Written by: Sol Rodriguez, Ambassador for the UK
Edited by: Thomas Coffey


Whilst “the public sphere” covers all the issues addressed in the political realm, the “private sphere” is traditionally associated with family, without state intervention. This dichotomy was challenged during the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s with the catchphrase “the personal is political”, highlighting how personal issues such as marriage or menstruation should not belong to the private domain. Whilst some of these issues have since entered formal political discourse, menstruation remains taboo in many societies, leading to detrimental consequences, including period poverty or stigmatisation.

This article explores a lesser-discussed adverse effect: the economic impact menstruation imposes on women as a result of the value-added tax (VAT) levied on period products. It begins with a history of VAT in the EU, followed by an overview of the tampon tax and the controversy surrounding it. The article then reviews EU actions regarding VAT on menstrual products and concludes with suggestions for further advancing gender equality in pricing.

The EU and the VAT

VAT is a general tax, which means that, in contrast to income or property taxes, it is levied at the same rate on all individuals as a percentage of the final price of a good or service. It is considered an indirect tax as the customer is the one who receives the tax burden, as opposed to the supplier.

As an attempt to form the European single market, the European Economic Community decided to levy VAT in its member states in 1967. This allowed the harmonisation of taxation and the facilitation of the free movement of goods within the EU. France was the first country to implement this measure (Lauré, 2022), leading to all member states progressively following suit. Nowadays, all EU countries implement VAT, with Croatia being the latest country to adopt the system in 2013 when it joined the institution (Leppert,  2022).

The tampon tax: why is it controversial?

The tampon tax refers to the VAT applied to menstrual products, which includes tampons, pads, and menstrual cups. Given that the value of VAT applied to products varies according to how vital the products are deemed to be, this tax is highly contentious. This is because a standard rate is usually applied if the product is considered luxurious. Yet, if the good is considered essential, a reduced tax is imposed instead. Moreover, a super-reduced rate is imposed on the most basic items in several EU countries, including Spain, Luxembourg, France, Ireland, and Italy. Nevertheless, the issue is that in many EU countries women’s sanitary products are not considered essential goods. Therefore, they are subject to the highest tax rate, which ranges between an additional 18%-27%, levied on the final price (Buchholz, 2020).

While the imposition of a VAT on menstrual products is not a case of direct discrimination as the tax does not express any direct gender biases, the tampon tax has an indirect discriminatory effect because of the tight relationship between the use of these goods and the hygiene requirements concerning the female reproductive system. Women suffer an unjust financial burden because of the implementation of the ‘luxurious’ tax as a result of their inelastic demand for period products, which denies the evident fact that the intimate care of all women regarding the use of menstrual products is not an option but a necessity.

The World Health Organization states that women’s reproductive age lasts on average 34 years. That is a significant expense when considering the application of VAT. According to the OCU (2021), the oldest consumer organisation in Spain, a woman with a heavy period may spend more than 2000 euros a year depending on the period product she chooses (pads, tampons, etc.). Note that when this study was conducted, the VAT applied to period products in Spain was at a reduced rate of 10%. Thus, in countries with a standard rate such as Hungary (27%) or Denmark (25%), this figure is significantly higher.

The only EU nation exempt from following this policy is Ireland (whose VAT rate on menstrual products is now zero) because its tampon tax policy was implemented before the EU established its floor and drafted the legislation of VAT reductions and exemptions. Before 2021, the newest menstrual products, such as menstrual cups or menstrual pants were not subject to Irish law; thus they were taxable at the standard rate of 23%. However, in 2021 the VAT on those products was lowered to the reduced rate of 13.5%, and as of 2023, all of such products are now taxable at the zero rate (Irish Tax and Customs, 2023).

Previous efforts by the EU

All EU countries must adhere to the EU VAT code, which states that the standard VAT rate must be at least 15%, and the reduced rate must be at least 5% (European Union, 2022). Aiming at reducing the VAT on menstrual products,  the EU modified the VAT directive in 2007 allowing the reduced rate to be applied to menstrual hygiene products. As a response, some countries, including Germany and Austria lowered their levy from 19% to 7% and from 20% to 10%, respectively in 2020 and 2021 (Schmidt & McKenzie, 2019; Harper,  2023).

Although this was a positive step, more action is required to remove the women’s tax. As stated by Annex III to the VAT Directive, there are some goods and services that can be either exempt from VAT or to which the reduced rate can be applied (European Union, 2022). This policy has resulted in some discontent, precisely regarding the VAT applied to period products. While Annex III to the VAT Directive allowed (and in some cases encouraged) governments to reduce the tampon tax as low as 5%, nations were not permitted to further reduce the rate of VAT on menstrual products as the latter were not included in the list of products that could be exempt from VAT.

