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Health & Relationships

How to get free and cheap sanitary products

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The monthly cost of sanitary products adds up – bloody fast. But, with these top deals and tips, we hope your periods will start feeling (financially, at least) a little less painful.

hands holding sanitary products

Credit: LightField Studios – Shutterstock

Sanitary products are necessities, so having to fork out for pricey pads and tampons hardly seems fair.

It's thought that an average of 22 products are generally used for each period, despite many packs of sanitary pads including just 14 or fewer...

There are ways to avoid bulking up on these overpriced (and underfilled) packs, though. We'll talk you through the best ways to get free sanitary products at uni, along with the cheapest sanitary products to buy, to help you save money.

Many people around the world can't afford even the most basic sanitary products. If you are able to spare some cash, make sure to donate too.

How much do periods cost?

Different numbers often get thrown around when it comes to calculating the cost of periods.

In 2018, Labour MP Danielle Rowley stated that periods can cost an individual as much as £500 a year. This seems like an extravagant amount, but it takes into account extra things like pain relief and new underwear, plus comforts like chocolate and magazines.

We can't ignore the extra costs that can come with periods. But if we strip the figure down to the absolute essentials, it's much less.

To work out the average cost of sanitary products per period, it's worth noting that menstrual cycles are generally 28 days long, meaning people who menstruate have around 13 periods a year.

It's been estimated that periods can cost £4,800 across a lifetime. That includes around 10,500 products for 480 periods (if they don't have any pregnancies). In total, it works out at around £130 a year, or £10 a period.

This is still a pretty hefty amount – a sum that many can't afford. But, keep reading for ways to beat the average and pay a lot less. We've even included how to get sanitary products for free!

What is the tampon tax?

Sanitary pads and tampons

Credit: ADfoto – Shutterstock

The tampon tax attracted public attention when a petition calling to scrap it reached over 320,000 signatures. The petition was launched by Laura Coryton in 2014 while she studying at Goldsmiths, University of London.

We chatted with Laura in 2019 to find out more.

Laura Coryton

In May 2014, my friend sent me an article when tampon tax was initially reduced from 17.5% to 5% in 2001, thanks to amazing campaigners like Dawn Primarolo MP.

When I initially read this article I thought "maybe it makes sense... maybe everything else is taxed higher?" as I knew absolutely nothing about taxation!

When Laura started looking into the tampon tax, she was pretty shocked...

As soon as I started digging into our tax laws, I realised tampon tax is so wrong.

While we are taxed for period products, classed as 'luxuries', we aren't taxed for the 'essential' purchase of maintaining our private helicopters, bingo or exotic meats including crocodile and horse. Horse!

This made me angry. So I started the petition!

Following the widespread success of the petition, politicians began taking notice and making moves to change the law.

In what ways could the UK's move to end the tampon tax influence other countries?

It will be huge! We have sister campaigns across the world. We all celebrate when a country wins their fight. It makes every campaign stronger.

If England can do it, then so can any country!

In the Budget 2020, it was announced that the tampon tax was to be axed when the transition period for Brexit ended at the end of the year. And, indeed, as of the 1st January 2021, the tampon tax was abolished in the UK.

To find out which products are actually the cheapest, continue reading...

How to get free sanitary products

Good news for students in Scotland! Since August 2018, sanitary products have been available for all students at school, college and university there for free during term time. And in 2022, Scotland became the first country in the world to make sanitary products free for 'anyone who needs them'.

But what about students outside of Scotland?

Many universities and student unions across the UK have committed to providing free sanitary products to students. Check directly with your SU to find out if your university does.

Even if your university doesn't provide sanitary products, it's worth having a chat with them about it. They may have some reserved for students who are struggling with money.

You could lobby your student union for free sanitary products if they don't yet provide them. It's best to start by finding others from your uni who agree that they should be freely available (shouldn't be hard!).

Then, as a group, you can approach the SU with a clear, confident argument about why they need to get involved in tackling period poverty. The reasons are endless so, hopefully, this could be enough for them to start giving out sanitary products for free.

We hope your uni will provide free products. But, there will likely still be times when you need to buy them (e.g. holidays and post-uni life). To help, we've found you the cheapest deals on sanitary pads, tampons, menstrual cups and period pants.

Cheapest sanitary pads

ProductPrice*Price per pad
Tesco Free Spirit Ultra Regular Sanitary Towels x1650p3p
Sainsbury's Maxi Towel Normal x2475p3p
ASDA Protect Ultra Normal Sanitary Towels without wings x1655p3.4p
Tesco Essentials Maxi Towels x1040p4p
Morrisons Maxi Daytime Towels x24£14.2p

We'll start off with one of the most common forms of protection: sanitary pads.

