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A mere decade ago, most people thought they only had two options when it came to menstrual hygiene: disposable pads or tampons. It was hard to imagine another way to capture and dispose of period blood.
Over the past few years, another period product has become very popular: menstrual cups. But what are menstrual cups? Why do people prefer them to pads and tampons? And how exactly do you use a menstrual cup?
HealthyWay spoke to some experts to find out all you need to know about using menstrual cups.
What is a menstrual cup?
Made from medical-grade silicone, a menstrual cup is placed inside the vagina to collect period blood. The user can empty the cup and give it a wash every few hours, reusing it every month for years.
What makes menstrual cups different to traditional tampons and pads is that it’s reusable. “In the U.S. alone, 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are thrown into our waterways and landfills every year,” says Amanda Wilson, the founder of VOXAPOD, a menstrual cup. The average menstruating person has periods for 38 years. That means they’ll dispose of roughly 12,000 used disposables in their lifetime, which is a huge environmental concern, Wilson adds.
Because you can reuse the same menstrual cup for roughly three to five years, depending on the brand, you cut down on waste significantly. Menstrual cups are particularly popular among the zero-waste community—that is, those who try to reuse and recycle all their waste.
People prefer menstrual cups for reasons other than eco-friendliness, too. For one, they save you money in the long-run. The first menstrual cup I had was around $25, which was roughly the same amount of money I spent on tampons and pads for a four-month period. My menstrual cup lasted five years, which means I saved a great deal of money.
Many of us have heard of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which is often caused by tampons. With menstrual cups, you’re less likely to get TSS if you keep your cup clean, says OB-GYN Carolyn DeLucia, MD. “The risk for TSS is extremely minimal with menstrual cups. The one or two reported cases were due to wearing the menstrual cup for over 24 hours,” Wilson says.
However, there is something that puts many people off using menstrual cups: They don’t know how to use them or how to keep them clean.
How to Use a Menstrual Cup
If it’s your first time using a menstrual cup, you might feel a little intimidated. I know I was. When I saw the size of the menstrual cup, I didn’t quite know how it would fit.
The key is to fold the cup when you put it into your vagina. Once it’s inside, the cup will unfold and fit to your vagina, where it will sit and collect the blood.
Here’s the easiest way to insert a menstrual cup:
- Relax. As with inserting tampons, it’s easier when your vaginal muscles aren’t too tense!
- Wash your hands and the cup thoroughly.
- This is optional, but you might want to wet the cup or add some water-based lubricant to make it easier.
- Fold the cup so that it’s easy to insert. There are a number of different ways to do this, Wilson says. She recommends the following methods:
C-Fold: Flatten the menstrual cup and bring the two folded ends together to form a C shape, rolling it to the size of a tampon.
Punch Down Fold: Push one side of the lip of the cup into the center of the cup, folding in sides.
7 Fold: Flatten the cup and fold one corner diagonally toward the center of the cup.
- Insert it. You might find it easiest to insert it while standing with one leg up on a stool or step, as you would insert a tampon, DeLucia says. When you insert it, push it toward your back. “You want to make sure the cup sits above the pubic bone, not up against the cervix,” explains Cathy Chapman, the President of Lunette North America. The cup should be inside the vagina, and the base should not be exposed.
- Once it’s in your vagina, you might want to wiggle the cup around a little until it feels more comfortable. You might dislike the feeling of the “stem” that most menstrual cups have. The stem is meant to help you grip the cup, but if it’s uncomfortable, you can always snip it with scissors to make it shorter.
While wearing a menstrual cup, you can bathe, exercise, and swim. It can also be used if you have an IUD. “It does not interfere with the IUD. You just need to be careful not to catch the IUD string with the cup when you pull it out,” notes DeLucia.
Chapman says that having penetrative sex while wearing a menstrual cup isn’t advisable. “It could dislodge the suction, and then you would have a menstrual mess on your hands,” she says. “But feel free to enjoy all the oral sex you want!”
Once you’ve worn the cup for a few hours, you might want to remove it. “Your menstrual cup should be emptied every 2 to 12 hours depending on your menstrual flow,” Wilson says. If you have a heavy flow and the cup is left in for quite some time, it might overflow and leak slightly. If your flow isn’t too heavy, it can be worn overnight.
Here are the steps for removal:
- Again, wash your hands thoroughly, and relax.
- You might want to stand with your leg on a stool or chair again, or you might want to sit on the toilet. Bear in mind that you might spill some blood as you remove the cup, so don’t stand over a bath mat (take it from someone who made this mistake!).
- Grip the base of the menstrual cup tightly and release the suction of the cup. “You can do this by slightly bearing down and then pinch the bottom of the menstrual cup to release the suction,” Chapman says. “You may need to slightly rock your cup back forth if you’ve got some really good suction going on.”
