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The case of the missing tampons

The popular O.B. brand is so hard to find now, boxes are turning up on eBay for $50


 
The case of the missing tampons

Getty images; Photo illustration by Luaren Cattermole

It’s perhaps because of the O.B. tampon’s long-time advertising tag line—“Made for a woman, by a woman”—that it’s disappearance from North American drugstore shelves in the past months has left so many women feeling so utterly betrayed. Compact yet effective, the only tampon available in the U.S. and Canada that requires no applicator, the O.B. commands a small but dedicated following. When it began going missing in September—first the extra-absorbent O.B. Ultra, then all O.B. lines—some women scoured stores and hoarded stock to the point they’re now almost entirely unavailable. Cartons of O.B. Ultra are popping up on eBay at prices pushing US$50 a box.

The shortage has triggered a conversation few women have had even with each other about what feminine hygiene products they prefer and why—one that’s filled online message boards with such crucial debates as the advisability of shipping contraband tampons from Germany or the wisdom of switching to reusable menstrual cups. “It is utterly disturbing to me that a product that has seen me through the decades is now no longer available or affordable,” one woman writes.

If the mystery of the vanishing tampons has some women confused, the lack of communications from O.B. manufacturer McNeil-PPC, a division of Johnson & Johnson, has others enraged. As one Toronto woman says: “If men had to stick something into their penis once a month, this would be a bigger deal.” Johnson & Johnson discontinued its Ultra line but has been cagey about why. A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson tells Maclean’s there have been “no unusual reports of adverse events” related to the Ultra, and calls the move to discontinue the tampon a “business decision.” But the company hasn’t explained why other O.B. lines experienced a “temporary supply interruption,” as it calls the shortage. Meanwhile, an online petition threatens the company with a “girlcott” should it fail to bring back the Ultra. “I wish they all start menstruating profusely, men and women alike who were involved in the decision,” writes one woman. “Karma, hear me!”

Yet cosmic forces are unlikely to be of help given the market forces at play. Although industry numbers aren’t widely available, Global Industry Analysts, Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based market research firm, estimates the world market for feminine hygiene products will reach US$14.3 billion by 2015—an arena almost entirely controlled by a handful of companies, principally Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark. “It’s not a transparent industry,” says Madeleine Shaw, co-founder of Vancouver’s Luna­pads International Products Ltd., which makes and distributes reusable fem products and which has offered discounts to women looking for O.B. alternatives. “We’ve got thousands of women saying, ‘Okay, can we get a little more information, I mean, I put this inside my body once a month.’ As customers, women are for the most part captives.”

That could soon change—though O.B. makes for an unlikely catalyst. Originally German (it stands for “ohne Binde,” or “without pad”), O.B. has occupied a small portion of the market since arriving here in the 1970s, even though fans say it works better than other tampons. That’s partly because many women are uneasy using a product that has no applicator and requires insertion by fingertip. “Women don’t like to stick their fingers into their vaginas, especially, I think, during menstruation,” says Harry Finley, who for years ran his Museum of Menstruation out of the basement of his home near Washington. “God forbid you ever touch anything!” quips Elissa Stein, co-writer of FLOW: the Cultural Story of Menstruation, who argues some women see O.B. as a “badge of honour,” an indication they’re “more comfortable with their bodies. Everything else has applicators and all this other detritus that’s been developed to keep women from thinking they’re actually touching anything they don’t want to be touching.” The fem products industry has long promoted that sense of embarrassment—how else could they think yanking O.B. willy-nilly from shelves would generate no complaint?


 

The case of the missing tampons

  1. Could this temporary shortage and its associated reaction among consumers in the marketplace just end up being an incredibly effective and low-cost marketing campaign? When the shelves are nicely stocked with product in a few weeks, will there be a sudden uptick in demand, even among consumers who have never tried the product?

