Thanks to the passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, feminine care products like tampons, pads, period underwear, menstrual cups, and more are now qualified health expenses available for FSA and HSA spending - for the first time ever!
For the 70+ million FSA and HSA users out there, this is a huge new product category that they can factor into their yearly tax-free healthcare account contribution. But for FSA users in particular, this is a chance to truly explore your menstrual care options to see what is the right match for your overall comfort and lifestyle. After all, most of us have some extra FSA dollars to spend before each deadline, but if you find yourself with a surplus at any point in your plan year, this could be a perfect opportunity to explore new kinds of period products.
If you're firmly on team tampon, you still have an opportunity to explore the many innovations that have emerged in recent years around these products, and specifically new manufacturing methods and tampon ingredients that could help you reduce your carbon footprint, improve your overall comfort and more. Let's take a closer look at what's in tampons and how you can make an informed decision the next time it's time to re-up.
What is the history of tampon ingredients?
First a little history. According to The Atlantic, objects used to curb menstrual flow date back as far as ancient Rome where women were known to fashion tampons out of wool. The intravaginal devices that we know today first emerged in Europe in the 17th century, but were often used as contraceptives as opposed to being a sanitary item.
The first commercial applicator tampons that we know today were first patented in the 1930s by a Colorado-based general practitioner named Earle Cleveland Haas. With most women using the bulky menstrual pads of that era, Haas developed a new device that was made with compressed cotton. Because he wanted the ability to insert and remove without having to be touched directly, he created an "applicator" from paper tubes. He patented this design in 1933, and he combined the terms "vaginal packs" and "tampons" to create "Tampax". Sound familiar?
What are tampons made of today?
Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates tampons as medical devices, and they are available in a variety of forms, including "organic" and standard varieties, unscented and scented as well as those that utilize a cardboard or plastic applicator that is inserted or those designed to be directly inserted without the use of an applicator (FDA)
Today, the most commonly used tampon ingredients are cotton and viscose rayon (a product made from processed wood pulp), and these make up the ingredients in most standard tampons. Organic tampons differ from these variants by using 100 percent organic cotton (Women's Health). But where these two products really differ is in the manufacturing process. And with many new studies examining the impact of these methods on the user's body, the jury is still out as to whether these ingredients could have long-term health effects.
Are tampon ingredients dangerous?
The subject of tampon ingredients has become a much bigger issue in recent years as more studies have been conducted on chemicals that may be present in tampons and what the primary ingredients may be exposed to during the manufacturing process. In 2019, New York became the first state in the U.S. to require all tampons and menstrual products to list their ingredients, notably pesticides used in growing the fibers or any chemical byproducts produced during the manufacturing process.
One of the chief concerns in the manufacturing process is dioxin, a byproduct of the bleaching process that manufacturers use to clean rayon through the use of chlorine. Dioxin has been linked to conditions like cancer and endometriosis in the past, but few studies have been conducted on its risk from feminine care products. However, a study conducted in 2002 found that "dioxins are found in trace amounts in both cotton and rayon tampons, they do not "significantly contribute to dioxin exposures in the United States." In fact, the researchers concluded that dioxins are actually more of a risk in food products than they are in menstrual care products.
But while this study examined immediate exposure, there is much less research conducted on what long-term exposure to dioxin could produce, even in the nominal levels found in common feminine care products. An additional concern is chemical exposure long before the manufacturing process. As cotton and rayon are both highly absorbent plants, there is a chance they could soak up pesticides and heavy metals that may be present in the soil. After all, women may use up to 12,000 tampons in their lifetimes, so the long-term risk of exposure to these ingredients is still not fully understood.
Although the New York State law requires manufacturers to list ingredients, they are not required to list pesticides used in growing the fibers or any chemical byproducts produced, so shoppers may not be getting the full story when reading the back of the package. But thankfully, according to Medium, gynecologists believe that the risk from these ingredients is nominal, and if women are still worried about their risk of exposure, silicon options like menstrual cups may be the best option.
Should I keep using tampons?
