoto. Their disposable products are biodegradable and their wrappers are compostable.

Companies that sell sustainably-made disposable products, like August and Grove Collaborative, may be more expensive than average drugstore period products, but they offer monthly subscription packages at a discount, making their prices comparable.

Okamoto says she has spent over half of her life fighting to end period stigma and foster open conversations about periods.

“At its core, menstruation is a basic biological function that over half of the global population experiences and makes human life possible. This should be the most normalized celebrated thing,” she says. “And then you look at the reality. It isn’t celebrated. It isn’t supported. We don’t have the best products, and they’re inaccessible. We should live in a period positive culture.”

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