    If so, they just ensnared you, Nicholas. A tampon without an applicator — the Cabbage Patch Kid of 2011…

  2. Could this temporary shortage and its associated reaction among consumers in the marketplace just end up being an incredibly effective and low-cost marketing campaign? When the shelves are nicely stocked with product in a few weeks, will there be a sudden uptick in demand, even among consumers who have never tried the product?

    If so, they just ensnared you, Nicholas. A tampon without an applicator — the Cabbage Patch Kid of 2011…

    • I did not intend to post this as a reply.

  3. “We've got thousands of women saying, ‘Okay, can we get a little more information, I mean, I put this inside my body once a month.' As customers, women are for the most part captives.”

    I had negative physical reactions to my disposables which led be to ask about what is inside these things and what did women use before disposables. I looked around and asked a few friends and found Lunapads and DivaCup. MY WORLD WAS CHANGED! My period was no longer a bother to deal with, but a gauge of my overall health.

    I am a firm believer in menstrual independence! I will never have to go to a brightly lit mega store at 11pm in an emergency or send my loving partner for me. I will never worry about affording menstrual products or their environmental impact. I will be prepared in the event of a cut off from supplies.

  4. “We've got thousands of women saying, ‘Okay, can we get a little more information, I mean, I put this inside my body once a month.' As customers, women are for the most part captives.”

    I had negative physical reactions to my disposables which led be to ask about what is inside these things and what did women use before disposables. I looked around and asked a few friends and found Lunapads and DivaCup. MY WORLD WAS CHANGED! My period was no longer a bother to deal with, but a gauge of my overall health.

    I am a firm believer in menstrual independence! I will never have to go to a brightly lit mega store at 11pm in an emergency or send my loving partner for me. I will never worry about affording menstrual products or their environmental impact. I will be prepared in the event of a cut off from supplies.

  5. I did not intend to post this as a reply.

  6. I absolutely love and recommend Lunapads!! I’ve been a user for almost a year now. And I live all the way down in Bentonville, Arkansas :)

  7. I absolutely love and recommend Lunapads!! I’ve been a user for almost a year now. And I live all the way down in Bentonville, Arkansas :)

  8. Like CLover, I had negative reactions to disposeable products. Of course, it took many years of illness and discomfort to determine the problem. Even when my physician suggested disposeables as the cause, she said I had no choice, and I would have to live with the problem. I found Lunapads, and have shared with any woman who will listen that you do indeed have a choice.

    Stop spending hard-earned money on trash! O.B. wants to discontinue a line, and the others are tough to find? Use it as an opportunity to try something more economical and earth friendly (and more healthy and practical). The diva cup doesn’t take much getting used to, nor do disposeables. Plus, they are sooooo much more comfortable.

    Let them all vanish from store shelves … There IS something else out there.

    •  The divacup, etc may be great for many women, unfortunately it doesn’t work for me, as I use an IUD for birth control, and it significantly increases the chance of expulsion of the IUD.
      (Unfortunately, the potential of suction from not breaking the seal properly has in many cases caused the iud to shift out of position an expel.)

      …and well, I’d rather use an IUD and tampons, then hormonal birth control…which is just another crazy thing women put in their bodies…

  9. Like CLover, I had negative reactions to disposeable products. Of course, it took many years of illness and discomfort to determine the problem. Even when my physician suggested disposeables as the cause, she said I had no choice, and I would have to live with the problem. I found Lunapads, and have shared with any woman who will listen that you do indeed have a choice.

    Stop spending hard-earned money on trash! O.B. wants to discontinue a line, and the others are tough to find? Use it as an opportunity to try something more economical and earth friendly (and more healthy and practical). The diva cup doesn’t take much getting used to, nor do disposeables. Plus, they are sooooo much more comfortable.

    Let them all vanish from store shelves … There IS something else out there.