If they work for you, keep it going! Ultimately, feminine care options come down to personal preference, and thankfully, there are more options than ever to help you find the ideal mix of comfort, hygiene and versatility to adapt to your lifestyle. Thanks to efforts from New York legislators and the ever-growing sustainable, organic feminine care movement, women can make an informed choice when it comes to their menstrual care products to find the safest, most reliable choice for their long-term health.Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
For those who menstruate, period products are an unavoidable, and costly, monthly expense. According to the Office on Women's Health, periods can last three to seven days per month—from age 12 to 52. Between birth control, tampons, sanitary pads, pain killers, heating pads, and other necessities, you could easily spend more than $18,000 on period products throughout your life, according to a Huffington Post report.
With thousands of dollars on the line—you may wonder if it's time to explore alternatives to tampons and pads. The feminine hygiene products business is worth $6.2 billion in the United States alone—so it's easy to see why companies are so eager to push new options. If you're struggling to figure out which new period products are best—keep reading.
Menstrual cups are a popular alternative to tampons and pads. With the right care, you may reuse menstrual cups from six months to ten years. These reusable feminine hygiene products are more than eco-friendly; menstrual cups may also save you more money over time.
One of the biggest downsides to menstrual cups is the hefty $25 to $40 upfront cost—and you may not find the correct size right away. Even with a few of the wrong purchases, though, you may still save money.
Depending on how much you spend on disposable tampons or sanitary pads every month, you could break-even faster than you may expect—and if you buy a menstrual cup that lasts for several years, you could save hundreds of dollars.
Although you may wear a menstrual cup for up to twelve hours—the product may be tough to insert or remove. Also, it may be messier than using a tampon or sanitary pad. Your body may not tolerate a menstrual cup, either—and it may cause vaginal irritation.
Another newer alternative to tampons and sanitary pads is menstrual discs. This disposable period product has been getting attention for a few good reasons. You may get twelve glorious hours of leak-free period protection—and you can wear it while having penetrative sex. Some manufacturers also claim the product may cut back on period cramps.
Depending on the brand, a menstrual disc may absorb up to five or six teaspoons of blood—which is equal to about five regular or three super tampons. This makes them appropriate for those with a heavy flow—but you may still prefer to change them more often.
One of the biggest downsides of menstrual discs is the cost. Although they are more absorbent than tampons—you may spend more money on a month's supply.
The other con is most menstrual discs are disposable—which means you may not cut down on monthly waste. If you prefer a reusable option, you may want to compare menstrual cup options. There are some—like the Intima Ziggy Cup, for example—with a design that is a lot like a disc.
Period underwear—a.k.a. menstrual underwear or period panties—is another period product to replace tampons and sanitary pads. This earth-friendly option is washable and reusable. It feels like regular underwear—while still being absorbent. Some brands also say they can control moisture and period odors.
One of the biggest advantages of period underwear is the ability to save money. Although it won't last for several years—like some menstrual cup brands—you can keep it as long as any other type of underwear. For example, Thinx says you may use their product for up to two years.
The downside is you may need to buy more than one pair to last your entire cycle without daily washes. You can expect to pay between $25 to $40 per pair, depending on the brand.
Another perk is sustainability. If reducing waste is important to you, you may consider switching to period underwear. Each pair may absorb two to four tampons of blood—which means a lot fewer tampons or sanitary pads going into the landfill every month. Period underwear may be less convenient than tampons, though. If you're traveling, you may prefer the ease of disposable products.
Period underwear also offers gender-neutral options—like period boy shorts or period boxer briefs. These products may cause less body dysphoria for gender non-conforming or transgender folks.
Reusable cloth pads
Reusable cloth pads are another sustainable period product. These pads—which may come in more than one piece—work like disposable sanitary pads. The biggest differences are you may snap them into place—along with the ability to wash and reuse them.
There are different sized reusable cloth pads—depending on your flow—and you should expect to change them every two to six hours. Some folks may even use them as back-up protection for tampons. These period products may be more breathable and flexible than disposable sanitary pads—but you still won't be able to swim with them.
Although one of the biggest advantages may be the ability to save money over time, you may need to buy a bunch to get started—which could be costly. For example, one pack of three may not be enough to get you through your cycle and could cost almost $40.