- Pull the cup out slowly.
- Empty the contents and clean the cup.
Does your cup feel stuck? Don’t panic. “Sometimes the cup can form a pretty strong suction to the vaginal wall,” DeLucia says. “The best way to deal with this is to use your finger to break the suction. Once that is accomplished, it should not be a problem to remove it,” she explains. If that doesn’t work, you can pinch the cup a little higher up and give it a gentle twist.
How to Keep Your Menstrual Cup Clean
Keeping your menstrual cup clean is essential, especially since you’ll probably want to use it for many years.
After removing it and emptying the contents, you’ll want to wash the menstrual cup with water and a little non-antibacterial soap. The DivaCup website lists cleansers that should never be used to clean a menstrual cup including antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, and dish soap.
Make sure you rinse your cup thoroughly after washing, as putting a soapy cup in your vagina can cause an infection. Personally, I use boiling water and soap to clean the cup in between each insertion.
When your period is over, boil your menstrual cup for about twenty minutes, says Chapman. Dry it off and store it in a clean, dry place. I keep mine in a cotton drawstring bag in between cycles.
If you’re in public, cleaning a menstrual cup might be tricky. Consider bringing a water bottle into the stall with you and using water and toilet paper to clean it off. Many companies, including Lunette, make wipes and washes specifically for menstrual cups. This can be helpful in keeping the cup clean when you’re in a public setting.
Since a menstrual cup collects blood instead of absorbing it, as a pad or tampon would, you might spill some blood on your clothing, towels, or mats. Simply rinse the area with cold water as soon as you can before popping it into the laundry.
Which menstrual cup should I buy?
If you buy a jacket online and find it doesn’t fit, you can return it. With intimate items like menstrual cups, you can’t exactly take it back, so you’ll want to do some research first to make sure the menstrual cup you buy is right for you. Here are some criteria to consider.
When buying a menstrual cup, make sure it’s made of quality material. “Consumers should be attentive to the quality of materials being used on the menstrual cup they purchase,” Wilson says. “Some menstrual cups are made with compromising material that has not been tested internally on humans, such as ‘food-grade silicone,’” Wilson says.
Different companies often offer different sized cups. Larger cups are intended for users with larger cervixes, usually people who’ve given birth vaginally. Smaller cups are intended for those with smaller cervixes. Different sizes can hold different amounts of blood, so if you have a heavy flow, there might be a large one suitable for you. Many websites have sizing guides to help you choose the best menstrual cup for you.
Even when made from the same material and size, not all cups are the same. Some are thicker than others, making them harder to bend. Some, like VOXAPOD, have specific shapes designed to be more comfortable to wear and insert. Please keep in mind that not all menstrual cups last up to five years; lifespans may vary, so be sure to check the product information for each individual cup.
Don’t be afraid to explore your options, ask friends for recommendations, and read reviews online before buying a menstrual cup.
If you try one and it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t be put off menstrual cups altogether—try another. “Sometimes women need to find the right fit of menstrual cup, like they would a tampon or pad. So, if they try one brand shape and size, and it doesn’t work or isn’t quite right, they may need to try another,” Wilson says.
More Than Just Menstrual Cups
Of course, menstrual cups aren’t for everyone. Many people struggle to use them. “For some folks, mastering the menstrual cup can take a few tries, even a few cycles,” Chapman says. “We get it, though; some people aren’t into the ‘menstrual cup gospel’ but are ready to ditch the old-school disposables for a healthier, reusable period care solution,” she adds.
If you love the environment but hate menstrual cups, there are other eco-friendly hygiene products for you.
Want to feel like a mermaid throughout your period? Sea sponges, as in, the kind that naturally comes from the ocean, are a great alternative to tampons. They absorb blood and can be washed out and reused.
If you’re not a fan of inserting things into your vagina, there are options for you. Panties like THINX absorb period blood without spillage. Comfortable and absorbent, you simply need to rinse them out before placing them in the wash. They can be used by themselves or along with a cup or sponge to soak up potential spillage.
Washable, reusable pads are great if you like pads but don’t want to create unnecessary waste. As with absorbent underwear, these pads can also be used along with menstrual cups and sponges as they absorb any extra blood if there’s a leak. Lunapads is another great cloth pad company.
Whatever menstrual product you choose, make sure that you practice hygiene to prevent TSS and any other infections. Many companies will provide you with care instructions for their products. These instructions should be followed to ensure that your products last and stay clean.
It’s comforting to know that period products like disposable pads and tampons are not our only options anymore. Don’t be embarrassed or nervous about experimenting with different products, like menstrual cups, until you find the one that makes menstruation more comfortable and convenient for you.