  10. And yet when I was in China this past summer O.B. was the only kind that I could find!

  11. And yet when I was in China this past summer O.B. was the only kind that I could find!

  12. I used to use o.b. because they were applicator free, thinking it was the right choice environmentally – no plastic to throw away every time I used one! But then when I started to read about the intensive manufacturing process to produce tampons, and then the incidence of toxic shock syndrome with all tampons, and the questionable chemicals involved I had to look for an alternative. I've been using a menstrual cup (like the Diva Cup that others here have mentioned) for several years now, and haven't spent a dime on tampons since then. It's so much simpler, and way safer, plus there's no waste and no running out. Paired up with a simple cloth pad it's the most natural thing in the world. Most of the "odor" associated with menstruation is the result of the commercial products women use. With my current method there's nothing but what my body produces, and it's perfectly neutral. I'm so glad I don't have to worry about any of this ^^^ anymore!!

  13. I used to use o.b. because they were applicator free, thinking it was the right choice environmentally – no plastic to throw away every time I used one! But then when I started to read about the intensive manufacturing process to produce tampons, and then the incidence of toxic shock syndrome with all tampons, and the questionable chemicals involved I had to look for an alternative. I've been using a menstrual cup (like the Diva Cup that others here have mentioned) for several years now, and haven't spent a dime on tampons since then. It's so much simpler, and way safer, plus there's no waste and no running out. Paired up with a simple cloth pad it's the most natural thing in the world. Most of the "odor" associated with menstruation is the result of the commercial products women use. With my current method there's nothing but what my body produces, and it's perfectly neutral. I'm so glad I don't have to worry about any of this ^^^ anymore!!

    • Regarding your comment about odor (I agree), I also found that using The Keeper wrapped my period up more quickly. I can only attribute those previous slow days at the end to using (stoppers… er, I mean) tampons. It makes me cringe now, thinking of what that must have been doing to my body!

  14. The Diva Cup and Lunapads changed my life and my entire perspective on menstruation. Of course "the big 3" companies promote it as something to be ashamed of, and don't even tell you much about the ongoing health effects of their products. And, like sheep we all buy disposables without ever asking.
    I'm a proud "Lunagal" and I'll NEVER go back.

  15. The Diva Cup and Lunapads changed my life and my entire perspective on menstruation. Of course "the big 3" companies promote it as something to be ashamed of, and don't even tell you much about the ongoing health effects of their products. And, like sheep we all buy disposables without ever asking.
    I'm a proud "Lunagal" and I'll NEVER go back.

    • It's insulting for you to call users of disposable products "sheep." Do you think that we choose disposables AFTER we've made an informed decision? A menstrual cup would not be feasible for me with my long work days while using a public restroom. Even if it were, I just don't like the idea of it. You'd think a user of an alternative product would have more of an open mind. And I've never gotten the idea that tampon companies are trying to cast shame on the product or product users of menstrual cups. Please don't assume.

  16. 6 years ago I used OB faithfully. When I started to look into what was in this thing that I kept in my body I decided to try something different. I've been using the Diva Cup ever since and will NEVER go back!! I love never having to worry about running out, I carry one item and that's all I need. It seems like it may be unpleasant but I know several ladies that have made the switch and all of us LOVE IT!!

  17. 6 years ago I used OB faithfully. When I started to look into what was in this thing that I kept in my body I decided to try something different. I've been using the Diva Cup ever since and will NEVER go back!! I love never having to worry about running out, I carry one item and that's all I need. It seems like it may be unpleasant but I know several ladies that have made the switch and all of us LOVE IT!!

  18. I was a faithful OB user for 10 years, until I found The Keeper. For $50 this one item has served me for the past 5 years. I will never go back to tampons, and I can only imagine how much money I have saved (my period is off the charts, so at least $1000 so far) not buying disposables. Lots of women I know didn't want to try OB because of the lack of applicator. If you are an OB fan, try The Keeper or Diva Cup. It took me about 2 months to get used to it but it is amazing.