Another perk is skipping the waste of tampons and disposable sanitary pads. While they won't last as long as one of the more durable menstrual cups—you will still prevent more period products from going into the landfill.
Menstrual sponges—a.k.a. sea sponges or sanitary sponges—are another eco-friendly alternative to tampons and sanitary pads. You may reuse these products for six to twelve months—and they have become more popular among folks looking to cut back on waste.
The problem is, menstrual sponges aren't federally-regulated—or a top pick among medical professionals. In fact, some gynecologists urge those who menstruate to avoid them. Menstrual sponges may have unwanted particles—like yeast, mold, sand, and grit. These period products may also have bacteria that could cause toxic shock syndrome.
If you're eager to find a more sustainable period product, there are much safer options to choose from. You may avoid waste with other products on this list—including menstrual cups, period underwear, or reusable cloth pads.
The best alternative menstrual product to tampons and pads
There are plenty of reasons to explore alternatives to tampons and pads. Whether you want to save money, create less waste, or try something new—there is no shortage of new period products. The problem is, some feminine care products may be too expensive to experiment with—or continue using long-term.
Luckily, new legislation has made it more affordable. Thanks to the CARES Act, you now have more ways to spend money in your health savings account (HSA) or your flexible spending account (FSA). The new law allows you to use money from either account to pay for menstrual products.
Since your money goes into both accounts pre-tax, you're getting a discount for every dollar you spend on menstrual products. This may offer more wiggle room in your budget to explore new period products—and see which one you want to include in your monthly menstruation routine.
Kate DoreKate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner™ Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.
Dealing with that time of the month is emotionally taxing enough without having to worry about whether you have enough product to last you the entire cycle or shouldering the cost of buying new menstrual products. While it may seem like the costs aren't that big of a deal — it's only a couple of bucks a month right? — feminine hygiene products are about a $23 billion global industry and are expected to keep growing. There's also evidence that women will spend around $18,000 over their lifetime on these products alone (Huff Post), which is no small number.
Let's not forget both the emotional and physical labor involved with having to purchase items and cleaning stained items. All this to say, it's a lot of work (and money) to take proper care of your feminine health.
The good news is that there are new period products on the market that can help. Many of them will help you save money, cut down on waste and make dealing with periods a bit easier. Let's explore a few of the newest period products on the market.
Washable Menstrual Pads
Instead of buying disposable pads, those made of organic materials such as cotton or bamboo that you can use over and over again are a great alternative. They look exactly like what you've come to know as a winged pad, except they're made of reusable fabric that snaps around your underwear.
As you do your search you'll find there are different designs, some with various adsorbent layers and others where you can add in inserts and swap them out. All of them should be machine washable, though there are many that recommend that you hand wash them to lengthen their lifespan. Then, simply hang them to dry.
There may be a bigger upfront cost when purchasing this type of period product but you should be able to save money over the long term since reusable pads tend to last for around five years. Plus, they're better for the environment, which is a win in our books.
Reusable Menstrual Cups
Think of menstrual cups as an alternative to tampons — one that offers less risk of toxic shock syndrome (if at all). They are also cheaper — you're spending $30 upfront for one instead of buying multiple boxes of tampons. If you're still wondering what is a menstrual cup, these items are usually made with medical-grade silicone or other safe products so you can rest assured you're not inserting anything into your body that's potentially harmful.
Basically, you insert a menstrual cup much like you would with a tampon, but there is a different technique to it. To be honest, it might take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy to see why they've become popular. Aside from the cost and it's eco-friendly benefits, you can leave a menstrual cup in for longer than a tampon.
A menstrual disc is very similar to a menstrual cup except the shape is a bit different. It also holds a lot more fluid so you can keep it in for up to 12 hours and still get some form of protection. These discs are made with BPA, latex or phthalates and are meant to be thrown away when done.
Some women contend that menstrual discs are more comfortable than a menstrual cup, but they can be messier to remove. That might be something to keep in mind if you're nervous about getting blood on your hands.