If you avoid the bigger names like Always and Tampax, and stick with supermarket-own brands instead, you could save a substantial amount of money.

Most people can't notice the difference when switching to own brands. But if you prefer to stick with what you know, the cheapest branded packs we've found are these Always Sensitive Normal Ultra Sanitary Towels for 95p (5.9p per pad).

If you want the cheapest possible option, the table above ranks the cheapest packs we've found. But if you're looking for cheap sanitary pads with wings, we've seen some from ASDA which work out as 3.6p per pad. See if they're currently available.

Note that these prices don't take into account special offers. Look out for discounts that could help you save even more money.

Cheapest tampons

ProductPrice*Price per tampon
Boots Non Applicator Tampons Super+ 24x£1.104.6p
ASDA Regular Applicator Tampons x20£15p
Tesco Free Spirit Regular Non Applicator Tampons 20x£1.055.3p
ASDA Protect Super Non Applicator Tampons x32£1.705.3p
Morrisons Tampons Non Applicator Regular x16£1.257.8p

Tampons often work out slightly more expensive than pads. But for some, they're a necessity and a much more comfortable option.

However, our table reveals that if you know where to look, you can get them for pretty much the same price as pads.

Again, if you want to stick with a known brand, these Tampax Cardboard Super Tampons with Applicator come in at £2 (or 10p per tampon).

However, the packs listed above will get you the best deal. Just note that all but one of these packs contain non-applicator tampons. But remember that the own-brand versions with applicators still work out cheaper than the big brands.

Cheapest menstrual cups

ProductWear for up toHolds (tampons absorb 6–19ml)Price*
Intimina Lily Cup One8 hours20ml£16
Mooncup8 hours28.8ml – 29.3ml£23.50
Lunette Menstrual Cup12 hours25ml – 30ml£23.80

There are cheaper menstrual cups available, but we recommend sticking to trusted brands for safety and reliability. These are three of the cheapest reliable branded menstrual cups.

Menstrual cups can be a little pricey as a single purchase. But, as they're reusable, they can save so much money in the long run.

If you look after them properly and clean them regularly, menstrual cups can last years. As plastic tampon applicators can take 100 years to degrade, reusable menstrual cups are a great eco-friendly alternative.

We asked Laura Coryton for her advice on how to save money on sanitary products, and she recommended menstrual cups.

Menstrual cups aren't for everyone, but they are absolutely amazing. I am a huge fan!

You buy one cup [...] which you can use for 10 years. You'll never need to buy period products for a decade.

They're environmentally and economically friendly and you could lobby your student union into giving these out to students for free!

At the University of Oxford, where Laura studied her master's degree, they did actually provide free menstrual cups, so it's definitely worth lobbying your SU.

Menstrual cups are made of soft silicone. You insert them in a similar way to tampons. However, rather than absorbing the blood as a tampon would, they collect it instead.

Most cups can hold twice as much blood as tampons and can usually be worn for up to eight hours. It's perfectly okay to sleep and swim in them. Often, brands offer two different sizes, so you can choose the one that best suits your menstrual flow and body type.

Keen to reduce your plastic waste? Check out our guide to going plastic-free on a budget.

Cheapest reusable sanitary pads

Reusable sanitary pads

Credit: StaCheck – Shutterstock

Reusable sanitary pads are pretty straightforward. They're just the same as sanitary pads, except you wash and rewear them.

They're a great option if you want to save money and help the environment, but they do take more effort. You'll have to keep on top of your washing for a start...

Like disposable sanitary pads, different reusable pads are available for light, medium and heavy flows.

At Cheeky Wipes, period & pee proof day pads cost between £3.29 and £5.49.

Earthwise Girls sells washable pads for slightly more at around £4.50 each. But, you can buy a pack of three for £13.50, which includes a pad donation to an orphaned girl in Kenya.

You can also find a selection of reusable sanitary pads on Etsy.

Admittedly, you'll have to get a lot of wear out of a reusable sanitary pad for it to work out the same value for money as normal pads. But the idea is that if you buy in bulk, you won't need to replace your pads for another four years.

You could also try making your own if you know your way around a needle and thread. You'll need to head down to a fabric shop to get the material you need (including some waterproof fabric) and Sewing Bee Fabrics has an easy-to-follow pattern you can use.

If you find you're a dab hand at it, you could even set up your own reusable sanitary towel business.

Cheapest period pants

ModibodiVaries (5ml+)£10.50+
WUKAVaries (7ml+)£12+
Flux Undies Varies (7ml+)£17+

Yep, you can now buy underwear with period protection built in! It's the dream.

Period pants (or menstrual underwear) contain hidden protection that stops leaks. Just like reusable sanitary pads, they can be washed and worn again. However, always check the small print before you buy, as some only offer 'added protection' to wear alongside other sanitary products.