  19. I was a faithful OB user for 10 years, until I found The Keeper. For $50 this one item has served me for the past 5 years. I will never go back to tampons, and I can only imagine how much money I have saved (my period is off the charts, so at least $1000 so far) not buying disposables. Lots of women I know didn't want to try OB because of the lack of applicator. If you are an OB fan, try The Keeper or Diva Cup. It took me about 2 months to get used to it but it is amazing.

  20. Regarding your comment about odor (I agree), I also found that using The Keeper wrapped my period up more quickly. I can only attribute those previous slow days at the end to using (stoppers… er, I mean) tampons. It makes me cringe now, thinking of what that must have been doing to my body!

  21. I have been using the DIVA CUP for about 3 months and I also love it! It can be a bit tricky at first but once I got the hang of it I was hooked. I wish I had known about it years ago.

  22. I have been using the DIVA CUP for about 3 months and I also love it! It can be a bit tricky at first but once I got the hang of it I was hooked. I wish I had known about it years ago.

  23. Excellent article!!

  24. Excellent article!!

  25. Here is an update to my contact with the Maxim hygiene company who I contacted when I found out the OB Ultra tampon was no longer available. (yes, I was in a panic!)

    First, this is what I found out about the super plus non applicator tampons themselves:

    The Maxim Super plus non applicator tampons are made with 100% CERTIFIED Organic & Natural Cotton and they do NOT Use bleach (which causes DIOXIN residue ) they instead use a safer process using natural Hydrogen-Peroxide. There is no rayon in their products either!

    Other products use Wood Fluff Pulp, which is NOT environmentally friendly (it ends up in the destruction of a LOT of trees). Maxim uses 100% cotton, no chemicals, no plastic, no yucky stuff you don't need in your body! YAY !!!

    The more I have researched about Maxim, the happier I have become! I have also come to find out that it is a company that is run by women! YAY AGAIN!!

    Here is my correspondence from the company when I told them about our plight:
    —————————————–
    Calli,

    I am very surprised from the way Johnson & Johnson responded to their loyal customers. As I mentioned we are manufacturing our tampon products in Europe and they are made with 100% Organic cotton. By using the Organic Cotton, we are eliminating the effects of different carcinogens such as Dioxin and Asbestos from most intimate body parts of the tampon users.

    For more details, please visit our website at http://www.maximhy.com. The Product Video Presentation found on our website is a MUST SEE! For a quick overview of our product line, please make sure to check out the Sideshow Presentation found on the homepage by clicking on the “What Makes Maxim So Different?” link.

    We have enough supplies to support the demand by these ladies for the next few months. We can also order another container load of products to be shipped ASAP. If you need any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me at your convenience.

    Healthy Regards,

    Kenneth Alvandi, CEO

    ———————————————————————————————
    :-)
    I have also personally spoken to Rebecca, the owner, on the phone and she assures me she is on board to help us in anyway she can and that includes doing what it takes to get these products shipped into your local drugstores! She is listening and she cares!!!

    Until then, Drugstore.com is still a reliable source to get them shipped to you as well. I have ordered 2 times from them and they were shipped out quickly. There is no need to pay $90 for a box of black-market OB Ultras online when there is already a better and safer alternative out there!

    I have used the Maxim Super Plus tampons and can personally vouch for it fitting the same way as the OB ultra. It was as absorbent, as comfortable and as protective. (and i am a very heavy bleeder!) But now I have also come to find out it is much safer for my body! That is a serious plus!

    It is so nice to know that there is a company out there that is listening to us, thank you MAXIM! I hope this helps provide the information and support that the ladies here need! We gotta stick together on this stuff!

    ((((((hugs to all)))

    Calli
    :-)

  26. The Diva Cup was the most horrible thing for me. I've always used OB and thought I'd give it a try to be gentler to the environment. I couldn't get it to fit properly, it was extremely uncomfortable, it didn't hold anything for me and I gave it a lot of tries. I am also one of a small percentage of women who sense feeling "way up there" and it was painful… then I couldn't get it out without some help from a loving boyfriend and an hours worth of pain. ____I'lls tick to my OB – I'll just have to stock up.