Organic Cotton Tampons
If you're feeling iffy about menstrual cups, discs and pads, you can still be eco-friendly and purchase organic products. That's where organic tampons and pads like Cora come in. They're disposable but are made of 100% cotton and are compostable, biodegradable and vegan. In other words, they have a lower environmental impact than more conventional disposable menstrual products.
What are period panties? They're exactly what you think they are — underwear designed to be worn during your menstrual cycle. Instead of wearing regular underwear and using a menstrual cup or pad, you simply wear these and it'll prevent you from staining your clothes. It can be a much more comfortable option, since absorbent material is already built into the garment itself.
When shopping around, you'll find lots of different designs (some of them are quite cute!) and absorbency. Product descriptions should tell you how absorbent they are, like how many tampons the material holds. Keep in mind that period panties tend to be a bit more expensive than some of the options mentioned above, particularly if you decide to only use this product exclusively.
Period Tracking Jewelry
Interested in tracking your menstrual cycle so you know when to experience mood or energy changes, and even when your period will come? There are plenty of apps but period tracking jewelry helps you track data automatically. Think of it much like you would a fitness tracker you wear like a watch, but it's specifically for period-related stats.
Ones like Bellabeat track the reproductive cycle, stress levels and more. You can wear the accessory as a clip, bracelet or necklace — the smart technology will sync with an app so you can check your different stats. You can even get reminders such as when you need to take your birth control pill. Unfortunately, these products are not currently FSA-eligible.
Ask most women what the most pressing challenge is when it comes to their menstrual cycle, and they will say it is dealing with cramps. Sure, you can take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen but there is a medicine-free way to relieve symptoms.
Enter heating pads. No, these aren't the bulky microwavable ones you typically see — many of these are small disposable warmers you can stick on your belly to get some relief. If you prefer something that's more eco-friendly, there are reusable pads. These are very similar to a TENS machine which uses pulse therapy to alleviate pain. Some of these are even portable and discreet so you can hide them under your clothes.
How Do I Choose The Right Period Product?
The truth is, picking the right one will depend on your preferences and budget. Many of the new reusable menstrual products can save you money over the long-term, but you may need to pay a bunch upfront. Besides, given different aspects to think about such as size and brand, it could mean you're paying more until you find the right one.
For example, period panties are pretty straightforward as far as decision making goes, but menstrual cups will differ depending on the size and other design factors such as the cup shape and handle. The good news is that there are plenty of online resources (including quizzes) available to help you get it right the first time.
Whichever product you decide to try out, don't forget that many of these products are FSA-approved, so you can purchase them with your tax-free funds, saving you a little bit of cash in the process.
Sarah Li-Cain is a finance writer and a AFC (Accredited Financial Counselor) candidate whose work has appeared in places like Bankrate, Business Insider, Redbook, Financial Planning Association, Investopedia and International Business Times. She's also the host of Beyond The Dollar, a show where her and her guests have deep and honest conversations about how money affects their well-being. Based in Jacksonville, Florida, she can be found spending time at the beach with her family when she's not working.
We've all been there. You're using a tampon or a pad, and suddenly feel a wet spot. Bad news - you're leaking through your underwear. Now you have to find a spare tampon or pad and make sure there's no blood staining your clothes.
This used to be the norm. Unless you were able to constantly monitor your tampon or pad, there was always a chance of leaking through your underwear - especially on the first couple days of your cycle. Talk to any woman and she'll have at least one horror story like this.
Now that period panties have been around for a few years, women no longer have to worry about leaking through their underwear. These panties can absorb extra liquid and prevent embarrassing moments.
Read below to see how they work.
What are Period Panties?
Period panties are underwear made out of a special fabric that absorbs menstrual fluid. This prevents unsightly leaks that can also damage your clothes and cause visible stains.
There are two ways to use period panties. Some women with heavy flows will use them as a backup in case their tampon or pad leaks. They may also use them in place of panty liners during the latter days of the period when there's only a light flow. Women with especially light flows will use period panties on their own without any other menstrual products.
The absorbency of period panties may vary depending on the brand and style, similar to how different tampons have varying absorbency levels.
