Updated 6 Feb 2018
Periods are a fact of life. But if you automatically reach for the same, familiar brand of tampons, sanitary pads and painkillers each month, STOP.
It might not seem like a big spend each time you shop, but many women will spend £1,000s on period-related products over the years. So we've found tips and tricks to help you save, including free samples, a sanitary product comparison site and reusable options. Plus if you're in financial trouble and struggling to afford these basic necessities, we've where to go for help.
In this guide...
This is the first incarnation of this guide. Please give us feedback, suggest improvements and share your tips in the Free or cheap sanitary products forum thread.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and a consultant gynaecologist working with the Wellbeing of Women charity have kindly reviewed this guide to ensure everything in it is safe and accurate. However, if you have any safety concerns or medical questions you should speak to your GP. For more info on the safe use of sanitary products, see the NHS website’s Sanitary products page.
Because most consider disposable sanitary products an essential, regular purchase, and they're often bought as part of a supermarket shop, they're an under-the-radar expense. But that doesn't mean it's not worth saving where you can - and over the years the cost can rack up.
We've crunched the numbers and our back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that, based on current prices, a woman could spend up to £70 a year and £2,756 over the course of her life on pricey branded pads. Yet shift to the cheapest own-brand alternative and it could cost just £242 - a huge £2,514 saving.
According to experts, a woman will...
- Have up to 480 periods in her lifetime. The NHS says that between the age of 12 and 52 a woman who doesn't have kids will have around 480 periods. (The figure will be less for those who have pregnancies though, and plenty of other factors affect this too, such as the age you reach puberty and the menopause, and what contraceptives you use.)
- Buy 22 tampons or pads each month. The Absorbent Hygiene Products Manufacturers Association (AHPMA) estimates women use an average of 22 tampons or pads each month they have a period.
So a quick bit of multiplication suggests:
A woman (who doesn't have kids) will use around 10,500 sanitary products in her lifetime.
That's a very rough average of course - some estimates are higher, there are a number of reasons it may be less - but it give us an idea so we can work out how much you can save.
|Cost per pack||Cost per item||Average lifetime cost (1)|
|Always Infinity normal sanitary pads (14-pack)||£3.15 (Boots)||26p||£2,756|
|Tampax Compak Pearl regular tampons (18-pack)||£3.15 (Boots)||18p||£1,837|
|Tesco regular applicator tampons (20-pack)||95p (Tesco)||5p||£499|
|Tesco Everyday Value sanitary towels (10-pack)||23p (Tesco)||2p||£242|
|Based on 2018 prices. (1) Based on an estimated 10,500 sanitary products per lifetime|
Of course, it's likely you won't buy the same product your entire life, and prices change. But these figures give an idea of how the cost of periods can seriously rack up over time.
And it's not just sanitary products...
The cost of periods isn't limited to tampons and pads. In 2015, a survey claimed the average woman spends over £18,000 in a lifetime on 'period-related' products. This includes other expenses such as painkillers, replacement underwear and toiletries - and even magazines and chocolate.
What about the 'tampon tax'?
You may have heard of a so-called 'tampon tax'. Don’t worry, there’s no need to do a tax return for your tampons. This is just the 5% VAT that the Government charges on sanitary products. Like all VAT, this is already added to your bill when you pay at the till.
Some supermarkets, including Tesco, Waitrose, Co-op and Morrisons, say they've cut the price of sanitary products by 5% and so now pay the ‘tampon tax’ for customers. Yet don’t let that decide where you shop – just find the cheapest price overall using the tips below.
If you buy disposable tampons and pads, there are some simple ways to save.
Many MoneySavers report finding little difference between branded tampons and towels (eg, Tampax, Always, Bodyform) and supermarket own-brands. So don't just go with the flow (sorry) - you can save a fair whack if you shift down a brand. Our forumites say own-branded sanitary products can be just as good as branded ones, if not better:
Boots' own non-applicator tampons are far more absorbant than Tampax.
I use Tesco own-brand non-applicator tampons and they're absolutely fine!
This can save serious cash. For example, buy a pack of Lil-Lets super non-applicator tampons at Asda, and you'll pay 10p a tampon. Yet Asda Protect non-applicator tampons work out at just a little over 2p each.
Of course, different products suit different people, but next time you shop for tampons or towels, consider opting for an own brand. If you can't tell the difference, then why pay more?
