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A comic by artist Naoise Dolan published March 2015 has been circulating heavily on social media:

The world according to the UK government:

  • Men’s razors are taxed as necessities because you need to avoid stubble
  • Women’s sanitary products are taxed as luxuries because you don’t need to avoid getting covered in your own blood

I think the tax on tampons is true but the bit about razors being VAT-free as an essential strikes me as being unlikely. Googling it finds claims from both sides:

I recognise that razors are zero-rated, and judging by many Conservative Members the opportunity to shave every day is a human right. —Stella Creasy MP, speaking in Parliament October 2015

A second MP made the same claim:

It is absurd that while men's razors, children's nappies and even products like Jaffa Cakes, exotic meats and edible cake decorations are free from VAT. —Alison Thewliss MP

Are razors (specifically men's razors if there's any difference) really VAT-free in the UK?

enter image description here

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    "I know the tax on tampons is true" -- It isn't true: they're taxed at a special reduced rate, i.e. at 5% instead of the usual 20%.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 1, 2015 at 13:44
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    Don't they include the amount of VAT on bills? Go out, buy a razor, and see if, or how much, VAT is there.
    – user25667
    Apr 3, 2015 at 12:59
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    Your title says "tax-free", your post says "VAT-free", and the picture says "taxed as necessities". Since those are 3 separate things, which one do you really mean?
    – Gabe
    Apr 5, 2015 at 15:03
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    The second half of the claim is now out of date. The "tampon tax" was the standard rate of 20% on sanitary products, now reduced bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-35834142. I don't know if shaving products were ever zero rated in the past. Oct 6, 2016 at 16:33
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    @PaulJohnson Untrue. The notion of tampons being taxed "as luxuries" or at the standard 20% rate was an outright lie from the moment that feminist activists started complaining about it. The deal with the EU described in the article you link to would simply have let us reduce the rate from 5% to 0%.
    – Mark Amery
    Feb 18, 2018 at 17:34

3 Answers 3

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The Value Added Tax in the United Kingdom is based upon the standard rate of 20% as of 4 January 2011. This means that unless something falls into a listed category for a reduced rate or an exemption, then the VAT is 20%.

Based upon a review of the United Kingdom's HM Revenue & Customs listings for VAT rates on different goods and services this claim appears to be false. Currently, women's sanitary protection products are covered by VAT Notice 701/18 which stipulates a VAT rate of 5%. Since there is no listing for razors in the exemption list that I was able to find we must assume that they would have a VAT rate of 20%.

Additionally, safety razor blades are listed as a commodity subject to a trade tariff, with the following notes:

The commodity code for importing is 8212200000.

Importing from outside the EU is subject to a third country duty of 2.70 %.

Goods are subject to VAT standard rate.

This can be further born out by examining the cost of purchasing razor blades in the United Kingdom for which we see fees such as those with Edwin Jaggar which shows that 10 Personna Platinum DE Razor Blades cost £2.00 or £1.67 (ex. Tax) which corresponds to the VAT rate of 20%.

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    @ChrisW The VAT is kind of weird but basically anything that isn't a category that qualifies for a reduced rate and listed as such is at the standard rate. Thus, unless they explicitly list shaving and grooming products you can assume the standard rate. This is also bore out by UK retailers who tax razors at the standard rate.
    – rjzii
    Apr 1, 2015 at 13:37
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    I agree but the page you referenced isn't a complete list so it's not good proof that there's no special rate for razor blades. OTOH I looked through gov.uk/government/collections/vat-notices-alphabetical-order, and didn't notice razor blades listed there either.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 1, 2015 at 13:40
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    @ChrisW Yes, that's the other page that I looked at when preparing the answer. Basically, everything sold in the UK has a VAT of 20% unless explicitly covered by an exemption. So if there is no exemption listed (i.e. VAT Notice 701/18 in the case of sanitary protection) then the VAT is 20%. Also, the retailers are a good measure for this though since overcharging VAT is also illegal.
    – rjzii
    Apr 1, 2015 at 13:46
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    The claim is false. Specifically: gov.uk/trade-tariff/commodities/8212200000 (an official reference) says of safety razor blades: "Goods are subject to VAT standard rate."
    – abligh
    Apr 2, 2015 at 7:08
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    @Alexm7b5 That's not how the law works. All items that are taxed at a lower rate in the UK are taxed at a lower rate because of an exemption notice.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 2, 2015 at 16:50
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The claim is false.

Specifically, this official reference says of safety razor blades:

Goods are subject to VAT standard rate.

VAT rates are set out here.

I expect the 'grain of truth' is that some aspects of health are VAT exempt (see boxes marked health and healthcare above), for instance dispensed prescriptions and incontinence pads. I expect the logic is that neither sanitary products nor razor blades are to treat a medical condition. Neither, for instance, is toothpaste.

On the other hand, as per the above link, VAT of on sanitary products is at a reduced rate of 5%. This reduced rate of VAT on sanitary products was due to a campaign in culminating 2001 (poor reference). Prior to this VAT on sanitary products was at the normal rate (which from memory was then 17.5% but is now 20%). As far as I can tell the VAT rate on razor blades did not change (save for changes in the general rate of VAT); therefore the claim is unlikely to have been true in the past.

The provisions of what may and may not be at reduced rate VAT are set by the EC, specifically within Article 98 and Annex III of the principal EC VAT directive (2006/112/EC), the relevant section of which says:

pharmaceutical products of a kind normally used for health care, prevention of illnesses and as treatment for medical and veterinary purposes, including products used for contraception and sanitary protection.

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    @LightningRacisinObrit to be fair, VAT is pretty random. They could, for instance, have argued that investing in gold coins, private jets, helicopters, ship repairs, books, newspapers, magazines, brochures, leaflets, pamphlets, and printed music are all (for some reason) VAT exempt (or zero rated, which is very similar) - I don't think anyone could argue they are necessities. Any of the first three would have made a far better case.
    – abligh
    Apr 2, 2015 at 19:12
  • Gold coins are an investment, and other investments don't get taxed. Planes and ships could easily be transported to another country if we charged too much VAT here. All the others are (or coud be) news or educational, and the government has always made those exempt.
    – Simon B
    May 25 at 21:12
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The MP's claim that "razors are zero-rated" is false, and the comic has it backwards. Unlike tampons, razors are subject to full VAT at 20%. At the time of the claims in 2015, tampons were taxed at a reduced rate of 5%. Since 2021 tampons are taxed at 0% following a popular campaign and petition. The comic has been shared widely since 2015 including by the petition author.

VAT on tampons VAT on razor blades
Since 2021 0% [gov.uk] 20%
2011 to 2020 5% [gov.uk] 20% [bbc.co.uk]
2001 to 2010 5% [gov.uk] 17.5%
1991 to 2000 17.5% 17.5%

Fact-checking charity Full Fact also investigated and refuted the claim by the MP https://fullfact.org/economy/tampons-jaffa-cakes-and-razors-we-pay-no-vat-some-these-items/

Razor blades, on the other hand, are taxed at the standard 20% rate. We've also asked HM Revenue & Customs, who confirmed that. We've asked Ms Creasy's office to comment.

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