In general, period panties hold about two tampons' worth of blood, so how long they last depends on your typical flow. If one tampon gets you through six hours, you may be able to wear period panties for a full workday. If one tampon is only enough for three hours, then you should use period panties with another menstrual product.
Even though it's hard to imagine, users claim that period panties don't feel bulky or wet. Best of all, they don't carry an odor due to their antimicrobial properties. Some online users say that period underwear does feel heavier, but they eventually get used to it.
While most period panties are designed to be reworn like regular underwear, there are also disposable options. These are especially handy if you're traveling and won't have the ability to wash them.
Many women use them as an eco-friendly supplement or alternative to tampons and pads. One pair of period panties can last several years if cared for properly. They're also a good alternative for women who aren't comfortable using menstrual cups, but who want to reduce their tampon and pad use.
Some period panties come with a pocket where you can insert a heating pad to help with cramps.
Types of Period Panties
Like regular underwear, period panties come in a variety of styles including high-waist, bikini, hipster, boyshort and thong. There are even special sizes for postpartum women suffering from extra leakage, plus-size women and young girls, who may need smaller sizes.
Some period panties are also seamless, which means they won't be visible under your clothes. Most come in solid colors like black, tan, blue and gray.
Generally, you should be able to visit a store and try on period panties to see if they fit well. Some online retailers may even allow you to return period panties if they don't fit. Make sure to look at the sizing chart and read the reviews before ordering a pair.
Where to Buy Period Panties
You can purchase period panties almost anywhere you buy regular panties, including major department stores and online retailers. You can also shop for them through FSAstore.com and HSAstore.com with tax-free healthcare dollars. Some health food and wellness stores may also carry them.
Popular brands include Thinx, Ruby Love, Kinx, Lunapds, Lilova, Modibodi, Anigan and Dear Kate. Not all brands are highly-rated, so read reviews from sites like Wirecutter and Reddit before buying a pair.
Possible Issues with Period Panties
Though period panties sound like a miracle product, there are several issues that women should be aware of before buying their first pair.
Have to Be Air Dried
While period panties can usually be washed in a washing machine, most require that you air or line dry them. Using a dryer can negatively impact the fabric and reduce their moisture-wicking ability.
If you have a small apartment, it may be annoying to find a place to air dry your period panties. Also, some period panties recommend hand washing instead of using a machine, which can also be a hassle.
May Still Need a Backup
While some women may find that using period panties for their cycle is enough, others will still need to use a tampon, pad or panty liner. Still, period panties should be able to reduce the amount of menstrual products you need to use.
If you have a heavy flow, choose the period panty with the super or heavy absorbency level. These may cost slightly more than the ones with a lighter absorbency, but at least you're getting a product that fits your needs.
Come with a Heavy Price Tag
Period panties are generally more expensive than regular underwear. One pair can range from $20 to $40.
While this price may seem extravagant, consider how much you spend on tampons, pads and panty liners. Also, you'll save money if you're frequently ruining regular pairs of underwear due to leaks.
If you want to save money, visit the period panty manufacturer websites directly and look for coupon codes or sign up their emails. Like other companies, they may have special sales throughout the year. They may also offer slightly lower prices if you buy multiple panties at once.
Period products are now HSA and FSA-eligible, so you can use FSA or HSA funds to pay for period panties. Make sure to keep a receipt to prove that you used the money for a qualified medical expense.
Using period panties may seem awkward at first, but they can be a gamechanger if you've had embarrassing slip-ups before.
Zina KumokZina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A Certified Financial Health Counselor and Student Loan Counselor, she also works as a money coach helping people one-on-one at Conscious Coins. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. She paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years.
Period discomfort is often a mix of physical pain, annoying logistics and excessive costs. Women spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours worrying about their menstrual cycle. They may stress about having feminine hygiene products on-hand, run to the bathroom when they feel leakage and even save old underwear to use during that time of the month.
But the advent and rising popularity of the menstrual cup can remove many of those problems - even though many women remain unaware of their benefits. They may seem confusing and scary at first glance, especially if you don't know anyone who uses one.
Read below to find out everything you need to know about the menstrual cup - what it is, how it works and whether or not it's right for you.