See our full Lifetime cost of sanitary products calculations above for an idea of how much you could save by buying non-branded. And for more on how to use this principle to save on all kinds of groceries, see our Downshift Challenge guide.
Find out which store sells the cheapest sanitary products with these shopping comparison tools - there's even one just for sanitary products:
Sanitary Saver sorts every available product by cost. Specialist sanitary-product comparison site and app Sanitary Saver (developed by ex-MSE team member Adam) breaks down the cost of tampons and pads from Asda, Boots, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury's, Superdrug, Tesco and Waitrose.
It lists every sanitary product sold by these shops, and you can sort them in order of total cost, or cost per tampon or pad. So you can see if you can save by switching product AND the store you buy it from.
MySupermarket* gives less detail but covers more shops. Supermarket comparison site mySupermarket doesn't have quite as much info specific to sanitary products but it compares the cost of ALL kinds of groceries - including sanitary products - at all the biggies, plus Aldi, Amazon, Boots, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Poundland, Poundstretcher and Superdrug.
Big brands often give out free samples, usually when they have a new product they want to promote. Snap them up when they're available, and use them to supplement your stock of sanitary products.
We'll list these freebies when we spot 'em on our Supermarket coupons page, alongside other coupons available for sanitary products and personal hygiene. Although it's generally cheaper to go unbranded, coupons can be a good way to save if you're keen to stick to a particular brand.
When we checked on 6 Feb, the following coupons and freebies were available:
Many women need to take painkillers to combat period pains (sadly yet another monthly cost). But don't assume you need to go for meds marketed specifically for period pain.
It's often possible to save by shunning branded products and opting for a generic (unbranded or own-brand) equivalent. It's a medicine's 'active' ingredient that matters – the rest is largely irrelevant (unless you've certain allergies), though liquid capsules work quicker and some taste different. See our Cheap Medicines guide for full info.
What are the different types of ibuprofen?
You can buy own-brand ibuprofen for as little as 25p (for a box of 16 at Asda), but be mindful that there are different types of ibuprofen.
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society says: "The most common type (of ibuprofen) is ibuprofen acid but other types include ibuprofen sodium, ibuprofen lysine... Some types of ibuprofen, such as ibuprofen sodium or ibuprofen lysine, do begin to provide pain relief quicker than ibuprofen acid as they may be absorbed more quickly."
How can I check if packs with different branding contain the same medicine?
If you're not sure, use the industry insiders' trick and check the product licence number (eg, PL 10000/1000). If you spot two with the same number, even if the packaging is worlds apart, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society says it means it's the same product – that's the same active ingredient AND the same formulation.
If in any doubt though, always ask the pharmacist for help.
How else can I deal with period pain?
Painkillers aren't the only thing that can help with period pain. The NHS has a number of other recommendations:
- Exercise. You may not feel like exercising during a painful period, but keeping active can reduce pain – try some gentle swimming, walking or cycling.
- Heat. Putting a heat pad or hot water bottle (wrapped in a tea towel) on your tummy may help reduce pain.
- Warm bath or shower. This can relieve pain and help you relax.
- Massage. Light, circular massage around your lower abdomen may also help reduce pain.
- Relaxation techniques. Relaxing activities, such as yoga or pilates, may help distract you from feelings of pain and discomfort.
- Transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation (TENS). A TENS machine is a small battery-operated device that delivers a mild electrical current to your tummy, which can help reduce pain.
- Stop smoking. Smoking is thought to increase the risk of period pain. See our Stop Smoking guide for help.
If you're having severe pain that can't be managed by painkillers and the methods above, you should visit your GP. See the NHS' advice on period pain for more info.
Some women avoid using disposable pads and tampons altogether, and find reusable alternatives more comfortable and absorbent. These products are often designed by women to be as discreet and/or stylish as possible so they won't cramp your style (sorry... again).
The principle behind them is similar to reusable baby nappies – they can be seriously MoneySaving, and there are environmental benefits too. Forumites say if you've kids and have already got used to using (and washing) reusable nappies, this isn't much of a stretch.
Menstrual cups (£15-£20 each, can last for several years). Made from medical-grade silicone, menstrual cups are inserted like a tampon, but collect fluid rather than absorbing it. There are different sizes to choose from, based on your age and whether you've had children.
One of the best-known is Mooncup*, which says it can hold around 30ml of fluid (tampons hold 6-18ml depending on size). Mooncup says if you follow its instructions for cleaning and storage, the cup can last for "years and years".