To get rid of disposable products altogether, you'd need to invest in several pairs of period pants so you could change into fresh ones as often as required. This is likely to be a costly approach, so it might be more affordable to stick to reusable sanitary pads.

Use the code Savestudent for 15% off at WUKA (not including their basics collection and accessories). Also, until 30th October 2023, they have a 'buy 2 get 1 free' promotion running with the code FREEPANTS2.

Top tips for saving money on sanitary products

Here are some tips on how to get cheap sanitary products:

  1. Downshift to supermarket own brand items

    You've probably worked this out by now, but the number one thing you can do to save money on your period is downshifting to own brands.

    Always and Bodyform might be your usual go-to brands, but a lot of people report virtually no difference when they switch to supermarket own brands.

    If you're worried, you could compromise by using the products you're most comfortable with when your flow is heaviest, and the cheaper brands when it's lighter. You'll still be saving yourself cash in the long run.

  2. Check price comparison sites

    We've done a lot of the hard work for you here by pricing up the cheapest period products, but everyone has different requirements. Perhaps you need pads with wings or tampons with applicators.

    Instead of going out and buying the first pack you see, have a look at price comparison sites first to find your cheapest option.

    Sanitary Saver is a price comparison site specifically for period products, but we have previously noticed a few products were missing when we looked. If you're after a particular product, you may be better off checking a few sites yourself.

  3. Use period tracking apps so you don't get caught out

    period tracker on phone with tampons

    Credit: Maryna Maroz – Shutterstock

    If your period isn't too regular, or you just struggle to keep up with it, you can end up paying more to replace underwear and bedding that gets hit when you're caught out. We've all been there, but you could try using a period tracking app to stay on top of your cycle.

    For example, Clue not only tracks your period, but also your PMS and lets you know when you're likely to feel a certain way (like which days you're most likely to devour a tub of Ben & Jerry's and cry over soppy films).

    Flo is a great option for those with irregular periods, using artificial intelligence to predict your cycle. However, both Clue and Flo come with a monthly subscription fee if you want to use their extra features.

    Natural Cycles is the first app to be certified as a form of contraception, proven to be 98% effective with perfect use (i.e. all usage instructions are correctly followed). However, the effectiveness goes down to 93% with typical use. So, for birth control, it might still help to use it with another form of contraception, like condoms, to be on the safe side.

    For tracking your menstrual cycle, though, Natural Cycles is great. It uses an oral thermometer to track your body's temperature (which changes throughout your menstrual cycle) and creates an ovulation calendar based on its readings.

    To use it, you'll usually have to pay a £9.99 monthly subscription fee (or £69.99 for the year).

  4. Ask your Student Union for support

    If you're unable to afford sanitary products at all, then try talking to your students' union.

    As mentioned earlier, many SUs are already providing sanitary products for free. But, if yours isn't, let them know that you're struggling to cover the costs, and see if they'd be willing to start offering out free sanitary pads, tampons or menstrual cups.

    Other unis have also cut prices of sanitary products in SU shops, so make sure to check these yourself as they won't appear on price comparison sites.

    Laura Coryton told us:

    Lots of universities have been lobbied by their students to either sell period products at a not-for-profit rate at their SU shops or even provide them for free in student bathrooms.

    Many have done this! It's amazing because these student activists have actively tackled both period poverty and period stigma by proposing motions to the SU on period product provision. They are my heroes.

It's worth signing up for product testing panels. You could get sent free toiletries from market research companies.

Where to donate sanitary products

By following our advice, you could save a significant amount on your sanitary products by downshifting brands or using reusable products instead.

Worryingly, many can't afford any sanitary products at all, which impacts daily life, health and education. ActionAid's recent poll revealed that 21% of women and people who menstruate in the UK are struggling to afford period products. That equates to more than one in five, or around 2.8 million people.

If you're able to, you could always take the money you save and put it towards providing sanitary products to those who need them.

Bloody Good Period provides menstrual products to asylum seekers, refugees and those who can't afford them. You can donate to Bloody Good Period on their website.

You could check with your local food bank to see if they accept/need donations of sanitary products, or find out whether your SU is organising a collection.

You can also buy boxes of 10 sanitary pads from Hey Girls for £3.10. For each pack sold, they'll donate a pack to someone facing period poverty.

You can also find ways to save money on hair and skincare with homemade beauty treatments.

* All prices were correct at the time of writing.

Jessica Murray

WRITTEN BY Jessica Murray

As an Editor of Save the Student, Jessica Murray has written extensively on student money news and money-saving tips. She was co-host of our podcast, No More Beans, and is now a journalist at the Guardian. Her tips and insights range from fun guides for freshers, to information for graduates entering the workplace.
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