What is a Menstrual Cup?
Menstrual cups may sound like newfangled devices, but they've actually been around for a while. Menstrual cups were first patented in 1867 - well before the first tampon patent.
Today's menstrual cups are made out of a flexible medical-grade silicone cup that fits into your vagina, absorbing menstrual fluids during your monthly cycle. You don't feel them when inserted correctly, and they're also leak-proof.
These new period products are safe to keep in your body for about 12 hours at a time, while tampons should only be used for a maximum of eight hours. Like tampons, using menstrual cups beyond their suggested recommendation can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, a serious condition that can lead to death in extreme cases.
When using a menstrual cup, set a timer on your phone reminding you to remove it as soon as you're close to the 12 hour mark. When the time comes to remove it, insert your fingers into your vagina until you find the seal. Then, lightly press the sides of the reusable cup until the suction seal breaks. Remove it slowly, empty the contents in the toilet and wash with unscented gentle soap and warm water.
If you don't have access to mild soap, you can use a mixture of vinegar and water. Once the menstrual product is clean and dry, you can reinsert it immediately. When your menstruation period is over, sanitize the cup in boiling water so it's clean before your next period.
This feminine hygiene product is incredibly durable, and some brands last up to a decade even with regular menstrual cup use. Women who use menstrual cups appreciate that they're an environmentally-friendly alternative to tampons or pads.
Types of Menstrual Cups
These are the most common menstrual hygiene brands that produce menstrual cups:
Most brands carry two or three different sizes: a small for young girls or teens, a medium for women in their 20s and a large for women over 30 or those who have given birth.
The right size also depends on the shape of your cervix. Take this menstrual cup quiz to find out what size period cup is right for you. They'll suggest a specific brand and size that fits your monthly menstrual flow, lifestyle and cervix placement.
While menstrual cups are more expensive upfront than a box of tampons or pads, they're only about the cost of four boxes of tampons. Because leaks are less common with menstrual cups than tampons and pads, you won't have to constantly throw out underwear that gets period stains.
Some companies make disposable, 12-hour menstrual cups. These may be a good alternative if you're traveling, camping or going to a place where washing a resuable menstrual cup isn't an option. These usually cost about $1 per cup and come in packs of 12.
You can buy menstrual cups at drugstores, in the feminine care aisle of grocery stores and at online retailers like FSAstore.com.
Downsides of Menstrual Cups
While menstrual cups have several obvious benefits, there are some drawbacks that women should be aware of before investing in one.
Cleaning can be awkward
If you're emptying a reusable menstrual cup at home, cleanup isn't likely to be an issue. But if you're at work or living in a dorm, it might be difficult to clean the menstrual cup discreetly.
There are wipes you can purchase to clean the menstrual cup in a more private location. Keep a stash of these in your purse, work desk or car. You can buy these wipes online, in drugstores or from other large retailers.
More expensive upfront
For $7, you can buy a 34-count box of tampons or a 42-count box of pads. Menstrual cups cost between $25 to $40 so women living on a tight budget may struggle with the initial cost.
To save money, look online for menstrual cup coupons. Some manufacturers may provide a discount code when you visit their website.
Since period products are now considered qualified medical expenses, you can also use money from your FSA or HSA to pay for one.
Insertion can be uncomfortable
Women who use pads or panty liners may be uncomfortable inserting a menstrual cup, and it can take a few tries to get the hang of it.
Even women who normally use tampons may find it difficult to use a menstrual cup. Make sure to read the directions carefully, talk to friends who have used them, and watch an instructional video first. When it's time to remove the cup, squat down over the toilet like you're having a bowel movement. This makes it easier to break the seal.
Risk of leaks
While menstrual cups are generally more leak-proof than tampons and pads, they're not 100% guaranteed. If you buy a period cup that's too small or you don't insert it correctly, there's a chance of leakage.
That's why it's important to buy the right size and make sure the suction seal is in place. When you're first starting out, consider using a thin pad or panty liner in addition to your menstrual cup. If you have a pair of period panties, consider wearing them.