  27. It's insulting for you to call users of disposable products "sheep." Do you think that we choose disposables AFTER we've made an informed decision? A menstrual cup would not be feasible for me with my long work days while using a public restroom. Even if it were, I just don't like the idea of it. You'd think a user of an alternative product would have more of an open mind. And I've never gotten the idea that tampon companies are trying to cast shame on the product or product users of menstrual cups. Please don't assume.

  28. My goodness! Are those Diva Cups and Luna-thingys sold by some sort of multi-level marketing process? All these similar gushing testimonials creeping up like some sort of viral marketing campaign hatched out of some Amway-type seminar for the newbies who just entered the pyramid… Ladies, what's your commission?

  29. My goodness! Are those Diva Cups and Luna-thingys sold by some sort of multi-level marketing process? All these similar gushing testimonials creeping up like some sort of viral marketing campaign hatched out of some Amway-type seminar for the newbies who just entered the pyramid… Ladies, what's your commission?

    • Well I guess you find yourself fascinating, even if no one else does.

      • Does that mean I'm right? Buried in the snark was a serious question — how are these god's-gifts-to-menstruating-women distributed? Because the pattern of comments above has me a little concerned about the commenters' motives.

        • Nope, I'm not paid by anyone, and I've been using my Keeper since 1998!! While I do admit that sometimes it is easier to use OB (i.e. while travelling through India where you DO NOT want to be using tapwater to wash it out), for the most part, I've used the Keeper and found it effective, efficient, and economical. It isn't for everyone, but it has worked well for me for 13 years.

          • Thanks, but I will ask again: how do you buy these devices? Are they retail in the feminine hygiene aisle at Shoppers, or do they come from the neighbourhood equivalent of the Avon / Tupperware / Amway pest lady? If no one will answer, I will have to ogle that aisle tonight and endure the snickers and funny looks from the other patrons, all for the benefit of knowledge…

            Because the testimonials above really are a cut above the usual Mac-vs.-PC cult members' offerings, and made me think of the rehearsed pap that Amway-ensnared folk have drilled into them.

          • You can buy them in natural food stores and co-ops, for sure, but if you don't live near one I don't know where in real life you would buy it. They are also available on the companies websites. There are also lots of pdfs floating around the internet with patterns to make you own pads.

          • lunapads is a company that sells reusable pads and other products (including the diva cup). the diva cup is not made by luna pads and can be found in some stores (whole foods, trader joes, health stores). The keeper can also be found in stores, but is less common since the diva cup came out and it does not affect women with rubber/latex allergies.

          • Thanks to you and to eli.

          • I bought The Keeper online. But I have seen The Diva Cup in stores that specialize in earth friendly solutions to life and also heath food stores. I have seen menstrual cups on occasion in regular stores like Shoppers, but only the disposable kind. I imagine that big stores do not have a vested interest in providing something you only need to buy every 10 years or so.

            When I first started with the Keeper, I told one of my friends about it, thinking to get her to try it. She told me she had already been using it for 10 years…. I can't believe she didn't tell me!! :) As another poster commented, the Diva Cup is the latex free solution. I only knew about the Keeper when I bought mine, but the Diva cup would obviously be better for a lot of people.

  30. Well I guess you find yourself fascinating, even if no one else does.

  31. Does that mean I'm right? Buried in the snark was a serious question — how are these god's-gifts-to-menstruating-women distributed? Because the pattern of comments above has me a little concerned about the commenters' motives.

  32. Nope, I'm not paid by anyone, and I've been using my Keeper since 1998!! While I do admit that sometimes it is easier to use OB (i.e. while travelling through India where you DO NOT want to be using tapwater to wash it out), for the most part, I've used the Keeper and found it effective, efficient, and economical. It isn't for everyone, but it has worked well for me for 13 years.

