Homeless women relying on rags and teenage girls using gym socks as sanitary pads are among the beneficiaries of thousands of donated pads and tampons.

At the Salvation Army's Manukau site alone, nearly 200 sanitary packs a week are going to women in need, including the teenage daughters of a single dad struggling to make ends meet.

Manukau Salvation Army service centre manager Marlene Bowers said the girls' aunty approached her after her brother won custody of his children but didn't have the money to cover sanitary products.

"He hadn't even taken into account the cost of that. It was unaffordable," she said.

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Thanks to the donation so far of $17,000 worth of sanitary items by Countdown supermarkets and its customers, the Salvation Army was able to support him and his family as well as countless others, including local homeless women who Bowers heard were resorting to newspaper rags.

In other cases women had used cut up towels and even gym socks in place of proper sanitary items, Bowers said.

Reports of women and girls using unhygienic items out of desperation or skipping school when they had their period prompted Manurewa MP Louisa Wall, the Salvation Army and Countdown supermarkets to team up in July last year.

Customers have been encouraged to donate pads and tampons either in Countdown stores or by buying an online pack for $15 as part of the initiative.

In March, Countdown donated $5000 worth of sanitary products to the Salvation Army to kick off a "buy one give one" campaign helping women in need.

The topic sometimes felt taboo, but being able to freely provide such intimate items took some of the pressure off women struggling to make ends meet, Bowers said.

"It's an essential. It's about their dignity."

The products are given out as packs containing two packs of U brand tampons and sanitary pads, and most go out with food packages for families.

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"The numbers [of donations] are increasing every day. It's been very topical with the conversations about tax in the media," said Countdown communications manager Katherine Klouwens.

Where people automatically thought to donate canned food, in the past sanitary product donations were very low on the priority list.

Survey data supplied to Countdown in May showed this was changing, with at least 80 per cent of people saying they thought pads and tampons were essentials for food banks.

"It is frightening how much need there is for sanitary products in our community but it is great that we are starting to have these conversations as it is highlighting a very real problem and ultimately helping so many women in need," Klouwens said.