These precautions may prevent any problems in case the reusable cup is too small or positioned incorrectly. You'll likely become more comfortable with it after a few cycles.
Zina KumokZina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A Certified Financial Health Counselor and Student Loan Counselor, she also works as a money coach helping people one-on-one at Conscious Coins. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. She paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years.
Let's face it, whether you're shopping at the supermarket or online, we all have our go-to health essentials. But what you may not realize is that all of the items in your cart, including period products, may not be treated equally. A 2015 study done by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found a 13% difference between the price women pay for personal care products compared to their male counterparts. This gender discrimination has gone on for far too long, especially when it impacts the cost of basic period products like tampons, menstrual pads, liners and other menstrual care products.
Cue the term "pink tax."
Pink tax, tampon tax, or period tax all refer to the state sales taxes on menstrual products like tampons, pads, liners, period cups and other products that are essential to menstrual and personal health. To be clear, this doesn't mean there is a special tax or added cost to these products.
Products that are exempt from sales tax are deemed basic necessities. So when state sales tax is imposed on period products, it categorizes these products as a luxury item. This luxury tax imposes a financial burden on women's health essentials. The impact becomes increasingly obvious when you look at the cost of menstrual care products over the course of a lifetime. With the average reproductive timeline occurring from ages 12-52, while spending $60 each year on menstrual care products on average, that results in over $2,400 spent over a lifetime on menstrual care. That is a hefty price to pay especially for those who experience period poverty or menstrual inequity.
Period poverty? Yes, you heard that right. According to the Vision and Voice of Women in Medicine (AMWA), "period poverty refers to the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, including but not limited to sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management." With 25 million women living below the poverty line in the U.S., the price paid for these essentials becomes all the more overwhelming.
As if these period products weren't already so expensive, the thing about retail tax is that it adds up. Over 30 states across the U.S. like Tennessee, Georgia, and others participate in imposing sales tax on these products. According to Tax Free Period, Texas alone has made as much as $23.9 million from menstrual care product sales each year. State lawmakers are reluctant to make exceptions regardless of how expensive these products have become, and it's likely because of how large of a revenue driver it is for some states. Unfortunately, the 'tampon tax' is here to stay for the time being. According to Statista, the feminine hygiene products market is on trend to reach $52 billion by 2023. The disadvantage in cost of menstrual health creates a divide in gender equality and has sparked a desire to reform the cost of health care products for women.
How long has this been going on?
For far too long. A 1994 study by the state of California estimated that "the pink tax on services alone costs a woman roughly $1,350 over a year, the equivalent of about $2,135 today." This began to show that this pink tax not only exists across the basic menstrual care necessities for women, but that women were paying more for other products and services too.
The fight to abolish period taxes for all states has been contested for quite some time and has garnered strong support from activist groups, lobbyists and government officials fighting state tax laws. For years, state officials have fought state laws by proposing bills to Congress against the unfair tax levied on menstrual health products and other products and services for women.
Putting the pressure on tampon tax
The tampon tax, or pink tax, doesn't apply to just drug stores and supermarkets. Feminine hygiene products weren't always eligible in the tax-free health world. When it comes to tax-free health care accounts like a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA) the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ultimately holds control over which products and services fall under the definition of "medical care" (IRS Tax Code 213(d).
According to IRS Tax Code 213(d), the term 'medical care' means "amounts paid for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of the body." One could make an argument that feminine care products could fall under these guidelines, but historically the IRS treated them as general health items, and therefore not eligible as medical care.
For years, tax-free health care users would have access to select eligible products that would aid in menstrual pain relief such as heating wraps. Though helpful for symptoms like cramping and bloating, the actual menstrual care products like tampons, pads, and liners all fell outside of eligibility. Users could use tax-free healthcare funds to treat symptoms of periods like pain, but not the essentials to help them go about their daily lives safely and comfortably. That had to change.
After much work that has been done on the federal level, menstrual care products no longer face the discrimination they once did in tax-free health care. As of March 2020, Congress has officially passed the CARES Act, providing economic relief for millions of Americans. (The full text of the bill can be found here.) This legislation includes a long-awaited and very important provision that is vital for FSA and HSA users: making menstrual care products eligible for the first time.