  33. Firstly, you can buy organic cotton tampons (which are much better for your body anyway) in Canada that are identical to the non-applicator OB product, except they use unbleached organic cotton.
    Secondly go buy a Diva Cup or a keeper, $35 for 5-10 years of period protection vs 20 bucks a month. No chemicals, no vaginal drying no leaks, no hassle, change it once every 8 hours. Why would you use anything else in this day and age?

  34. Firstly, you can buy organic cotton tampons (which are much better for your body anyway) in Canada that are identical to the non-applicator OB product, except they use unbleached organic cotton.
    Secondly go buy a Diva Cup or a keeper, $35 for 5-10 years of period protection vs 20 bucks a month. No chemicals, no vaginal drying no leaks, no hassle, change it once every 8 hours. Why would you use anything else in this day and age?

    •  Actually, as I posted above, as I aim to avoid hormonal birth control (a far bigger concern in my mind) by using an copper IUD, I am discouraged from using a menstrual cup as they increase the risk of expulsion of the IUD!

      So yes, I love my tampons!

  35. Thanks, but I will ask again: how do you buy these devices? Are they retail in the feminine hygiene aisle at Shoppers, or do they come from the neighbourhood equivalent of the Avon / Tupperware / Amway pest lady? If no one will answer, I will have to ogle that aisle tonight and endure the snickers and funny looks from the other patrons, all for the benefit of knowledge…

    Because the testimonials above really are a cut above the usual Mac-vs.-PC cult members' offerings, and made me think of the rehearsed pap that Amway-ensnared folk have drilled into them.

  36. You can buy them in natural food stores and co-ops, for sure, but if you don't live near one I don't know where in real life you would buy it. They are also available on the companies websites. There are also lots of pdfs floating around the internet with patterns to make you own pads.

  37. As others have mentioned, OB is far from the only non-app tampon available. In the US, at least two companies (Natracare and Seventh Generation) make organic non-app tampons, and I'm sure there are others. You can order them online if you don't have a place near you that sells them (Whole Foods carries a bunch, as do most grocery stores with a natural section).

  38. lunapads is a company that sells reusable pads and other products (including the diva cup). the diva cup is not made by luna pads and can be found in some stores (whole foods, trader joes, health stores). The keeper can also be found in stores, but is less common since the diva cup came out and it does not affect women with rubber/latex allergies.

  39. As others have mentioned, OB is far from the only non-app tampon available. In the US, at least two companies (Natracare and Seventh Generation) make organic non-app tampons, and I'm sure there are others. You can order them online if you don't have a place near you that sells them (Whole Foods carries a bunch, as do most grocery stores with a natural section).

  40. Thanks to you and to eli.

  41. I want to hear about how a man named Harry has a museum of menstruation in his basement!

  42. I want to hear about how a man named Harry has a museum of menstruation in his basement!

  43. I bought The Keeper online. But I have seen The Diva Cup in stores that specialize in earth friendly solutions to life and also heath food stores. I have seen menstrual cups on occasion in regular stores like Shoppers, but only the disposable kind. I imagine that big stores do not have a vested interest in providing something you only need to buy every 10 years or so.

    When I first started with the Keeper, I told one of my friends about it, thinking to get her to try it. She told me she had already been using it for 10 years…. I can't believe she didn't tell me!! :) As another poster commented, the Diva Cup is the latex free solution. I only knew about the Keeper when I bought mine, but the Diva cup would obviously be better for a lot of people.

  44. This is a real pain. In the meantime, I got a bunch of OB Ultras shipped from Europe, from
    http://www.ob-ultras.ecrater.com/

    Took a while to arrive but at least I've got a little stockpile now

  45. This is a real pain. In the meantime, I got a bunch of OB Ultras shipped from Europe, from
    http://www.ob-ultras.ecrater.com/

    Took a while to arrive but at least I've got a little stockpile now

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