What is period poverty (and how can I access free period products in the UK?)

We share everything you need to know about period poverty, where you can find free period products, and how you can support great organisations helping those in need

Periods. Nobody enjoys them. For people who menstruate, we can expect around 40 years worth of visits from aunt flow, expecting to spend around £5,000 on sanitary products. But with such varying experiences of menstruation (periods lasting anywhere from two to seven days on average, every 21 to 35 days in a typical cycle), it’s not only our physical experience that differs from person to person: it’s whether or not we can afford period products every month.

Scotland became the first country in the world from 15 August 2022 to provide free period products to everyone who needs them. It made us ask: how common is period poverty? What can we do if we’re experiencing financial difficulties and need access to free menstrual products? And how can we all help support accessible sanitary products for people who menstruate?

What is period poverty (and how common is it?)

The term ‘period poverty’ refers to problems or a lack of access to period products (pads, tampons, menstrual cups) due to the financial cost. This can impact girls, women, nonbinary individuals, and trans men, at any point in their lives.

The knock-on impact can be missed time at school, college or university; job insecurity due to missed days at work; as well as negatively impacting their sense of wellbeing and social connection. Some people may experience feelings of shame or self-blame, as they may feel embarrassed at their financial situation, or that it’s ‘their fault’ they cannot afford access to necessary sanitary products.

A report released in 2022 by Plan International UK revealed that more and more young people are struggling to afford period products. One in four (28%) of those who menstruate aged 14 to 21 struggle to afford period products, while nearly one in five (19%) have been unable to afford any period products since the start of 2022. One in 10 use food bands to access free period products. It’s not just young people who are struggling. Water Aid revealed that nearly one in four (24%) of those aged 14-50 who menstruate have struggled to afford sanitary products in the last year.

Results of a survey released in 2017 by Plan International UK revealed that one in 10 girls cannot afford sanitary products. One in seven have had to ask to borrow sanitary items from a friend due to the cost. One in 10 have had to improvise sanitary wear.

In the UK alone, it’s estimated that 137,000 children have missed school due to period poverty. While some small steps have been made forward, such as the removal of the 5% tampon tax in the UK from the start of 2021 (previously, 5% VAT was added to sanitary products), many are still relying on foodbanks, charities, and educational institutes to provide access to free sanitary products.

Period poverty can affect people at any age, and is not always income-based. Those leaving situations of domestic violence, refugees, and asylum seekers may also seek to access help and support in affording menstrual products.

What does period poverty mean for individuals?

That can vary greatly from person to person. Around 80% of those who struggle to afford period products have used toilet paper as a substitute, according to Plan International. Others have used makeshift options including fabric, newspapers, and socks. Of those who struggle to buy period products, half report cutting back on food in order to buy them.

Some people feel unable to attend school, college, university, or work, due to shame, embarrassment, or fear. Many argue that providing free access to period products is vital in creating a sense of equality and dignity. With rising worries around inflation and the cost of living, some worry that this could have further impacts on those already struggling.

Research has found that in the UK, nearly half (49%) of girls have missed an entire day of school due to their period, with an estimated 1337,700 children and young people in the UK missing school due to period poverty. A lack of education and awareness, as well as a lack of resources, can lead to those who menstruate feeling embarrassed and unable to ask for help.

What has the UK government done to help ease period poverty?

Along with the 2021 removal of the 5% ‘tampon tax’, there have been a number of limited changes to help some who experience period poverty in the UK. These have included:

In Scotland

As of 15 August 2022, Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free period products to everyone who needs them (not just based on age or income). Councils and education providers are legally required to make tampons and menstrual pads available to anyone who needs them. Proposed in 2017 and passed in 2020, it has been praised as a step towards eliminating period poverty for good.As of 2017, Scotland made sanitary products available for free in schools and colleges thanks to just over £5m in funding.