That means tax-free health users now have access to a wide variety of menstrual products from tampons to organic pads, panty liners, diva cups, and more that are now all guaranteed eligible expenses for reimbursement with an FSA or HSA.
Legislators and members of Congress led by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) would also make headway with The Pink Tax Repeal Act introduced under the 114th Congress in 2016. This makes it "illegal to charge men and women different prices for substantially similar consumer products and services at the national level."
On the state level, Senate Bill 92 was signed into law on June 27, 2019, which according to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, means diapers and menstrual hygiene products are exempt from sales tax and use tax effective January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2021. The bill's exemption defines menstrual hygiene products as, "tampons, sanitary napkins primarily designed and labeled for menstrual hygiene use, menstrual sponges, and menstrual cups." This is a huge win for the women of California as the state has historically made up to $33.4 million from menstrual care product sales each year.
What's next for pink tax reform?
As of June 2019, 13 states have specifically exempted essential hygiene products: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah. But there's still work to be done on the other 30 plus states that impose unfair sales tax on these much-needed products, you can join the fight against pink tax. The Tampon Tax Protest is an ongoing effort to eliminate the inequitable tax against these products with organizations like Tax Free Period who have resources and tools in place to take the steps in actuating change. And guess what? Change is happening.
Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! We'll keep you posted on all the FSA changes that may be coming in the foreseeable future, so be sure to to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the latest updates.
Speculation is fine. Speculation can be good. But speculation is meaningless if no one makes good on the promise. For almost a year, we've been speculating about necessary changes to health care, especially when it comes to flexible spending accounts (FSAs).
(What can we say - we're a little biased to FSAs around here…)
Well, nothing's in stone yet, but it seems like the discussion of expanding FSA eligibility, along with a slew of other needed changes, is at least part of the conversation on Capitol Hill. And the longer it is, the more likely we are to see real change come from the speculation. Our first article goes into the latest news from Washington regarding these accounts. Our second article highlights why these changes are so desperately needed.
Let's take a look…
House Introduces Bill to Bolster Consumer Health Savings - Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA)
This is such a big story, we're featuring it here, and also in our HSA Headlines column. But we simply can't ignore the importance that a new version of the "Restoring Access to Medication Act" was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Various versions of this bill were introduced in the past, but this one has a major chance of passing with bipartisan support from Representatives Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), and Darin LaHood (R-Ill.).
Two major developments would come out of this bill if it was signed into law:
- The requirement to obtain prescriptions for OTC medicines with FSA/HSA funds would disappear.
- Feminine care products like tampons would be considered qualified medical items for the first time, making them eligible for purchase with FSA/HSA funds.
Allowing the purchase of feminine care products with tax-free funds is something we discuss a lot on this page, especially when the subject started being included in various pieces of legislation of late. But there seems to be something more going on -- something that appeals to both sides of the political aisle, so we'll be following this piece of legislation very closely in the months to come.
Americans Borrowed $88 Billion to Pay for Health Care Last Year, Survey Finds - Karen Zraick, The New York Times
That isn't a typo -- Americans borrowed an estimated $88 billion over the last year to pay for health care, according to a survey released on Tuesday by Gallup and the nonprofit West Health.
And because of these exorbitant costs, roughly 25% of Americans have skipped treatment, with nearly 50% fearing bankruptcy in the event of a health emergency. In fact, even in households earning $180,000 or more a year, roughly 1/3 of respondents said they were concerned about potential bankruptcy because of a health crisis.
As a result? Crippling nationwide debt, regardless of region, tax brackets or income levels -- people live in fear of getting sick and going broke. And they're avoiding the care they need because of it, making them sicker and ultimately in need of more money to pay for it.
It's a vicious cycle that starts and ends in Washington, which the article highlights in more detail than we can offer here. But it's a worthwhile read for anyone wondering just how hard people are being hit whenever they get sick… and how much harder it hits if they ignore their own health needs.
Fridays (with Benefits) is a weekly roundup of the latest headlines about employee benefits -- from FSAs to fitness programs and everything workplace wellness. It appears every Friday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.