THE MODERN PROBLEM OF MENSTRUAL EQUITY

Bailey Layish | Contributor

When I was in fifth grade, I was pulled out of class along with all the other girls my age.  We sat in a big room, and the school nurse explained periods to us. The boys were outside playing kickball. After the presentation, each of us was handed a small plastic bag with one pad, one tampon, and a pamphlet. I remember being so nervous holding that bag, worried one of the boys would see. At such a young age, we already had period stigma ingrained into our brains. When I got my first period, I didn’t even want to tell my mom; it seemed like the kind of thing I shouldn’t talk about. Menstrual stigma unfortunately shapes much of what we know and how we think of periods. It is because of period stigma that there are so many misconceptions about menstruation. It is because of period stigma that many people do not have access to those products as they need them. Perhaps even more seriously, it is because of period stigma that very little research has been done about menstruation, or even on the safety of many menstrual products.  

People who menstruate will have about 450 periods in their lifetimes. That’s nearly seven years of a continuous need for menstrual products. At about seven dollars for a box of tampons, which can add up to nearly $1,800 throughout a lifetime, periods are not cheap. Yet most states tax pads and tampons as luxury items, along with cars and jewelry. Additionally, there are few laws requiring access to these items in schools, prisons, or shelters. For some people, “that time of the month” can mean having to choose between lunch money for their children or a box of tampons. Homeless shelters get few donations of pads and tampons, so people who menstruate are often unable to get these products to last the length of their periods. In the UK, girls were skipping school because they could not afford supplies. Even programs available to help people in poverty, such as Medicaid, do not include menstrual items, again considering them luxury items. For homeless people who menstruate, this means resorting to using newspaper, paper towels, toilet paper, or soiling their only pair of underwear.

States have slowly been working toward abolishing what is known as the “tampon tax”. This so-called tampon tax is actually sales tax on all “tangible personal property” but has many exemptions for “necessities”. Among these necessities: groceries, ChapStick, and Viagra. Nine states have taken sales tax off menstrual supplies, and seven states introduced legislation to do the same. There have also been some movements toward providing free products, such as a law passed in 2017 providing free pads and tampons in federal prisons. Unfortunately, because the majority of incarcerated women are housed in state prisons, this new law provides to less than ten percent of people who menstruate. While some states have pushed for more access to supplies, very little legislative action has been taken.

When talking about issues related to menstruation, transgender and nonbinary individuals are often overlooked. Yet they suffer with stigma even more than women: from gendered products, to body dysphoria, to being unable to discreetly change a pad, tampon, or menstrual cup in a non-gender neutral bathroom. For homeless genderqueer people the situation is even worse, with 26% of individuals avoiding homeless shelters for fear of mistreatment, and 70% of those who did stay in shelters reporting some form of discrimination, from being kicked out for their gender identity to assault. Across the board, they are often ignored under the assumption that once they start transitioning (which not all trans people do) they will not have periods anymore. The idea that trans and nonbinary people do not menstruate isolates them further for their identities by prohibiting their access to necessary supplies. Transgender and nonbinary individuals must be included in the discussion of menstrual equity.

The safety of menstrual products is another issue to consider. Menstrual products are classified as medical devices under the FDA and as such, manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients in their products. Lack of available information has prompted consumers to question the safety of these items. There are known risks with using tampons, such as Toxic Shock Syndrome. However, chemicals in tampons can pose other risks. Dioxins, which can sometimes be present in tampons in small amounts from the process of bleaching cotton, are a known carcinogen. The FDA determined monthly dioxide exposure does not exceed “tolerable levels”, but no research has been done into how this exposure accumulates over a lifetime of use. Another concern is exposure from pesticides used on cotton. One study found detectable residues of eight pesticides on one brand of tampons. Although no research has been done into risk from vaginal exposure, ingesting pesticides has been linked to nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, and in more severe cases, respiratory issues, memory problems, and even birth defects.  

These chemicals pose additional risks for people with vaginas because of how absorbent vaginal tissue is. Vaginal walls are abundant in blood vessels and arteries necessary for proper blood flow. These vessels are highly permeable, and, unlike other parts of the body, drugs absorbed from the vagina do not undergo metabolism. Chemicals will be released directly into the bloodstream, potentially leaving those who use tampons at greater risk of exposure. A study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that medicine taken vaginally was up to ten times more potent in the bloodstream than the same medicine taken orally. Tampon manufacturers are aware chemicals present may cause health risks, yet do not feel the need to inform customers. Additionally, very little research has been done into the safety of tampons and potential adverse health effects from certain chemicals.

Some companies have taken the initiative to make periods safer. Many companies were founded on the ideal of safe and organic, toxin free tampons, liners, and pads (Lola, Sustain, Cora). Although these products are far from affordable for everyone, these companies make an effort for give back to women who cannot afford access to their products, either by donating supplies or a portion of their profits. There are options other than pads and tampons as well, such as menstrual cups or period underwear. These reusable options are better for the environment and safer for people who menstruate. But while reusable menstrual supplies may save money in the long run, the initial investment can be expensive. Additionally, the above listed companies’ products are much more expensive than most other products. Although it is important for many products to be available for consumers, people should not have to pay more for safety. These products should more available to those in need.

Research needs to be done to determine the safety of products and whether dioxins or pesticides, or other chemicals or additives, can have any negative long term health risks. Manufacturers should be required to list ingredients and state any potential health risks as well, as some companies have already done. The luxury tax on tampons should be abolished as tampons and other menstrual products are not luxuries, but necessities for people who menstruate. Legislators should also push to make period products more widely available, especially for transgender and nonbinary individuals, the homeless population, and in prisons and schools. The stigma around periods has affected the way people view menstruation and as such, the laws regarding it. For the health, safety, and peace of mind of people who menstruate, now is the time for change to happen.