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As someone who menstruates, I’ll be the first to admit that menstrual cups carry a sort of stigma when it comes to managing your period that tampons and pads do not. But those products come with some drawbacks, including cost and sustainability, that menstrual cups could help avoid.
Americans use around 19 billion single-use menstrual products each year, and over 80% end up in landfills where the plastic components can take up to 500 years to break down, according to the Life Cycle Initiative, a resource for information on global sustainability hosted by the UN Environment Program. When they’re disposed of incorrectly, such as being flushed down the toilet, they can block sewers, cause flooding, and pollute marine environments. They also cost the average person around $160 per year.
So why don’t more people use menstrual cups?
It might be due to a lack of familiarity, concern about cleanliness and the need to wash them, or not knowing how to insert and remove them properly. That’s where we come in. Here’s everything you need to know about menstrual cups as well as the best ones on the market if you’re thinking about making the switch.
What is a menstrual cup?
A menstrual cup is a flexible disc or funnel-shaped product that you insert into the vagina to collect period blood.
They come at a range of prices, with most falling in the $20 to $40 range, which would pay for enough tampons to get you through about three cycles or so (less if you use both tampons and pads or pantyliners).
“I actually think [using menstrual cups] is a fantastic alternative when you think about how many tampons or pads a woman will go through in any given year, especially if you have a heavy period,” said Dr. Wendie Trubow, an OB-GYN at a functional medicine and wellness company in Massachusetts.
Trubow specifically recommended looking for one made from high-quality silicone, which would include most of the popular products on the market. She also said that every vagina is a little bit different, and you want to honor that when selecting your cup. That means choosing the right size and shape for your body, and paying attention to whether it’s intended for those who have or have not given birth.
Why you should consider using a menstrual cup
Trubow also noted that menstrual cups have a positive impact on the environment overall because you use fewer tampons and pads. What’s more, they can benefit septic systems, which can get clogged with cotton tampons.
There are other options that allow you to buy fewer tampons and pads, including reusable pads and period underwear, but menstrual cups are likely the sustainable winners with less than 1% of the impacts of the single-use options over a year of use.
Basically, after using a cup for two to three months (what could equate to roughly 40 to 60 tampons), you would break even when it comes to your environmental footprint in terms of the resources it takes to produce menstrual products like tampons and pads.
Period underwear and reusable pads still require significant water to launder, said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an Oregon-based obstetrician and author of Let’s Talk About Down There. She agreed that menstrual cups are likely the most environmentally friendly period product on the market.
Despite the fact that menstrual cups are eco-conscious, proven to be safe and cost-effective with a low frequency of adverse side effects as well as having similar or lower leakage as compared to disposable pads or tampons, findings from The Lancet Public Health indicated that awareness of menstrual cups is quite low, with only 30% of websites intended for menstruation education including any information about them.
How to use a menstrual cup
If you’re not sure how to insert a menstrual cup, the flexible silicone material allows you to fold the rim of the cup in order to place it in your vagina. The cup’s rim then expands to take its original shape, with a large enough opening to catch any period fluid.
Your specific cup should have instructions including how long it should last, the maximum time the manufacturer suggests keeping it in, and any other pertinent guidelines, Lincoln said. They are considered to be very safe.
Since they can hold more blood than other options, menstrual cups can be worn for up to 12 hours depending on your flow.
“I know it seems kind of weird to think that you can leave a cup in for 8 or 12 hours because we’re all taught with tampons, you have to take it out or you’re at risk for toxic shock syndrome,” she said. “When used as directed, they’re both extremely low risk for that.”
You can also keep using your cup until you start to notice any sort of cracking or material breakdown, unless otherwise noted. Keeping it clean is also important, so you may want to do a more thorough disinfection after each cycle. (You can disinfect a menstrual cup by washing it with soap and hot water, soaking it in boiling water, or using a specified cleanser that many menstrual cup brands also sell.)
Though it may seem obvious, Trubow also said you should absolutely not share your cup under any circumstances, and that it will not serve as birth control. (Athough some do say they can stay in during sex, they should still not be used to block sperm.)
Whether you prefer a funnel shape with a narrow extension at the bottom or the disc versions that you reach in and pinch to pull out, they should be fairly straightforward to remove.
Since you’ll need to empty the cup and rinse it before reinserting, Trubow also advised being aware of your bathroom situation. If you have to empty the cup in public, you should aim for private or single stalls if possible as opposed to a shared sink situation.
It might not be as messy as you think, particularly if you use it on days when your flow isn’t that heavy.
Who shouldn’t use a menstrual cup?
Both experts noted that menstrual cups are not recommended if you have an intrauterine device. The removal process can create some suction, particularly with the funnel-shaped options, that may cause your IUD to dislodge.
However, Lincoln said that if you have an IUD and still want to try a menstrual cup, you can have your doctor clip the IUD strings so that they’re flush with the cervix. You could also use a disc-type cup since they’re less likely to have a suction effect, but definitely discuss with your doctor. (Menstrual cups are safe to use with contraceptive rings, although you have to be careful to not remove the ring when you are taking the cup out.)
Because menstrual cups are new for a lot of people, you should know that it may take some patience and effort to get the hang of using them.
Lincoln urges people to not give up too soon. She suggested practicing the insertion when you’re not on your period so you can try one without worrying about leakage. Extra lubrication with water or a water-based lubricant can help insertion. (Don’t use silicone- or oil-based lubricants because they can damage the silicone material of a menstrual cup.) Lincoln suggests talking to your healthcare provider if you’re having trouble so that they can walk you through the process.