Political disputes arose between some states and the EU; the UK, for example, sought the complete abolition of the tax. The inability to do so served as a symbolic argument for Britain to leave the EU in 2016 and hence reinforced the idea that domestic issues belong in a country’s purview, rather than in Brussels (Topping, 2020).

The controversy around the tax on menstrual products forced the Council Directive to review the legislative framework in 2018, which led to EU countries being permitted to lower the tax on such products to below 5% in accordance with EU legislation (Venya, 2022). However, only Spain has reduced the rate of 10% to the super reduced rate of 4%, which has not been imitated by fellow member states.

In contrast to the EU’s efforts to nullify the women’s tax and the subsequent financial burden, Italy issued the official Budge Law for 2024, stating that the VAT rates on feminine products will increase from 5% to 10% (Pelletier, 2024). This policy reverses the 2022 decision to cut the VAT on such products from 10% to 5%, which is considered a step back when considering the position of reformation of EU legislation against increased tax on women’s menstrual products.

What the EU can do next

The previous section explained the importance of changing the regulations in place to guarantee the accessibility and affordability of these items. However, given the lack of response by the states, it seems that further incentives by the EU are needed to encourage member states to reduce or eliminate the tampon tax. In this section, two suggestions are proposed: economic measures to alleviate the economic burden of menstruation imposed on women and the de-stigmatisation of the topic of menstruation through education.

To reduce the economic burden of the “Tampon Tax”, the use of subsidies or directly providing  period products would be an effective measure to tackle period poverty. On that note, France levies a 5.5% VAT on menstrual products, but in 2023, President Macron announced that reusable sanitary products would be reimbursed for women under 25 starting in 2024 (The Local, 2023), which is both sustainable and addresses period poverty. Furthermore, the successful implementation of providing period products for free regards the case in Scotland. Since 2021, Scotland has granted free products to anyone who menstruates. A survey in 2022 indicated that 84% of the surveyors reported a positive impact, expressing fewer concerns about menstruation, increased ability to continue with day-to-day activities during their period, and an improvement in their mental health (The Scottish Government, 2022). This shows that not only do subsidised and free menstrual products have a positive outcome regarding reduced prices, but they also enhance the well-being of women.

Critics may argue that eliminating the VAT on menstrual products is sufficient to alleviate period poverty, and that further subsidies are not necessary. However, simply reducing or eliminating VAT does not entirely mean that the original price without VAT will be fixed. When the UK scrapped the tampon tax in 2021, data from the ONS showed that while final prices decreased, they were not as low as expected. This is because retailers increased their margins of profit and the original price, benefiting from higher demand due to the lower overall price (Tax Policy Associates, 2o22). Therefore, it is argued that subsidies or providing free products are the best option to ensure that women are indeed benefiting from affordable menstrual products to the greatest extent.

The second policy recommendation aims to de-stigmatise menstruation through education and campaigns. Note that even if policies recognise and try to address stigma, they often fail to dismantle it entirely (Olson et al, 2022). The fact that menstruation is still taboo hinders political debates surrounding the affordability of menstrual products, with nearly 50% of the member states still imposing the standard VAT rate on them (Buchholz,  2020).

To combat this, education on menstrual health and hygiene during adolescence is recommended. Normalising discussion surrounding menstruation and other common side-topics like pain and bodily changes, helps reduce stigma. On this note, social campaigns can play a key role, showing positive results in reducing stigma and inducing positive changes in behaviour, especially among the youth (Tam et al., 2024). Influencers and powerful campaigns, like Jessica Magan´s promotion of eco-friendly products and Bloody Good Period´s #NoShameHere Campaign have also made noise in the fight to reduce menstruation stigmatisation (Kiefer, 2021). However, there is still more to be done, as seen with the VAT levied on menstrual products across the EU.


This article has discussed the existence of the tampon tax within the EU and its indirect gender bias. Although it has been suggested that changing VAT regulation and enabling nations to slash taxes by more than 5% is a big step in the right direction, the EU can do more to promote menstrual health. First, it was affirmed that the use of subsidies or free products would reduce the economic burden experienced by women and avoid the economic negative impact of other alternatives, such as eliminating the tax. Secondly, it was emphasised how the stigmatisation of menstruation and period care hinders the dialogue on the affordability of such products in the political sphere. Consequently, education and social campaigns were argued as necessary to reduce the stigmatisation and allow constructive dialogue on this topic.


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