Forumites also recommend Diva Cup, Femme Cup and Luna Cup. Don't just buy direct though – check prices elsewhere to ensure you get the best price. Menstrual cups can be found at Amazon*, Boots* and FeelUnique*.
Reusable sanitary pads (£2-£10 each, last up to five years). These look similar to disposable pads but can be washed and reused. They're made from a variety of materials (eg, organic cotton, microfibre, bamboo) and usually have poppers to keep them in place on your underwear.
They're sold on Amazon* and a number of specialist websites - forumites recommend Cheeky Wipes, Earthwise Girls, Honour Your Flow, Popolini and Wee Notions. And if you're handy with a needle and thread, some MoneySavers even make their own - you can find patterns online, eg, at Sewing Bee Fabrics.
Menstrual underwear (£8-£20 each, last as long as regular underwear). Also known as 'period pants', these look just like regular underwear, but have hidden protection to prevent leaks. Although some are marketed as only offering 'extra protection' on top of regular sanitary products, others say they can be used as protection on their own.
Many of the specialist sites that sell them are overseas, like US-based Thinx and Lunapads, but you can find a selection on Amazon UK*. There's also UK-based Precious Stars and Pretty Clever Pants (designed by TV's Carol Smillie).
Mooncups are great! Had mine for over a year, it's really comfortable and 100% reliable (more than I can say for tampons!).
Would wholeheartedly recommend reusable pads to any and every woman who menstruates. So much easier, don't need to run out to the local shop if you start unexpectedly, and so much better for the environment.
Cloth pads are so much more comfortable than disposables! No more nappy rash type irrititation.
How should I decide which one to use?
There are plenty of reusable options out there, so the trick is to find out which ones work best for you. Some MoneySavers say using a combination of the above can be best.
I have used a Mooncup and reusable pads for years. Much more eco-friendly, cheaper and, for those who have very heavy periods, much more reliable together than disposables.
Sadly, many women struggle to afford basic sanitary products each month. So-called 'period poverty' is a reality for many - but if you're affected, there are places that can help:
Foodbanks don't just do food - they offer sanitary products and other toiletries too. To get help from most foodbanks, you need to be referred (though this isn't the case with some independent foodbanks). You can typically get referred by a doctor, health visitor, school or social worker. If you're not sure who to talk to, try asking Citizens Advice.
You'll likely be asked some questions about your income and why you need to use the foodbank. This ensures the food, sanitary products and other items go to the people who need it most. Common reasons for referrals include redundancy, receiving an unexpected bill or a delay in benefit payments.
The Trussell Trust is one of the biggest foodbank charities in the UK. It runs two-thirds of foodbanks – use its website to check if it operates near you. You can also look online to find out if there are any independent foodbanks near you, or speak to Citizens Advice.
At uni? Try your student union. Some university student unions offer free sanitary products to female students, including tampons, sanitary pads and Mooncups. Universities supporting the 'Free Periods' campaign include Middlesex University, the University of Sunderland and Sussex University.
In 2017, the NUS (National Union of Students) also pledged to offer free sanitary products to all female students across the UK. This hasn't yet been rolled out though.
Studying (or have school-age daughters) in Scotland? From August, the Scottish Government is introducing a scheme to offer free sanitary products in Scottish schools, colleges and universities.
In Aberdeen? Some can get free sanitary products. A six-month pilot scheme in Aberdeen, funded by the Scottish Government and running until the end of February (the exact date hasn't been announced yet), is providing free sanitary products to women in low-income households.
Eligible women are issued with a so-called 'S-Card' they can then show at their local pharmacy, supermarket or doctor to get the products for free. For more info, see the Scottish Government website. As a result of this pilot scheme, the Scottish Government is also considering further action to support those on low incomes elsewhere.
The NHS DOESN'T provide free sanitary products
The NHS told us it doesn't offer free sanitary products to women struggling to afford them, and you can't be prescribed them on the NHS either.
A number of petitions have been started asking the Government to start providing free sanitary products in schools (as is already planned in Scotland) or even make tampons and sanitary towels free for all women.
How can I donate sanitary products to those in need?
If you want to (and can afford to) help, you can donate sanitary products to your local foodbank, which will ensure they go to people who need them. The Trussell Trust has a list of non-food items its foodbanks usually need most, though it's always worth checking with your local foodbank first to see what specific items it needs.