What to Do If You Can't Afford Pads or Tampons

by Christy Bieber | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on July 26, 2020

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Millions of Americans cannot afford pads or tampons. Here are your options if you're one of them.

Menstrual hygiene products such as pads and tampons are not a luxury -- they're a necessity. Yet millions struggle to afford them, with some reporting they can't pay for both food and period products.

In fact, one report indicated as many as two-thirds of low-income women aren't able to afford menstrual hygiene products and 1 in 5 women experience this problem every single month. And this study likely underestimates the number of people who struggle as it does not include transgender men or non-binary individuals who also experience periods.

Sadly, many sources of aid such as Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance don't provide coverage for pads, tampons, or menstrual cups -- which means that you're forced to pay for these costly products out of your own pocket. And with COVID-19 causing more financial insecurity, the number of people who struggle to pay for their menstrual hygiene products may only increase.

The good news is, if you're experiencing period poverty, there are some options out there. Here are a few suggestions for what to do if you have no pads left and cannot afford to buy the products you need.

Seek out free sources of menstrual hygiene products

Although you can't use your government benefits to buy pads or tampons, there are places where you may be able to get menstrual hygiene products for free.

Homeless shelters and food banks often make them available upon request. And there may be local organizations in your area that provide them as well, such as No More Secrets Mind Body Spirit in the Philadelphia area.

Weigh the menstrual cup pros and cons

Menstrual cups catch and collect blood from your period, but unlike pads and tampons, they are washable and reusable. Menstrual cups can be better for the environment and less expensive once you make the initial investment -- but you have to come up with the money to purchase one and that can be a major challenge if you're struggling to afford period products.

Using a 0% APR credit card to charge the cup and pay it off over time is one option if you have access to one. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a no-interest credit card or the ability to find extra money in the bank for monthly payments.

Generic cups can be less expensive than name brand ones and are often sold on online sites by third-party sellers. Unfortunately, if they aren't FDA compliant, they could present a risk to your health. Instead of opting for these, you may be able to find deals on name-brand and FDA-approved cups by shopping sites such as Groupon.

Try these alternatives to sanitary pads

If you don't have access to free menstrual hygiene products and can't afford a menstrual cup that you're able to reuse, you may need to use other less expensive or more accessible products to make an alternative to sanitary pads. Some options include:

  • Using toilet paper or paper towels: Paper towels can be more absorbent so they won't have to be changed as often. Fold and stock them (or toilet paper) so it's at least half an inch thick and approximately the length and width of a standard sanitary pad. You can wrap a long piece of toilet paper or paper towel around the makeshift pad to keep it in place.
  • Using a clean sock wrapped in toilet paper: Socks can be more absorbent, but may be bulkier and will likely stain.
  • Using a clean washcloth: You'll want to look for the most absorbent one available and should fold it into approximately the size of a sanitary pad. Again, be aware it may stain.
  • Stacking cotton balls, cotton wool or gauze: These absorbent materials can be fashioned into the shape of a sanitary pad and wrapped in toilet paper to be kept in place.

When using alternatives to sanitary pads, make sure you change them regularly to reduce the risk of leakage or infection.

While not ideal, these options can all work unless or until there's a solution to period poverty. One big step would be making sure those with periods can use government benefits to afford the menstrual hygiene products they need.

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