In England

A rollout of free period products for young people in English state schools and colleges between 2020 and July 2022. (This was limited to England and was only available in state-maintained schools and 16-19 educational institutes. It was ‘not a universal offer of free period products to everyone under the age of 19’ as ‘this would not represent good value for taxpayers’ money’ according to the government. Those at university seeking higher education qualifications, apprentices, and staff including volunteers, were not covered by the scheme).NHS has been offering free period products to hospital patients (long and short-term) since 2019.The now axed ‘Tampon Tax Fund’ which allocated funds generated from VAT period products to projects supporting vulnerable and excluded women and girls (from 2015-21).

In Wales

A £2.3m scheme (2019) and £3.2m scheme (2020) sought to provide primary and secondary schools with free sanitary products in Wales, with libraries receiving additional funding (£220,000) for those in need. Nearly £9m has been invested since 2018 to help young people and those on low incomes to access free period products.Powys partnered with social enterprise, Hey Girls, to provide free home delivery of eco-friendly period products for women and girls of all ages from November 2021. Due to unprecedented demand, at the time of writing (August 2022), that scheme is currently unavailable.

Where can I get free tampons, pads, or menstrual cups?

If you are struggling financially and need help accessing period products, there are a number of different ways you can get help and support.

Find your local food bank – many food banks also provide free toiletries and essentials, including menstrual products. You can contact your local food bank and find out more details through The Trussell Trust find a food bank online resource. You may need to get a voucher order to use your local food bank. To get one of these, you may need to speak with your doctor, health visitor, social worker, or Citizens Advice. Many different frontline professionals can provide a voucher or highlight other local, free resources that may be able to help.  

Freedom4Girls – provides period products to those in Leeds, Sheffield, West Yorkshire, and select other regions of the UK, Kenya, and Uganda. Freedom4Girls provides local organisations, community centres, and individuals struggling due to financial or social limitations. If you live within the areas they support, you can request products for yourself through their website.

Scotland – Those looking to find their nearest location for free period products can use the free PickupMyPeriod app. This free app will let you know which locations near you currently have free menstrual products available for you to pick up. You can also contact your local authority to find out where you can access products in your area.

Some supermarkets – supermarket Morrisons rolled out their ‘Package for Sandy’ campaign across 497 stores. You can ask at any customer service desk for a package for ‘Sandy’, or for a ‘period product pack’, to receive a free, discrete envelope with sanitary products, no questions asked.

Lidl Ireland and Northern Ireland have previously run free pad and tampon campaigns, where you can sign up for free monthly coupons through their app.

How can I help reduce period poverty?

Want to support those who menstruate, but are unsure how to get started? There are a number of different ways you can show your support and help reduce (and eradicate) period poverty for good. Whether you want to donate pads, tampons, new menstrual cups, time, or money, there are organisations out there waiting for your help.

Drop-off a donation in person – while you can’t pick up free products in person, many high street stores offer drop-off points where you can donate period products (and other hygiene products) for those in need. Some Boots and Superdrug stores offer these drop-off points. To find out more about drop-off locations, visit The Hygiene Bank.  

Bloody Good Period – supplying free period products to refugees, asylum-seekers, and those who can’t afford access, this charity partners with food banks, homeless charities, and more, to produce period products. Ordering period products in bulk and providing them to over 100 partners across England and Wales, you can support Bloody Good Period through volunteering, donations or fundraising. They also have templates to help you contact your local MP.

Hey Girls – aims to help eradicate UK period poverty through improving access to quality products and increasing education around period health. As of June 2022, they have donated over 25m period products to those in need. You can support Hey Girls through their buy one, donate one scheme, which works with over 150 partners to provide free period products to those who need them. Using only natural materials without chemicals, bleach, or toxins, all of their products use sustainably sourced bamboo and organic cotton.

Period Poverty – is working towards eliminating period poverty in Britain’s most deprived communities by 2025. The Period Poverty charity supports homeless women, women in refugee camps, female students, and women in low-income employment. You can donate or start a fundraiser to show your support. Since 2013, they have donated over 6.2m sanitary pads to women in crisis.

Is financial stress negatively impacting your mental health and wellbeing? Find out more about debt counselling and try tips to help reduce your financial stress with Counselling Directory.

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